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Colorado Avalanche Top 25 Under 25: No. 12 Justus Annunen

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The young Finn is looking more and more like he could be the goalie of the future in Denver

2020 World Junior Ice Hockey Championship, bronze medal match: Sweden vs Finland Photo by Peter Kovalev\TASS via Getty Images

The Top 25 Under 25 is a collaboration by members of the Mile High Hockey community. Eight writers have ranked players under the age of 25 as of August 1, 2021 in the Colorado Avalanche organization. Each participant used their own metric of current ability and production against future projection to rank each player. Now, we’ll count down each of the 25 players ranked.

When the Colorado Avalanche moved on from Semyon Varlamov in 2019, it seemed likely that Philipp Grubauer had been acquired to be the team’s goaltender of the present — and that Finnish goaltending prospect Justus Annunen, drafted in the third round by Colorado in 2018, was poised to be the team’s goaltender of the future.

Annunen seemed to be tracking along that development path perfectly for the first two years following his draft selection, taking the reins for a decent number of starts in the tier-II professional league Mestis in 2018-19 before finishing third in goaltender of the year voting for SM-liiga in 2019-20. He had the best save percentage in the league, and to boot managed to get the nod as one of Finland’s Top 3 players at the 2020 IIHF U20 World Junior Championships.

The onset of the global covid-19 pandemic in spring of 2020 created a major hiccup in his development path, though. He failed to start the 2020-21 season on time with the rest of his teammates, sitting out with an injury at the start of the year, and then seemed to play a step behind his normal level during the rest of the season before making the jump to North America this spring. He started to find his footing a bit during an extremely small sample size for the AHL’s Colorado Eagles — where he’ll almost certainly play to start out this season — but his play made it clear that while he still may be the team’s most promising chance in the future, he still has work to do now.

He still lacks a high-end level of agility and his step back this past year raise a bit of a red flag, but he proved in 2019-20 that he’s capable of putting up great numbers when he gets his conditioning where it needs to be — and if he’s able to reach that level again this year, he could be one of the team’s most positive prospects in Loveland during the season.

Strengths

Tracking, depth management

In Finland, not all teams — or coaches, or practice facilities, or even levels of competition — are created equally, and Finnish goaltending development tends to reflect that. But where many young Finnish goaltenders utilize heavily aggressive positioning and sweeping, recovery-heavy movement to limit opportunities for their opponents, Annunen has stood out from the start as someone who was a bit quieter and a bit more likely to showcase impressive control. His size affords him the opportunity to play much deeper than many of his fellow countrymen, which proved to be a substantial advantage during international competition in earlier seasons, and his controlled depth helped him avoid the need to sprawl out and stop back-door goals and cross-ice challenges.

He did a good job of staying square as well, though, and was able to read plays in a way that exhibited impressive control and anticipation levels.

Weaknesses

Conditioning, agility

This past season was an incredibly tricky one to use to evaluate players in general, and most certainly to use to evaluate goaltenders. Substantially shortened seasons and global league season cancellations left an influx of free agent goaltenders fighting over fewer spots and fewer available starts, resulting in lopsided rosters and playing time.

Annunen fell victim to an injury early on in Kärpät’s season, which left him sitting on the sidelines to kick the year off — and even when he came back, a weakened roster for his club left the 21-year old goaltending prospect struggling to find his stride less than a full year after being heralded as one of the best goaltenders in Finland. Never one of the most naturally agile goaltenders, Annunen seemed to sit a beat or so behind the play at times — sluggishly reacting to cross-ice passes and missing out on the chance to stop some high-danger shots in the process.

In theory, that’s just a blip on the radar of what should hopefully be a long and impressive career for the young netminder. When healthy and in the zone, Annunen has done an impressive job of preventing himself from needing to utilize too much explosive power to stop the puck — and when he was playing the best hockey of his career season before last, he had elevated his physical game to a point where he was able to make even those reach-reliant, explosive desperation stops.

It’s hard to deny, though, that the extended time off that most players faced last summer — combined with his injury — left Annunen looking like a slightly regressed version of the goaltender that had fans chattering during the 2020 World Juniors and Liiga season. When he’s not performing at max capacity from a physical standpoint, Annunen lacks the natural flexibility and overall agility level to stop pucks that he’s not fully zoned in on.

Evaluation

When Annunen was drafted, I got a chance to interview him in Dallas before speaking with his coach back in Finland, Ari Hilli. Hilli made it clear at the time that conditioning was the area he’d wanted to focus on the most with the budding young goaltender, and it’s worth asserting that his overall ability to elevate his game and his strength remain a weaker spot after the setbacks seen in his numbers and physical play this past year.

Very few positions in sports deserve more of a mulligan after last season than hockey goaltenders, though. So as long as Annunen arrives at training camp looking ready to shine from day one, it’s easy to see him returning to the form he boasted in 2019-20 — which made him look like one of the most formidable up-and-coming goaltenders in hockey at the time.

T25U25

#13: Oskar Olausson

#14: Shane Bowers

#15: Drew Helleson

#16: Sean Behrens

#17: Mikhail Maltsev

#18: Alex Beaucage

#19: Trent Miner

#20: Colby Ambrosio

#21: Dennis Gilbert

#22: Daniil Zhuravlyov

#23: Tyler Weiss

#24: Nikolai Kovalenko

#25: Nick Henry