Tonight will be a big night for Buffalo Sabres fans as a top prospect will make his debut. A former first-round pick of the Montreal Canadiens is putting together a nice season in the American Hockey League (AHL). Plus, we’ll make a stop in Western Hockey League to check on a recent Minnesota Wild draft pick.
Ukko-Pekka Luukkonen Set for NHL Debut
To say this season has been a nightmare for the Sabres might be a bit of an understatement. There was some optimism before the start of the shortened 2020-21 season. First-year general manager Kevyn Adams added former Hart Trophy winner Taylor Hall and veteran Eric Staal to a roster that included Jack Eichel.
However, things got ugly and in a hurry. Head coach Ralph Kruger was fired during the midst of an 18-game losing streak. Both Hall and Stall were traded out of town. Then, the Sabres lost Eichel for the remainder of the season due to an upper-body injury as rumors about his future with the team continue the swirl. Things have improved under interim head coach Don Granato. The team has gone 6-9-3 since he took over and has earned at least one point in nine of their last 12 games.
On Thursday morning, Granato announced that Luukkonen would make his first NHL start in goal tonight versus the Boston Bruins.
“I’m excited to see him with this opportunity coming for him,” Granato said. “He’s worked hard for it. I have watched that and have seen that so I’m looking forward to him being in there.”
The Sabres drafted the 22-year-old goaltender in the second round (54th overall) of the 2017 NHL Entry Draft. After building up a solid portfolio in his native Finland, he made the trek to North America in 2018. He spent the 2018-19 season with the Sudbury Wolves in the Ontario Hockey League (OHL), where he won 38 games with a .920 save percentage (SV%), 2.50 goals-against average (GAA), and six shutouts.
Luukkonen has played a total of 24 AHL games for the Rochester Americans over the past two seasons. His numbers aren’t great with a .886 SV% and 3.35 GAA, but the team is still very high on him. He is a player Sabres fans have been excited about for the past couple of seasons, and they deserve some bright spots as this rough season nears the end.
Ryan Poehling Keeps Producing
It wasn’t that long ago when Canadiens fans felt they had a sure-fire star on their hands with Poehling. After being drafted 25th overall in the 2017 NHL Entry Draft, he finished out a successful college career at St. Cloud State. He was named the Most Valuable player of the 2019 IIHF World Junior Championship for scored five goals and eight points in leading the United States to a silver medal. He also made his NHL debut in 2019, scoring a hat trick and the game-winning shootout goal to lead the Canadiens to win over the Toronto Maple Leafs on Hockey Night in Canada.
Poehling played in 27 NHL games during the 2019-20 season and only scored one goal and two points. His time with the Laval Rocket in the AHL wasn’t anything to write home about either, with just five goals and 13 points in 36 games. His first pro season got off to a rough start after suffering a concussion in a preseason game, and it seemed to set the tone.
Things have been going much better for the 22-year-old center in Laval this season. He scored his 10th goal in the Rocket’s 5-4 win over the Belleville Senators.
Poehling now has 10 goals and 20 points in his 26 games this season. After just two goals and four points in his first 10 games, he is averaging a point per game over his last 16 outings with eight goals and eight assists. This is the bounce-back season the Canadiens front office and fans wanted to see out of the young forward.
Daemon Hunt Keeps Driving the Offense
The Wild have been a bit of a surprise team during the 2020-21 NHL season. Barring an epic collapse, they will find themselves in the Stanley Cup Playoffs next month. While first-year general manager Bill Guerin continues to get his footing, he knows he has some solid building blocks for the future.
Kirill Kaprizov has been better than advertised during his tremendous rookie season and is the odds-on favorite to win the Calder Trophy. In addition to the budding Russian superstar, the Wild have forward Matt Boldy and defenseman Calen Addison playing very well with the Iowa Wild in the AHL.
They have another exciting young defenseman putting up big numbers in the WHL in Hunt. He scored for the Moose Jaw Warriors during their 6-5 overtime loss to the Winnipeg Ice on Wednesday night.
Hunt now has seven goals and 16 points in his 20 WHL games this season. He made his professional debut earlier this season by playing three games for Iowa before returning to Moose Jaw. Minnesota selected him in the third round (65th overall) of the 2020 NHL Entry Draft and has to like what they see so far out of the mobile blueliner.