Sabres eager to get first-round pick Konsta Helenius to North America


Staff member

Konsta Helenius received a reminder from his coach in Finland, Olli Jokinen, before each of the teenager’s games of pro hockey this season.
Helenius, a dynamic 5-foot-11 center, could do whatever he’d like each time he had the puck, Jokinen said, if his priority was playing shutdown defense for his club, Jukurit.

“It was hard for me because I like to do a lot of things with the puck,” Helenius said Friday night in Las Vegas’ Sphere, flashing a smile moments after the Buffalo Sabres selected the 18-year-old with the 14th pick in the first round of the NHL draft.

The sage words of wisdom helped Helenius have a historic season. His 36 points in 51 games for Jukurit was the second-highest total by an Under-18 skater in Liiga history, and he became the youngest Finnish player to represent the country at the IIHF Men’s World Championship. He produced at a point-per-game pace in Liiga’s playoffs, joining Aleksander Barkov, Kaapo Kakko and Mikael Granlund as the only players to do so at his age.

Konsta Helenius has his arm span measured during the NHL combine at LECOM Harborcenter on June 8. Joshua Bessex/Buffalo News

The Sabres’ scouts watched closely as Helenius appeared in almost 90 games between pro hockey and international tournaments. He impressed them with his intelligence, competitiveness and tenacity. Helenius is not the biggest player in this draft, but he was a menace on the forecheck and relishes the opportunity to check an opponent.

Helenius’ defensive habits mirror those shown by Jokinen throughout the coach’s 17-year career in the NHL. The latter reminded his pupil throughout the season that every detail matters, from stick positioning to finishing checks.

Scouts consider Helenius to be among the first-round prospects closest to helping in the NHL and, despite the urgency for Buffalo to snap a 13-year playoff drought, it’s conceivable that he’ll have the opportunity to earn a spot on coach Lindy Ruff’s roster.

“He’s a player that could be (in Finland), he could be in Buffalo, Rochester,” Sabres General Manager Kevyn Adams said. “Really, anything’s on the table. So obviously, it’s only been a little bit of time here since our pick was announced but certainly something we’ll get into right away with his agent and start that conversation. ... We want to hear what the player has to say and the agent in terms of what they feel is the best for his development, but this is a player we’d like to get over here as fast as possible.”

There was angst among Adams and the Sabres scouts as they watched the draft unfold Friday night. They were nervous that a player they coveted may fall to the 11th pick, which they traded to the San Jose Sharks on Thursday to add a second-round selection. Once that unnamed player was selected in the top 10, though, Adams watched as the Sharks selected London Knights defenseman Sam Dickinson, then the Minnesota Wild traded up to No. 12 to take University of Denver defenseman Zeev Buium, whom some analysts thought could be taken as high as third overall.

Adams’ phone started to ring. He estimated that three or four teams called to try to acquire the No. 14 pick, but none of the deals made sense. Why trade back again and risk missing out on Helenius, who the Sabres had rated as a top-10 prospect in the class? The Philadelphia Flyers took a physical winger, Jett Luchanko, before the Sabres were on the clock. They didn’t take long to walk to the stage, where Ruff announced Helenius, who can help fill the void created by Buffalo trading Casey Mittelstadt to the Colorado Avalanche for defenseman Bowen Byram.

Noah Ostlund was arguably the best center prospect in the Sabres’ pipeline before they selected Helenius. Matt Savoie, their top choice in 2022, projects as a winger in the NHL and, though Jiri Kulich has played center with the Rochester Americans, he’ll have an easier path to Buffalo if he’s on the wing. Adding a experienced center should give Buffalo more comfort to trade one or more highly-regarded prospects to upgrade its NHL roster. The Sabres attempted to make such a deal Friday, Adams said, but the offers that he gave to other teams were declined.

Finland's Konsta Helenius celebrates scoring during the IIHF World Junior Championship bronze medal game against Czechia in January. Helenius was drafted by the Sabres.
Bjorn Larsson Rosvall, Associated Press

The Sabres’ hockey operations staff didn’t plan to get much sleep Friday night. They owned eight picks in rounds two through seven, which begin Saturday at 11:30 a.m. Eastern, but there’s an urgency to improve the Sabres’ roster.

Adams wanted to make it clear to the fans listening to his press conference Friday night that he’s been “aggressive” in his pursuit. An NHL player was not traded during the first round of the draft, though several were moved in the days leading up to the annual event. The bottom-six lines need reinforcements. Buffalo is trying to add a top-six winger with a skill set that fits better than that of Jeff Skinner, who can be bought out before Monday. There’s also a need for a center, though, and while Helenius is under contract next season with Tappara in Liiga, he may have a chance in training camp to earn a roster spot like Zach Benson did a year ago after the winger was drafted with the 13th pick of the first round.

“He’s a very, very competitive player that’s got a skill set that we think will translate really well to the National Hockey League,” said Adams. “You never know the timeline when when a player like this will be ready to play and help you, but when you have already the experience that he’s gained through the men’s league, through the World Championships, that certainly expedite things. So, this is a really likeable player.”

Anton Lundell of the Florida Panthers made a similar leap to the NHL after he was drafted 12th overall in 2020, though he spent one more season in Liiga because of the Covid-19 pandemic. Lundell, 22, produced 16 points in 22 playoff games for the Stanley Cup champions and possesses many of the qualities that attracted the Sabres to Helenius. The question, though, is whether Helenius has the strength to make an immediate jump to the NHL and if he’ll be able to handle the physicality that comes with playing at that level.

Helenius may not become a top-line center, but he projects in a role similar to Lundell, who has operated as the Panthers’ third-line center the past three seasons. Helenius is a dynamic playmaker, possesses a strong right-handed shot, understands how to create offensively in the middle of the ice and stickhandles around opponents with ease. The transition to North America will bring growing pains. He won’t have as much time and space to cycle around the offensive zone. But Helenius also has qualities that will allow him to create on an NHL or AHL ice surface. He’s dangerous on the rush, outworks opponents in puck battles and isn’t afraid to get involved below the hashmarks in the offensive zone.

There were signs of growth from Helenius throughout his three season in Liiga, which he first joined as a 16-year-old. He averaged 16:57 of ice time per game while winning 50% of his faceoffs this season, then logged an average of 18:32 while producing six points in six playoff games. Helenius also impressed at international tournaments while Sabres scouts were present. He was named one of Finland’s top players at the IIHF Under-18 World Championship, when he had seven assists in five games, and he had one assist in four games at the world championship while competing against NHLers.

The Sabres also saw him excel at the Under-17 and Under-18 tournaments last year, when he won 62.2% of his faceoffs in the latter. The next steps for Helenius aren’t clear yet, but he’ll be able to make a first impression next week when he’s on the ice for the club’s prospect development camp.

“I think it was good for me to play against men because I like to battle hard, and I’m not the biggest guy, but I think I’m a very strong guy, and I think it was good for me,” said Helenius.