Ukko-Pekka Luukkonen's circuitous path from top prospect to Sabres' No.1 goalie


Staff member

As Tage Thompson approached the faceoff dot to begin a season of playoff expectations for the Buffalo Sabres, Ukko-Pekka Luukkonen and the other scratches prepared to watch from the press box in KeyBank Center.

The Sabres’ crease on opening night belonged to Devon Levi, 21, the rookie whose impressive goaltending in seven games late last season brought Buffalo to within one point of the final playoff spot in the Eastern Conference.

Luukkonen wasn’t even chosen to backup Levi against the New York Rangers when a sellout crowd gathered in Buffalo on Oct. 12. The assignment was given to veteran Eric Comrie, while Luukkonen wore a suit and tie as a healthy scratch.

After playing only one of the final 10 games in March and April, Luukkonen toiled away in Finland over the summer to gain strength and correct technical issues to try to regain the starting job, but the opening-night lineup showed that he was still third on the depth chart.

The Sabres' Ukko-Pekka Luukkonen has developed into the starting goaltender that Buffalo envisioned.
Joshua Bessex/Buffalo News

For six games to start the season, Luukkonen sat. Comrie received two starts before Luukkonen got his first against the Ottawa Senators in the second half of a back-to-back on Oct. 24. He wondered what it meant for his career and where he stood in the Sabres’ plans.

“Even this year was more challenging, coming into training camp and kind of starting where we left off,” Luukkonen told The Buffalo News. “It was kind of like, ‘OK, I don’t know which way we’re going, here.’ I appreciate the trust the whole organization has had in me. But the start of this year, mentally, was a tough place to be at, because you really didn't know which way we're going, here."

It wasn’t as though Luukkonen hadn’t been successful in the NHL. He won 12 of 15 starts during a six-week stretch that resulted in rookie-of-the-month honors in January 2023. Luukkonen shut down the Colorado Avalanche and Las Vegas Golden Knights on the road. He also beat the Pittsburgh Penguins, Boston Bruins, Washington Capitals and Minnesota Wild.

Luukkonen never doubted that he'd prove himself if given the opportunity. And, once he took hold of the starting job in December this season, he showed how six years of developing in junior hockey and the minor leagues transformed him from a lanky, raw prospect into a formidable, 6-foot-5 netminder who could give the Sabres a chance to win most nights.

Buffalo Sabres goaltender Ukko-Pekka Luukkonen (1) looks on during a break in the second period against the New York Islanders at KeyBank Center on Thursday, March 14, 2024. (Joshua Bessex/Buffalo News)

Before the Sabres' 8-3 loss Thursday night to the Oilers, Luukkonen ranked seventh in the NHL this season in save percentage (.915), fourth in goals-against average (2.39) and he was tied for third with five shutouts.

When the three-goalie depth chart meant fewer practice reps, Luukkonen got on the ice early to work with assistant coach Mike Bales. To improve his puck handling, Luukkonen, 25, spent hours alone in the team's shooting room. He handled the challenging circumstances by leaning on the work ethic and passion for the position that made him one of hockey’s best goaltending prospects not long ago.

“I feel like it's just, personally, you kind of have to deal with it and just know that the chance will come, and you just have to take it,” Luukkonen said. “I’ve rarely seen it work to be negative about it or try to force yourself somewhere else because, usually, if you do that, you're going to face the same situation somewhere else. It's better to prove yourself somewhere first, and then, if you need to do something, do something. … I knew I just needed a chance.”

Sabres goaltender Ukko-Pekka Luukkonen raises his hat after being named one of the stars of the game
after beating the Islanders on March 14.
Joshua Bessex/Buffalo News

Slow rise​

Luukkonen's love for hockey began on his family's street in Finland. He and his twin, Jaakko, and their older brother, Nuutti, routinely would assemble a group of neighborhood children to form competitive games.

Jari, their father, quickly noticed that Luukkonen had a natural ability to stop the puck, even as a 5-year-old.

“I noticed that Ukko-Pekka was very, very good in goal," Jari shared during the Sabres’ dads and mentors’ trip in February. "The other children always had trouble scoring on him."

Luukkonen loved the position. His cousin played goal, and so did Nuutti. And once Luukkonen was ready, he began to haul his equipment the 200 meters downhill to their local ice rink. His early days were split between defense and goalie, but his passion drew him to the latter.

As Luukkonen got older, he would remain at the rink for up to three practices a day. Even more advanced players knew that if they needed a goalie, Luukkonen was eager and talented. His routine revolved around schoolwork and hockey. He'd attend classes, complete homework, play street hockey, then head to the rink.

Jari was the team's equipment manager, for a while, and Luukkonen credited his brothers for pushing him to achieve more. Nuutti continued as a goalie through his teenage years and eventually became a pilot, while Jaakko's preferred sport was soccer before he began to study engineering in Finland.

"They helped me get to where I am," Luukkonen said.

Luukkonen became one of the bright young goaltenders in Finland. His exceptional run for HPK in Finland’s Under-20 league convinced decision-makers to select him as one of its three goalies for the IIHF Under-18 World Championship. He had just turned 17 years old and, while the plan wasn’t to have Luukkonen play, the federation wanted him to gain experience in preparation for the tournament the following year.

“He was interesting to see and follow,” said Jan Lundell, a longtime goaltending coach in Finland’s top pro league and an offseason coach of Luukkonen in recent summers. “At that point, he was really, really raw physically, and also technically, but you could see that he had a really good potential and upside. He was big and he stayed big in the net. You could see that there were a lot of good tools to work with, and it's not a surprise to me where he is now. He has come a long way, but now he looks really good.”

Buffalo Sabres goaltender Ukko-Pekka Luukkonen (1) minds the net during the first period at
KeyBank Center on Saturday, March 2, 2024. (Joshua Bessex/Buffalo News)

When Luukkonen arrived at the tournament, he noticed that many of the team-issued items, including a skate mat, didn’t even have his name on it. Everything was scratched over and left blank, an obvious sign that he was a last-minute selection and not expected to contribute. The coaches quickly learned not to count him out, though. And once the team's starter fell ill ahead of a quarterfinal game, Luukkonen was called on to start.

He won three consecutive games to capture the gold medal, and the performance earned him top goalie honors over future NHLers Jake Oettinger, Filip Gustavsson and Joseph Woll.

“He was lights out that tournament,” said Sabres defenseman Henri Jokiharju, a close friend and teammate of Luukkonen’s at the Under-18s. “I love to see him doing good now, but for me, I don't think it was ever a surprise that he could play at this level. I always kind of knew that he's going to be that good, and it was about the time.”

The performance put Luukkonen on NHL scouts' radar, and, 16 months later, former Sabres General Manager Jason Botterill selected him with the 23rd pick in the second round of the league’s 2017 entry draft.

In January 2019, Luukkonen was named the top goalie at the IIHF World Junior Championship when he, Jokiharju and Finland won gold. Luukkonen added Ontario Hockey League most valuable player honors to his resume later that season, becoming only the fifth goalie to win the award.

The Sabres were optimistic that, over time, Luukkonen could develop into their franchise goalie. In the spring of 2019, though, he and the team learned that he was going to need double hip surgery, a procedure that would cause him to miss the start of the following season and would send him down a different development path.
“That was awful for us,” Jari recalled. “He was still so young, only 20 at the time. But he remained so passionate and committed to his training that he worked his way back. Ukko-Pekka has always been very, very calm. So, he doesn't really worry so much about losses.

"I think we, as parents, we worry more. I have always been very, very nervous to watch the games, because with a goalie, it's so different, because, as a goalie, you are the champion, or you are the loser of the team. But he has adjusted and learned during those junior years how to handle the ups and downs.”
Sabres goaltender Ukko-Pekka Luukkonen celebrates after securing a 3-2 win in a shootout against the Oilers at KeyBank Center on Saturday.
Joseph Cooke, Buffalo News


Several months removed from starting a game, Luukkonen was a nervous wreck as he prepared to return from his surgery with the Sabres’ ECHL affiliate, the Cincinnati Cyclones, on Nov. 2, 2019.

Only a few hundred people were in the stands. None of his teammates were draft picks, and none went on to play in the NHL. But Luukkonen was focused on continuing the slow climb toward achieving his dream. He stopped 31 shots that night, a performance that brought relief and excitement after months of uncertainty.
"It's a really nice moment," he told The Buffalo News outside the Cyclones' locker room that night. "I'm proud of myself."

