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The Coyotes’ Underdog: Raanta breathing life into on-ice turnaround in Arizona

With little fanfare, Antti Raanta has become one of the best in the game. Not bad for a goalie who never thought he’d make it to the NHL

Rick Tocchet has a story about his goaltender.

It was Feb. 15, 2018, and the Arizona Coyotes were well on their way to missing the playoffs for yet another season, another year in the desert many would forget. But on this night…a spark. Tocchet, the hardnosed 18-year NHL veteran who had returned behind the bench as a head coach for the first time since 2010, was under some duress. Arizona had opened a 3-0 lead over Montreal at home, but in the third period his team was coming undone.

Less than eight minutes into the frame, the Habs made it 3-2. It looked like another win was slipping away. According to the site morehockeystats.com, the Coyotes lost a league-worst 27 games last year that they had been leading.

Tocchet called a timeout. The team skated over to the bench. Suddenly there it was: THWACK! Antti Raanta slashed his stick against the boards. He was frustrated. The mild-mannered goalie from Finland could take it no longer. “Hey!” he barked. “We’ve gotta start competing. It’s not good enough!”

OK. Perhaps Raanta, soft and often elegant in his English, may not have precisely recalled the Ultimate Warrior on the ice that night, veins popping and spittle flying. But nonetheless, his coach will tell you, this was a moment when the whole team perked up and took notice.

“Very rarely would he do that, but he went out of character for him,” Tocchet said. “It really woke up our team.”

The anecdote has a happy ending, of course: the Coyotes rallied after their goalie’s outburst, scored two more goals in the third, and finished off Montreal 5-2. It’s a perfect, tidy narrative to share, though you would be wise not to dismiss tales of Raanta’s growing prowess.

He is 29. He was a career backup, but he is no longer. For more than a season, he has become the man in Arizona, where he has oh-so-quietly become one of the NHL’s top netminders. “Arguably,” Tocchet said, “he’s been the best goalie in the league for a calendar year now.”

Not bad for somebody who, not long ago, saw no future for himself in hockey at the highest level. “I never thought about playing in the NHL when I was 18, 19, 20,” Raanta said. And here he remarks what many might say about his own star turn: “It pretty much came out of nowhere.”

In the beginning, the goalie was a defenseman. Until he was 12, Raanta never formally played the position that would make his career. He was a blueliner who rarely roamed far from his own team’s net, always staying back, rarely attacking. “I wasn’t the fastest skater on the team,” Raanta said.

In that life, Raanta would have amounted to little in the sport, destined for other lines of work. A firefighter or cop, he always wanted to be. A salesman, he says now, he likely would have become. But it all changed when his youth coach asked for a volunteer to play net, and on Raanta’s first day of practice between the pipes, he played 10 minutes of 5-on-5 without letting in a goal. “Mom,” he beamed to his mother, Teija. “I got the shutout.” It didn’t matter to Raanta that he never actually faced any shots on net.

A whirlwind through the sport followed, though it wasn’t until he was 18 that Raanta found himself with a regular goalie coach for the first time. So many of his peers had already enjoyed dedicated counsel throughout their entire junior careers. But he proved a quick study. When he first turned pro, for his hometown Lukko of the Finnish Liiga, the NHL seemed so far away. Maybe – maybe – he could play in a Swedish league or elsewhere in Europe. But the NHL was not a consideration.

And then a break. Later, in 2013, when Raanta was part of a long winning streak in the Liiga, NHL scouts showed up for one of his games. Play well, his agent advised. “Oh, my God,” Raanta said. “I don’t think I’ve ever been that nervous about a hockey game.”

He arrived in the NHL as a backup in 2013-14 with the contending Chicago Blackhawks, and found himself learning much on the fly: how to eat; how to train, heck, how to write a deposit cheque to secure his first apartment in the United States. He also had to learn the hard way about context, specifically some in the media’s refusal to provide it. When Raanta gave an interview to a local Finnish paper in the summer of 2015, he was painted as being unhappy with his place on the Blackhawks’ depth chart, quoted as suggesting he preferred Chicago had lost in the playoffs so he could have left the team early. That isn’t what he really meant. He was saying instead that he wished he had also been able to play for the Hawks’ AHL team, the Rockford IceHogs, to have kept himself sharp in case he was needed for a Cup run should incumbents Corey Crawford or Scott Darling have gone down.

Yet the damage was done, and in some circles Raanta was labelled a turncoat. “It was a super weird and confusing time,” he said. “Why would I ever want to say something bad about (the Blackhawks)? They made my dream of the NHL come true.”

Raanta was traded to the Rangers prior to 2015-16, and soon enough his reputation changed for the better. As he had behind Crawford in Chicago, he shined in limited runs behind Henrik Lundqvist in New York. After two seasons, he began to have ambitious thoughts. “I started to get the feeling that I could actually be the No. 1 guy,” Raanta said. “I can actually do this.”

Which led him to Arizona, where he was moved in 2017 – a starter, finally, for the first time in his NHL career. Already, he has made a believer of Tocchet. The coach relishes his goalie of the present and future, who between Jan. 1 and the end of last season led the NHL in goals-against average (1.84) and save percentage (.942). “He’s a real leader on this team, he could definitely wear a letter on his sweater,” Tocchet said. “With his work ethic, his desire to be that guy, who knows? The sky’s the limit.” – Jason Buckland

TOP GOALIE PROSPECT

ANAHEIM DUCKS: With John Gibson just 25 and looking solid for another decade, does it matter? Lukas Dostalwas the sixth goalie drafted in 2018 (85th overall) and will spend a few seasons working his way up the ladder in the Czech Republic. Not big, but he’s very quick and athletic.

ARIZONA COYOTES: With seven goalies in the system, the Coyotes are taking a dart board approach to their crease future. None of the seven are true bluechippers, but Adin Hill and Hunter Miska have shown potential with Tucson. Hill is a towering 6-foot-6 shot-blocker, while Miska is more acrobatic.

CALGARY FLAMES:Tyler Parsons has had a rough start to his pro career, with pedestrian numbers in the ECHL last season and spotty play early this year in the AHL. But the WJC star for Team USA has impressive credentials, including being the No. 34-ranked NHL prospect in Future Watch 2017.

CHICAGO BLACKHAWKS: Alexis Gravel will backstop host Halifax at this year’s Memorial Cup and won’t be intimidated by the spotlight. He grew up around the game. His father, also a goalie, was a 1987 Montreal Canadiens pick who played pro in Europe. Born in Germany, Gravel lived in Italy until he was six.

COLORADO AVALANCHE: Justus Annunen is 6-foot-4 and 216 pounds at 18, and his goalie coach, Ari Hilli, had great success with another big Finn: Pekka Rinne. With Semyon Varlamov in the last year of his deal and Philipp Grubauer on a three-year pact, Annunen might be the Avs’ long-term answer.

DALLAS STARS: Tall, rangy Jake Oettinger has an elite pedigree as the only goalie picked in the first round of the past three drafts. Stopping pucks for Boston U. and Team USA at last year’s WJC, he’s following a similar path to Vancouver prospect Thatcher Demko, a Boston College alumnus.

EDMONTON OILERS: The Oilers have drafted six goalies since 2014, hoping one pushes Cam Talbot in the coming seasons. Olivier Rodrigue, the second goalie drafted in 2018 (62nd overall), is the best of the bunch, but he’s years away. He had a tough start to the QMJHL season in Drummondville.

LOS ANGELES KINGS: Cal Petersen was drafted by Buffalo in 2013 but turned pro after his junior year at Notre Dame and was signed as a free agent by the Kings in 2017. As a 23-year-old rookie pro last season, Petersen had better stats than Jack Campbell, but the latter won the backup job in L.A.

MINNESOTA WILD: After slow-cooking as a high-workload starter in Finland’s Liiga, Kaapo Kahkonen is in the AHL hoping to become Devan Dubnyk’s successor. Kahkonen is best known for scoring two goals in two weeks in 2015 – one for his club team, another for Finland’s under-20s squad.

NASHVILLE PREDATORS: Athletic Tomas Vomacka was young when he left the Czech Republic to develop in North America. First came Corpus Christi in the NAHL, then Lincoln in the USHL, then the University of Connecticut. The Preds aren’t flush with goalie prospects, so he’ll climb the depth chart quickly.

SAN JOSE SHARKS: Evgeni Nabokov still makes saves for the Sharks. San Jose’s special-assignment scout watched undrafted JoseF Korenar with USHL Lincoln in 2016-17. The 19-year-old was unable to attend school, but Nabokov insisted the team sign him. Korenar is off to a great start in the AHL.

ST. LOUIS BLUES: How long until Ville Husso gets his NHL shot? Jake Allen hasn’t found his consistency, while Husso has posted a save percentage of .920 or better two straight seasons in the AHL. He’s a technically sound, cool-headed stopper who has long been projected as a NHL starter.

VANCOUVER CANUCKS: Thatcher Demko has been the future in the Vancouver crease for five seasons now. He apprenticed with Boston College in the first two years and has been with AHL Utica ever since. He’s sure to replace Canucks backup and pending UFA Anders Nilsson next season, if not sooner.

VEGAS GOLDEN KNIGHTS: The Golden Knights have former high picks Zach Fucale and Oscar Dansk in the system, but Maksim Zhukov is the best bet to make the NHL. He’s played well internationally for Russia and is in his third season in North America, as a 19-year-old mainstay for OHL Barrie.

WINNIPEG JETS: Eric Comrie and Laurent Brossoit battled in camp to back up Connor Hellebuyck. Comrie “lost,” largely because he was waiver-exempt whereas Brossoit had a one-way deal, but Comrie is better off as No. 1 for AHL Manitoba. He’ll need a trade for a real shot at NHL starter.

This story appears in the January 7, 2019 of The Hockey News magazine.

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