Just four years ago, Riku Helenius could claim to be one of the top goaltending prospects in the entire world. He had just been drafted 15th overall by the Tampa Bay Lightning, four spots back of Kings prospect Jonathan Bernier, and ahead of players like Semyon Varlamov. Michael Neuvirth and Steve Mason. He had been brilliant as a goaltender in the Finnish junior system, and starred representing his country at the Under-18 tournament, posting a 0.942 SV% over six games for Finland. He was regarded as a future NHL starter; a superb athlete benefitting from quality coaching in Ilves.
The future looked very bright leaving the 2006 draft, but things haven’t exactly gone as planned since.
2006-07 was a write-off, as Helenius missed almost the entire season with a shoulder injury. He came over to the WHL for 2007-08 and posted decent numbers for Seattle, but struggled to hold off a much younger Jacob DeSerres, who posted superior numbers to Helenius and ended up splitting time with him in both the regular season and the playoffs. Helenius also struggled at the Under-20 World Juniors, posting a miserable 0.864 SV% through four games.
Helenius made his professional debut in 2008-09, and ended up playing a total of 39 games for five different teams, with the bulk of his time spent in the AHL with Norfolk, Tampa Bay’s farm team. Helenius was up and down during his limited time in the ECHL, but played well for Norfolk, outplaying journeyman Mike McKenna (who spent 15 games in the NHL that season) and prospect Karri Ramo (who played 24 games for the parent Lightning).
This season, Helenius found himself in a three-way battle for playing time in Norfolk, squaring off against Slovakian goaltender Jaroslav Janus, a player the Lightning took in the sixth round of the 2009 draft as an overager, and Dustin Tokarski, the Lightning’s fifth-round pick from 2008 (more on Tokarski here). Tokarski won the battle handily, Janus impressed, and Helenius found himself in the Swedish Elite League, where he’s been pretty good in limited time.
I bring all this up today because Helenius’ agent has announced that he’ll be spending next season in Sweden as well; the Lightning apparently deciding to use their Norfolk slots for their other prospects. The decline in Helenius’s stock is evident from his Hockey News prospect ranking: in 2008, he was regarded by the journal as the team’s top prospect; in 2010, he didn’t even crack their top-10 list.
It’s an indication that the club doesn’t have room for him, but while the Lightning have at least four legitimate goaltending prospects (Helenius, Tokarski, Janus and Ramo) other organizations aren’t so lucky, and Helenius is still a legitimate prospect, just one who has had the bad fortune of playing in a stocked system. He’s only 22, he’ stands 6’3” and all the strengths the scouts extol – his calm, systematic approach to the position, his tremendous athleticism – are still strengths.
I know if I were an NHL G.M. with room for an AHL goaltender in my system, I’d be calling up Steve Yzerman and finding out what it would take to acquire Helenius. The odds are that it wouldn’t take much.