The Colorado Avalanche, by all accounts, aren’t likely to see goaltender Justus Annunen in North America this season. He’s been loaned for the year to Kärpät, where he’ll finish out the extension he signed last summer before getting ready to show off what he can do for the team that drafted him in 2018.
It’s the internet age, though, making it easier than ever for sports fans to keep an eye on their favorite players in leagues across the world. And with no hockey set to be played in North America until at least December — and no NHL play until potentially the turn of the calendar year — it’s worth turning to what Annunen will be doing over in Finland for the time being.
Kärpät will officially start their 2020-21 season on Thursday, October 1st, with a match against Hämeenlinna’s HPK.
It should be a welcome start for Annunen, who missed a handful of preseason opportunities with an undisclosed injury before being cleared to re-join the team in time to start the regular season. He’ll be expected to take the reins this year, after splitting last season with 26-year-old Slovakian goaltender Patrik Rybar — and after the numbers he put up last year, it’s enticing to think about just how much he can wow Colorado before his time in Finland is up.
Drafted 64th overall by the Avalanche in 2018, Annunen was heralded for his poised and crisp technique from the get-go. The Kempele, Finland native had smart, efficient movement, and looked to be a clear-cut future starter as long as he was able to improve his conditioning and continue to develop at the pace he had been before his draft year.
The conditioning looked to be a concern at first, as his longevity wasn’t nearly as good as his early-season technique during his 18- and 19-year old seasons. But last year, he seemed to finally put it all together; despite playing a full season in Liiga and a full slate of games at the U20 World Junior Championships in December, his numbers remained stellar from the start of the year to the premature shuttering thanks to covid-19.
Now, he’ll be able to show that it wasn’t a one-off. He won’t be eligible for the U20 team this time around — although he’s got the opportunity to potentially appear in the World Championships should they happen normally in the spring — so he’ll be able to focus all of his attention on the regular season for Kärpät once they start play on Thursday.
It should be another powerful season for Kärpät. In net, both Rybar and Annunen are back, along with 2020 draft-eligible Joel Blomqvist (who is anticipated to go in the second or third round later this upcoming month). They’ll all still be coached by Ari Hilli, who has been working with Annunen since he joined the organization in their U20 lineup and boasts a storied career working with netminders over in Finland. They’ll also get Jesse Puljujarvi back up front — where he was a star for Kärpät last season after struggling in North America — along with young brothers Aku and Aatu Räty, who have been rising stars for Finland over the last year. They’ve lost their second-highest scoring player from last season to the KHL, as Juho Lammikko signed with Metallurg Magnitogorsk in the offseason, but they’ve got strong veteran presence from former NHLer Jussi Jokinen and now-captain Mika Pyörälä (who has four Liiga titles to his name and four World Championships medals, including a gold) to help younger players coming up onto the roster. Head coach Mikko Manner will enter his just third season at the helm, but his wealth of experience as Kärpät’s assistant coach and as an assistant for the Finnish national teams at both the World Championships and the Olympics mean that Annunen is still set to skate for a Finnish powerhouse.
That’s good news for Avalanche fans who want a chance to watch a prospect in a winning situation. The games for Kärpät may not always be completely competitive — there are still teams in Liiga, like Sport in Vaasa, that struggle to elevate their play to the same level as teams like Annunen’s out of Oulu — but they should always be fun, and they’ll give Annunen a big chance to shine. Third goalie Blomqvist is still eligible to play for Hermes, Kärpät’s Mestis affiliate, so Annunen shouldn’t see much in the way of crease timeshare battles with the 18-year-old — and with nothing but time for the Avalanche to watch him, he’ll likely be given plenty of attention both from his current organization and from the Avalanche as they watch him from afar.
You can keep up with Liiga’s schedule here — and while it can be a little tricky to find the perfect way to get games streamed outside of Finland, there are always a handful of websites that host streams for those looking to catch their favorite players from across the pond.