Kasimir Kaskisuo’s unusual path leads to Toronto

While many squads are still jockeying for playoff positions, the Canucks, Canadiens and Senators were happy to help foil the plans of a few teams heading to the post-season.

Long before the Toronto Maple Leafs took a chance on Kasimir Kaskisuo, the once-overlooked Finnish goaltender made a bet on himself.

Coming up through the Jokerit system in Helsinki, he managed to spend three seasons on the under-20 team. But each year he was the backup, playing behind Frans Tuohimaa (drafted 182nd by Edmonton in 2011), Joonas Korpisalo (drafted 62nd overall by Columbus) and Kevin Lankinen (currently playing for HIFK Helsinki).

“I felt like I was stuck a little bit there,” said Kaskisuo.

So in 2013 he started down a road not too often travelled by Finnish players, especially goaltenders, and moved to Minnesota to play in the North American Hockey League.

It was something of a leap of faith. At that point Kaskisuo was just turning 20 years old and wasn’t yet completely sure if he had what it took to pursue a career as a professional hockey player.

Midway through that season with the NAHL’s Minnesota Wilderness, with whom he posted a .944 save percentage in 32 appearances, he started to believe. Kaskisuo wound up committing to the University of Minnesota Duluth, where he caught the attention of the Maple Leafs, which led to him being tabbed for his first American Hockey League start on Friday night.

That’s quite a climb.

Last weekend he was leading the Bulldogs into the NCAA tournament. Two days after a 3-2 loss to Boston College, he signed a two-year entry-level contract with Toronto and joined the Marlies for the remainder of this season on an amateur tryout.

“I feel like this is where I need to be … to take the next step for my career,” said Kaskisuo.

He immediately becomes a prospect of great interest in the Leafs organization. There is a dearth of goaltenders in the system and management was aggressive in its pursuit of the 22-year-old.

Kaskisuo will likely make a couple appearances for the Marlies down the stretch, starting with Friday’s game in Syracuse, but coach Sheldon Keefe is cautious with his expectations.

“He’s a big guy, covers a lot of net, seems to move well,” said Keefe. “We’ll get him comfortable; there’s a lot of new stuff going on that’s going to take him a little bit of time to adjust to it.”

Should Kaskisuo manage to get a win for the Marlies, the team would match an AHL record by having eight different goaltenders register a victory this season.

That tells the story of an unusual year.

It also speaks to the opportunity that exists within an organization where Antoine Bibeau and Jonathan Bernier are the only other goalies signed through next season. Garret Sparks, a restricted free agent this summer, is expected to be back as well.

Even though there is a calculated risk made with every undrafted NCAA free agent, it’s telling that the Leafs gave Kaskisuo the maximum rookie salary of $925,000 – including a $92,500 signing bonus each year – plus up to $850,000 in performance bonuses.

They obviously think highly of the six-foot-three Finn who started virtually every game in his two seasons at UMD.

A number of people inside the organization had a chance to see him with prospects Tony Cameranesi and Dominic Toninato also at the school, and Kaskisuo said the Leafs showed the most interest among the several NHL teams that spoke with his advisor/agent.

“It was an easy decision to come here (because of) what they offered and how bad they wanted me here and how often they were calling,” he said.

It was a nice feeling after previously going undrafted and having to move across the ocean to find playing time – something that is starting to become more common for Finns to do.

He grew up idolizing Kari Lehtonen, another Jokerit-trained goalie, and is now one step closer to living out his childhood dream. For as long as he can remember, he wanted to play net.

“I’ve seen videos when I started skating as a two-year-old and we were playing a game,” said Kaskisuo. “I was stuck between (the posts), I didn’t want to leave the front of the net.

“It comes from all of the way back then.”

No wonder he made such a seamless jump to North America and took his game to new heights.

Even though the sleepy town he first moved to in Minnesota didn’t resemble the Helsinki suburb where he was raised, Kaskisuo didn’t experience any homesickness.

“Not at all actually,” he said. “My mom probably doesn’t want to hear that, but it was just fun and exciting. There was a lot of hockey and being busy with that. Of course when hockey goes well you really don’t care where you are. Little small-town Cloquet in north Minnesota, so not a lot to do there, but everything was perfect.

“When hockey was going well it was exciting to be in a new place.”

And so he arrives in Toronto, ready to begin anew again.

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