The Bridgeport Islanders defeated the Providence Bruins on Nov. 19 with a 3-1 victory that snapped a three-game losing streak. The big storyline was that the Islanders finally returned to the win column, a big sigh of relief and a sign that this team could climb out of last place in the Eastern Conference.
That feeling of relief was clear from forward Eetu Liukas, who helped fuel the victory by scoring his first goal at the American Hockey League (AHL) level. “It felt really good. It took a while but it feels good” Liukas said postgame with a sense that the monkey was off his back and now, his season along with the Islanders, who are 5-9-1, can rebound.
Liukas found the back of the net off a one-timer from the faceoff circle that gave the Islanders a 2-0 lead. The former fifth-round selection from the 2021 NHL Entry Draft is playing his first season in the AHL after signing with the team this offseason and hasn’t had a great start to the season. “The game is faster and there’s less time to think,” Liukas mentioned after the game when discussing the differences between the game in Finland, his home country, and the AHL. The speed and skill of the game have stifled him through 12 games, resulting in one point thus far.
That said, at 21 years old, Liukas is still developing and has a higher upside than most skaters in the Islanders’ farm system. He is already playing a significant defensive and checking role on the roster and the expectation is that he’ll add more offense to his game in the coming weeks.
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Liukas is looking to join a list of talented Finnish players in the NHL that includes Aleksander Barkov, Mikko Rantanen, and Sebastian Aho, all of whom the young forward can look to emulate to become a pro-level player. At 6-foot-3 and weighing 205 pounds, he’s a bigger-bodied forward who is already using his size to his advantage and some skaters in the NHL share a handful of the skillsets he looks to master with the Islanders this season.
It’s a bit of a reach to say that Liukas can turn into another Rantanen, who is one of the best skaters in the NHL. Rantanen has 231 goals and 305 career assists and impacts the game as a playmaker, a fast skater, a shooter, and on the defensive end of the ice. In recent seasons, he’s proven why he’s one of the best scorers with a 55-goal season in 2022-23 and leading the Colorado Avalanche to a Stanley Cup title in 2022. It’s unlikely Liukas, or any prospect for that matter will reach this level.
While the accolades and accomplishments are far-fetched, the intangibles aren’t. Luikas has similar measurements to Rantanen and has a great shot from the wing position. The first question for Liukas is if he’ll generate more shots on the net, something he noted he has to do more after the game against the Bruins. Likewise, he’ll look to improve on the other offensive skillsets that Rantanen has used to his advantage, notably finding shooting lanes and becoming a playmaker in the offensive zone.
This season is a learning experience for Liukas and a prime opportunity for him to develop those other skills. Rantanen is one of the best skaters to come from Finland and has paved the way for other skaters from overseas to follow. For Liukas, the hope is he can round out his game and along with being a hard-hitter, emerge as one of the team’s best scorers by season’s end as well. Rantanen is the player the Islanders prospect will become if everything goes right but other skaters are realistic targets, starting with another Finnish forward known for his defense.
The New Jersey Devils became contenders shortly after they acquired Erik Haula, who not only rounded out the forward unit but changed the culture. He added a veteran presence to a young roster but more importantly, became the checking forward that the Devils needed. The team had a lot of talent to leap to the top of the Eastern Conference but Haula helped them win low-scoring and slower games as well and ultimately, allowed them to go 52-22-8 in his first season with the team.
Haula is the defense-first forward that Liukas can become in the NHL. He’s already made his impact on the wing and along the boards from a defensive standpoint and playing on teams with speed and skill in the top six, he can be the player that balances out a forward unit. Liukas has to improve his offensive skills, notably his puck handling and scoring to emulate Haula, who has scored 10 goals or more in six seasons. That said, his two-way presence will go a long way, especially with the Islanders valuing players who can impact the game on both ends of the ice.
Hudson Fasching isn’t the player that comes to mind when thinking of Liukas and probably isn’t the career type he’d want to have either. Fasching is an NHL journeyman who played on three teams in the span of four seasons. However, he’s been a pleasant surprise for the New York Islanders since he joined the team in the middle of the 2022-23 season and has been one of their best two-way players on the wing. Last season, he had 1.1 defensive point shares, 22 blocked shots, and 45 hits while also contributing 10 goals and nine assists to the offense, allowing him to sign a new contract in the 2022 offseason.
Along with sharing similar measurements, Liukas plays a similar role at the AHL level as Fasching does with the Islanders. In the upcoming years, he can develop into a depth winger and like Fasching, be one of the skaters in line to eventually replace the veteran fourth-line forwards on the Islanders. Cal Clutterbuck and Matt Martin are playing in the final seasons of their contracts and general manager (GM) Lou Lamoriello will look for replacements who can make a difference with the forecheck. If Liukas continues to improve, Lamoriello won’t need to look far to find a younger replacement.
Liukas Is Ready For The AHL Game
While Liukas has struggled as he’s adjusting to the AHL game, now that the first goal is out of the way, the production looks to be there. His shot is going to make him a dynamic scorer for the Islanders and his skill set already fits in with the AHL game compared to the overseas one. In Europe, the rinks are bigger and there’s more time and space to operate, allowing scorers, specifically smaller skaters, to thrive. “I like it better here,” Liukas stated as he has more time to react and just play the game instead of overthinking the play.
Additionally, the tighter spaces allow him to thrive as a forechecking forward, something he’s done well throughout this season. The AHL is an adjustment for any skater and the speed is something that many prospects aren’t prepared for, especially the north-south aspect. However, Liukas is ready to become a dynamic skater at the AHL level and after scoring his first goal in the recent 3-1 victory, his career is ready to take off.