The return was the beginning of a long journey for Luukkonen. He appeared 23 games with the Cyclones, then 69 with the Rochester Americans from 2019-22, where he worked with Sabres goalie development coach Seamus Kotyk.

Luukkonen's arrival in Buffalo was delayed by the Covid-19 pandemic, multiple minor injuries and the inevitable growing pains that young goalies endure on their rise to the NHL.

“I feel like nothing was given to me, and I had to earn it,” Luukkonen said. “Even before last season, when I was in the ECHL or AHL, I really, really needed it. That’s kind of why I’m here now. I've never been one to complain about anything. I trust the people, I trust that they make the right moves for me. It's not always easy. I'm not always happy about it, but I feel like I can work through it and trust the people who are making the decisions.

"I learned that if you put in the work and you're ready to face the challenge, you're going to get rewarded after it. … I've been in many places, and I’ve seen what it is when you're not ready to take on the challenge and trying to find the easy way out, and that rarely works.”

The run-and-gun offensive attack that helped the Sabres become one of the highest scoring teams in the NHL last season also left them susceptible at the other end of the ice. Luukkonen and the other goalies were under duress many nights. As the Sabres' defending slipped, so did the technical improvement that Luukkonen showed during his impressive six-week run as the starter.

It wasn’t until Levi arrived from Northeastern University that Buffalo began to play more responsibly with the puck. By then, Luukkonen was on the outside looking in. He didn't pin his struggles on his teammates, though. Luukkonen knew that his footwork and positioning needed to improve. Too often, he was caught being too aggressive and sliding around his crease.

The years-long project to sharpen his technique had to continue over the summer. It won't stop now that he's established himself in the NHL, either. Once the Sabres' season ended in April, he went back to work on narrowing his stance. His off-ice training included work with multiple coaches. He wanted to be better on his edges and more confident to play deeper in his crease.

Buffalo Sabres goaltender Ukko-Pekka Luukkonen (1) stands in the tunnel before the game against the
Vegas Golden Knights at KeyBank Center on Saturday, March 2, 2024. (Joshua Bessex/Buffalo News)

Even though Luukkonen sat late last season, General Manager Kevyn Adams expressed confidence in the team’s depth at the position in the summer. He had Luukkonen over to his house after the season to watch playoff hockey, discuss his progress and look ahead to the future.

“I really felt that we were in a position of strength with the goaltending,” Adams said before the NHL’s trade deadline this month. “I just like how UPL, his calmness, his demeanor, his confidence, his swagger on the ice that gives our team confidence. That’s something that, it’s hard. It’s not like a tangible thing. Obviously, his numbers are good, but it’s something I always felt as a player when you have a goalie playing a certain way, you’d just feel like, ‘Oh, he’s got us tonight,’ and he’s been excellent.”

The arduous work, combined with improved team defense by the Sabres, has led to a breakthrough for Luukkonen. He’s fifth in the NHL in goals saved above expected and goals saved above average, according to, and his 29 quality starts in 42 appearances is the second-highest percentage by any Sabres goalie with at least 10 games played since Ryan Miller in 2009-10.

No NHL goalie has played more than Luukkonen since the All-Star break. His 16 wins between Jan. 1 and March 20 were the second-most in the league, and he posted the highest save percentage (.930) during that span.

His goals-against average is the lowest mark by a Sabres goalie with at least 40 games played since Chad Johnson in 2015-16, and his five shutouts are the most since Miller in 2011-12. Luukkonen also has allowed three or fewer goals in 26 of his last 28 appearances, and he has started 25 of Buffalo’s last 29 games.

Luukkonen didn't transform into an established NHL goalie in one summer. Even since 2019, he's gone through double hip surgery, some challenging nights in Rochester, an NHL debut during a global pandemic with no fans in the arena, allowing a goal on the first shot he faced, unfortunate injuries that stalled his progress and the challenge of watching from afar late last season as the Sabres played must-win games.

Each experience has shaped him into the poised goalie whose game-changing saves in KeyBank Center have become so common that the crowd has begun to respond, "Luuuuuuuuuk!"

“It just kind of means a lot to myself to prove that I can be a starting goalie on this level,” Luukkonen said. “It’s a great feeling.”