One and Done is a (hopefully) ongoing series exploring the players who had the quickest of cups of coffee with the team. The players that played in one game, and one game only, for the Tampa Bay Lightning.
Drafting is not an exact science. Not every pick is going to pan out, not even the highly drafted ones. For every Steven Stamkos there is a Pavel Brendl. And for every Andrei Vasilevskiy there is a Riku Helenius. The big (6’3") Finnish goaltender was drafted 15th overall by the Lightning in 2006 and entered the organization as the next big prospect.
Tampa’s goaltending was in a state of flux following the 2006 season. John Grahme had played alright, but he didn’t seem to have the trust of coach John Tortorella and was a free agent. He would end up signing with Carolina while the Lightning brought in Johan Holmqvist and traded for Marc Denis. Those two would be pitted against each other to be the NHL goalie while Helenius was groomed to be the future.
Things started off well enough as the Finn won 22 games for the Seattle Thunderbirds in 2007-08. The next season saw him start the season in the ECHL, playing a handful of games in Augusta and Mississippi. By midseason he had made it to Norfolk (the LIghtning’s AHL affiliate) and appeared in 25 games.
In January of 2009, legendary Lightning goaltender Olaf Kolzig was placed on injured reserve with a torn bicep. Karri Ramo, who had just been sent down to Norfolk a few days previous, probably would have been the number one candidate to be recalled. The only problem, he was serving a six-game suspension for leaving the bench to come to Steve Downie’s aid during a fight in Norfolk. So Helenius got the call-up. On January 30th, he would make his Tampa Bay debut.
The 2008-09 Lightning were not a good team. However, they still had a shot at the playoffs when Helenius took the ice that winter night in Tampa. Unfortunately the game ended up a bit of debacle. There were two disallowed goals, a wasted 5-on-3 power play and a missed penalty shot. Oh, and the Flyers scored six times.
Coach Rick Tocchet finally pulled starting goaltender Mike Smith with about 7 minutes to go in the game. In stepped Helenius to make his debut. He faced two shots (one from Claude Giroux and one from Scottie Upshall) and saved them both. He skated off the ice with his teammates and never played in the NHL again.
The fun part of the Riku Helenius saga begins after his NHL career stopped (technically put on hold because he’s still playing hockey for Jokerit in the KHL). He was eventually returned to Norfolk to finish out the 2008-09 season.
The next season would see him start in Norfolk and then bolt to the Swedish Elite League. He had been passed on the depth chart by Dustin Tokarski and Jaroslav Janus. With no place for him to play, the Lightning "loaned" him to Sodertaljie in the Swedish Elite League. In effect, they let him return to Europe while maintaining his rights. His contract expired while he was there, but he seemed content to play in Europe and the Lightning moved on.
However, in 2012 he expressed interest in returning to America. The Lightning (with the goaltending again in flux) signed him to a two-year deal to add depth to their farm system. He spent 2012-13 with the Syracuse Crunch sharing the net with Cedric Desjardins and Dustin Tokarski.
Things got weird. Kristers Gudlevskis came out of nowhere to push the FInn back on the depth chart. As the newly anointed third goalie, Helenius was not getting any playing time. In an effort to keep him sharp, the organization demoted him to the ECHL. However, since he was not on an entry level deal he had to agree to the demotion. At first he did not. (Hmm foreshadowing another 1st round pick that went home after a demotion?)
Eventually Helenius reported to the Florida Everblades and was promptly lit up (no wins in two games and .797 save percentage). Meanwhile in Tampa, both Ben Bishop and Anders Lindback managed to be hurt at the same time. That meant both Desjardins and Gudlevskis were getting recalled, which would leave a gaping hole in net in Syracuse.
A Riku Helenius-sized hole one would think. Fortunately, he was in Syracuse. Unfortunately, it was because he was being suspended for leaving the Everblades without permission.
A player can't just leave his team, even if it is a minor league team near Ft Myers. So he was benched by the organization for breach of contract. And a 46-year-old men's league goalie got to sit on the bench as a professional AHL-backup for one game. In February of 2014 the time formally put him on waivers and just like that his association with the team was over.
Helenius is a very good European goalie. Unfortunately, those skills never fully transitioned to the North American game. He is also a cautionary tale for teams and players. For teams, having too many prospects (especially goalies) is never a bad thing. For players, no matter how talented, if the mental game is no there, then the NHL dream can disappear in a heartbeat.
Does he have any Lightning cards?
Do I own any?
Previous entries in this series: