It's never a bad thing for a top team to have a goaltender of the future in the wings.
But what happens when that goaltender takes a step back three years into the team's development cycle with that prospect? That's the situation Justus Annunen found himself in last year. After a dazzling 2019-20 campaign where Annunen led the Finnish Liiga with a .929 save percentage and 1.77 GAA, his game slipped well below his goaltending partner of Patrik Rybar with Karpat. Rybar is a veteran, so his performance was expected. But for Annunen, it was a struggle. An injury prevented Colorado's third-round pick in 2018 from starting the 2020-21 season on time and he spent the entire time playing catch-up. It showed in his stats.
But Annunen is in North America now, set for his full-season AHL debut with the Colorado Eagles. He got into three games with the club last year after signing his entry-level contract in 2020, losing all three games. It wasn't a total disaster, with Annunen making 30 saves in games against San Diego and San Jose, but it marked the end of a disappointing season for the top goalie prospect.
Still, the Avalanche view him highly, and he'll have a chance to show he's headed towards a bright future in Denver. Annunen said he moved to Denver around 5-6 weeks ago and has been training ever since.
"I like to be here a lot," Annunen told reporters on Thursday. "I think it helped me a lot to be here before... It's obviously a little different than back home, but I like it a lot. I feel pretty comfortable."
And comfort is a tough thing for European goalies moving over. After years of strong performances in the Swiss league, Elvis Merzlikins struggled in his early days with the Columbus Blue Jackets before figuring out during the second half of his rookie season. Part of that is the lifestyle, and part of it is the smaller ice, something goalies can be stuck fighting after spending their lives on a smaller surface back home.
Annunen says it only takes a game or two to get adjusted to the bigger ice, something he was able to work on in his short AHL stint.
“There’s more action, more pucks to the net, and more guys to the net,” Annunen said.
Colorado brought in former Avalanche starter Peter Budaj to work with to serve as the development goaltending coach this off-season. That's in addition to working with Eagles goalie coach Ryan Bach. So Annunen is getting adequate attention, and he said he has put a focus on getting quicker and moving better in the crease.
But Annunen will have some tough competition this coming season. Darcy Kuemper is the clear No. 1 and a healthy Pavel Francouz should be No. 2. Jonas Johansson will likely be the call-up guy when needed, but then there's Annunen, Hunter Miska and Trent Miner that will also be looking for ice time. Miska split last year between the NHL and AHL, while Miner is ready for his first pro season of hockey after six games with the Eagles last year. There's also Peyton Jones, although he doesn't look to factor in too much into Colorado's top depth chart.
There could always be moves involving a goalie or two to shake things up, especially as Colorado goes through the season looking to sharpen the lineup for a long playoff run. They won't want Annunen to get too lost in the shuffle, and that's unlikely, anyways. The team knows there will be some growing pains as Annunen adjusts to his new home and the intricacies of the North American game. They won't rush him. But he's still one of the top prospects in the organization and the Avs will want to give him every opportunity possible.
Annunen is a big goalie at 6-foot-4, but he's never been the most agile. He's not overly flexible, and it hurts him at times. Luckily his large frame helps cover some of those weaknesses, and it might even help when covering the angles in the smaller American rinks. But working with quality goalie coaches should help Annunen iron out some of his weaknesses during his important transition year.
There's still significant hope that Annunen can live up to expectations. It's a new slate for the Finnish netminder who, of course, is just 21 years old. There's still a lot of time left to go in his development, especially with Kuemper holding the fort now in hopes of leading the Avalanche to a Stanley Cup in the near future.
Now, Annunen just needs to turn up the heat.