Niclas Westerholm Drawing Comparisons to Pekka Rinne

21-year-old Niclas Westerholm recently finished off his first pro season with SaiPa in the Finnish Elite League. The 6-foot-4 netminder was a Nashville Predators free agent pickup last season and has been touted as “Pekka’s son” by former Predators assistant general manager Paul Fenton. As both goalies share a similar history and some great athletic abilities, Fenton had a good reason to be excited.

Like Rinne, Westerholm was not a world-class talent in his earlier days, only bursting onto the scene in 2017 with SaiPa’s U20 team. Despite the slow start, he has consistently improved each season he has played. This shows his fantastic work ethic, which has also been one of the things brought up whenever comparisons to Rinne are made.

Westerholm Slowly Climbing the Ranks

Originally from Helsinki, Westerholm began his career in Karhu-Kissat, a traditional Finnish club with an emphasis on youth development. The team mostly played in the second division, however, so Westerholm eventually needed a new challenge if he wanted to reach a new level.

For the 2015–16 season he joined the Virginia/Mountain Iron-Buhl High School team and really started to gain momentum before arriving back in Finland a year later.

Niclas Westerholm
Eyes on the prize. (Topi Lainio/THW)

Westerholm played two full seasons with SaiPa U20. The team was not loaded with talent, but the big man in net performed better and better near the end of his time in junior. With a 2.42 goals-against average and .926 save percentage, he earned four starts and immediately showed a lot of promise and determination.

Westerholm’s mentors in SaiPa have had a big impact on his development. Goalie coach Janne Valtonen is a long-time part of the club and has done a terrifc job with players over the years. Frans Tuohimaa also became one of the hottest goalies in Finland while working alongside Valtonen and Westerholm. As goaltending duos typically feed off of each other to become better, the partnership has helped both.

Niclas Westerholm
Westerholm’s supporting cast has been strong in SaiPa. (Topi Lainio/THW)

Perhaps the biggest influence, however, has come from former Edmonton Oilers goaltender Jussi Markkanen. The 43-year-old veteran jumped straight from the ice to SaiPa’s GM position at the beginning of last season, when Westerholm took his place as Tuohimaa’s backup. Markkanen’s experience from the 2006 Stanley Cup Final as well as in the Russian, Swiss and Finnish leagues is an invaluable resource for Westerholm.

Future Looking Bright for Westerholm

Fast forward to this day, and Westerholm is a strong candidate to start between the pipes in SaiPa’s season opener next autumn. This season’s 15 matches (2.27 GAA, .907 SV%) proved that even with Tuohimaa most likely gone, SaiPa fans have no reason to panic over their goaltending situation. It is possible that Westerholm is brought to Milwaukee next season, but given the great opportunity awaiting him in Finland, this scenario seems less than optimal.

When looking at Westerholm’s numbers from the 2018–19 campaign, it is good to keep in mind that he had a tough hill to climb in most of his matches. Especially at the beginning of the season, opportunities were few and far between, usually against a tougher opponent that SaiPa was not expected to beat even with Tuohimaa in net. In hindsight, splitting the games 40–20 would have been a better arrangement.

Niclas Westerholm
Westerholm still needs more ice time to reach his potential. (Topi Lainio/THW)

The high probability of Westerholm earning the starting role in SaiPa stems from the team’s promising goalie situation overall. Karolus Kaarlehto, who SaiPa has under contract next season as well, is playing a fantastic season on loan to Ketterä in the Finnish second division. Kaarlehto’s return to Ketterä seems unlikely because he belongs as a starting goalie at this stage of his career. Unless Westerholm moves on to Milwaukee, SaiPa signing another goalie would be a kick in Kaarlehto’s pants.

Whether “Pekka’s son” ultimately lives up to the expectations in Nashville remains to be seen. With Rinne newly-extended and 23-year-old Juuse Saros minding the crease, the role is filled for at least another two seasons. After that, it is of course up for speculation. Development is unpredictable with goalies, but Westerholm has the right building blocks in place for a fruitful NHL career. Large frame, strong on his feet, battles hard… Sounds familiar, right,?