Justus Annunen has opportunity to develop into next Colorado starter
It was 95 degrees and well over 80 percent humidity; there were wasps buzzing around my parents’ backyard from the last big rain they’d had.
Still, I stood outside, one hand holding up my phone and the other plugging my left ear. I had dashed into the backyard, knowing a call to Finland could result in some raised voices if the connection was shaky. My daughter was napping in my old bedroom, where we were visiting my parents for the offseason; no story was good enough to risk waking her up with my trans-Atlantic yelling.
The call had come together faster than expected, though, and there wasn’t time to head somewhere more soundproof.
I’d texted one of the former goaltenders to play under coach Ari Hilli, the Finnish goaltending coach for the 2018 Olympic Team in Pyeongchang and goaltending coach for SM-liiga program Kärpät since the late 1990’s. My hope was to get some insight into his coaching style for a piece on new Colorado Avalanche prospect Justus Annunen.
Instead, I’d gotten a text back that Hilli was happy to talk to me himself. A quick text later, and he said now was best, so I’d run outside with my phone and a notepad and dialed him up.
The first thing I noticed was how affable he is. It was almost midnight his time, but he was still awake and thought it made more sense to have me call now.
“The time difference, it can be hard finding a good time.” He chose his words carefully, making sure not to get lost in translation. “Now is good for me, I’m already awake, we can talk now, yeah?”
Annunen had been one of a whopping 29 goaltenders taken on the second day of the 2018 NHL Entry Draft just the week prior in Dallas. In a weaker draft class, it was widely accepted that if the first goaltender didn’t get taken until late in the second round – or even the third – it wouldn’t be a tremendous shock.
Then, of course, the New York Rangers snagged Olof Lindbom with the 39th overall pick, sending the entire drafting order into a bit of a tailspin. Talking with a handful of scouts and coaches after the fact, a common theme rang out: teams had kept their eyes on so many potential ‘steals’ in net that when one went early, they all realized that their picks weren’t going to end up being surprising steals after all. The selections began in earnest, with over two dozen draft-eligibles being taken off the board when all was said and done.
Annunen looked like a perfect fit for Colorado. Tall and already big-bodied, the Kemele, Finland native has been tabbed as one of the top prospects for his country’s national team. With the first European goaltending coach in the NHL overseeing Semyon Varlamov and Philipp Grubauer – and being a Finnish national himself – it was a match made in goaltending heaven.
That Finnish connection, though, shouldn’t be read into too much. Hilli was adamant that the link could be beneficial from a communication standpoint, but that it isn’t as crucial from a technical standpoint as it would have been 10 or 20 years ago.
“Nowadays with technology,” he told me, “you get in touch with other coaches from everywhere. You learn from guy in Canada, Sweden, anywhere, you use what’s best and you learn new ways to make your player even better.”
“We can all… what[‘s] the word? Borrow from each other.”
Gone are the days where Swedish goaltending and Canadian goaltending looked like totally different positions, and butterfly was being developed on opposite ends of the world independently. Everything can be shared now, and coaches are better equipped than ever to work with their students – no matter where they’re from.
What should be read into, though, is the kind of future that Annunen will be able to build this year.
Hilli explained that he worked with Annunen throughout last year, utilizing the unique structure that teams in Finland have for coaching at the various levels of play.
Although the 18-year-old Annunen spent the year with Kärpät’s Junior A U20 lineup, he got together with Hilli – who coached the Kärpät men’s team full-time when he wasn’t working with the Finnish Olympic roster – a few times a week and practiced with the big club.
He only got one start for the Liiga roster, given as a reward for his hard work during the year and good numbers at the U20 level, but that appearance and his time spent with the older lineup at practice helped him gain additional insight and development that 18-year-old players don’t traditionally get when playing in the juniors. Now, he’ll get to split his year between the Liiga roster and Hermes, the tier-II Mestis team a few hours down the coast from Kärpät.
For Annunen, his movement is considered quick for his size, but conditioning will be crucial this year and next. He’s signed in Finland through the end of the 2019-20 season, and that should put him in the perfect spot to come over and join Colorado at the AHL level – but only if he seems to be in shape to challenge for a spot there.
He’s also got a strong fundamental understanding of technique, and reads the game well. He enjoys an active glove hand, typical of Finnish goaltending development, and his post coverage work is crisp and clean.
Where Hilli would still like to see improvement, though, is in his decision-making and reads. He prefers to stay deeper in his crease, playing from the goal line out instead of challenging and retreating in to face down a shot. That can combine with a need to further flesh out his agility and strength development to create holes in his coverage if he isn’t quick enough to find an optimal depth, and can be viewed as sitting back too much.
Still, there’s plenty to look forward to for the Avalanche.
Annunen returned to Finland prior to Colorado’s development camp, but rookie camp wasn’t the last that Avs fans will likely see of the goaltender this year. The 2019 IIHF World Juniors will be held in Vancouver and Victoria, BC this upcoming winter, and Annunen has taken over the spot on the Finnish U20 national team roster vacated this summer when goaltender Niilo Halonen aged out.
Even if he doesn’t surpass Ukko-Pekka Luukkonen as the starter, there’s a very real chance he’ll at least appear in a few exhibition games and challenge Lehtinen for the second spot in the depth chart.
Is he still a ways out from his North American career? Certainly. And there’s likely to be more time spent adjusting to North America once Annunen does come over, meaning he won’t likely challenge for a spot on the NHL roster for a handful of seasons yet.
As the Avalanche get ready for a new season, though, there’s even more excitement waiting in the wings – and despite entering last season with one of the league’s weakest depth charts outside of the NHL, it’s clear that’s set to change soon.