Growing in stature
by Henrik Manninen|25 JAN 2019
Lithuanian U20 national team goaltender Laurynas Lubys listens to the anthem after a win.
photo: Hendrik Soots
Having picked up the game just over eight years ago, the growing reputation of Lithuania's 18-year-old netminder Laurynas Lubys now matches his ambition. 

He has already broken national records in save percentage for Lithuania at both U18 and U20 World Championships. Not a bad feat considering the goalie he surpassed is none other than Lithuania's hockey's poster boy, Mantas Armalis of one of Sweden’s top clubs, Skelleftea AIK.

It was Lubys's performance at international level last season that caught one's eye. Having then just turned 17 he stood out at the 2018 IIHF Ice Hockey U20 World Championship Division I Group B. Despite Lithuania being relegated, Lubys was still top of the standings with a recorded save percentage of 95.29% and GAA of 1.29. He followed it up a few months later as the leading goalie in stats when Lithuania finished second in the 2018 IIHF U18 World Championships Division II Group A.

His rich vein of form has continued ever since. Lubys's performances for Lithuania once again impressed last week as Lithuania won silver at the 2019 IIHF Ice Hockey U20 World Championship Division II Group A in the Estonian capital of Tallinn. Voted Best Goaltender of the Tournament, the netminder plying his trade for SaiPa Lappeenranta's U20 team in Finland's top junior division has highly set goals for his fledgling career. 

“My ambition is to play in Liiga or Mestis in Finland. If I manage to play there and everything goes well, I would like to play in the KHL, one of the European leagues and the dream would be to one day play in the NHL,” said Lubys, who mentions Sergei Bobrovski and Juuse Saros as two of his role models as a goalie.

“I need to improve reading the game, my positioning, but there are so many other things I need to improve in order to play at pro level. I am a small goalie and when being small in the NHL, there is not much time. You have to be good at everything to play at a high level, so I try hard to practise it all,” said Lubys, who turned 18 last month and currently stands at 178 cm or 5 feet 8 inches.

Having played both basketball and football as a kid, he picked up hockey by pure coincidence. Lubys was visiting a hockey-playing friend when the call came from the local hockey coach to inquire whether Lubys's friend knew someone who might be interested in being a goalie. Lubys decided to have a go the next day and have since not looked back.

Having quickly outgrown his peers in terms of ability, he was only 14 when he moved abroad to continue his development in Liepaja, a Latvian port city with a strong pedigree for developing players not far from the border to Lithuania.

“I got a lot of playing time there and the trust in myself grew. I really developed in Latvia working together with goalie coach Reinis Repss, who helped me a lot and who I still send clips to analyze my games,” said Lubys.

With a relentless drive to push ahead in his development, Lubys felt time was right to take the next step after two years in Latvia. 

“I wanted to something more professional. We had played in an international tournament in Riga and I did well and I was hoping to get some offers but got none. Instead, I searched for try-outs by myself. SaiPa Lappeenranta was one of the teams who were interested. I went there on a try-out and they took me on,” he said, and is now in his third season in south-eastern Finland. 

“When it comes to hockey, the level is much higher in Finland. More speed, shots are much harder, drills are better and they are more professional in their work with goalies. Off ice the culture in Finland is very different, but I went there to play hockey. I soon got to know the guys you play together with, so I think I've managed quite well so far,” he said.

Lithuania has since their return to the World Championship play as an independent nation been privileged to rely on solid goaltending. Arunas Aleinikovas was a stalwart during 13 World Championship tournaments between 1995-2007, with the highlight being at the 2006 IIHF World Championship Division I when a defeat to Austria meant Lithuania missed out on promotion to the top division. Aleinikovas was eventually followed by Armalis, who became a starter for Lithuania at senior World Championship level as an 18-year-old and has been untouchable as first choice ever since. Both of them were a great source of inspiration for Lubys.

“Aleinikovas is now also the national team goalie coach and a really good guy. He has been watching me since I was young and always helped me. Armalis, of course, is a super star in our national team and for Lithuanian hockey. So it is really interesting to talk to him and try and learn from him,” he said.

Having been backup for the senior national team at the 2017 and 2018 Baltic Challenge Cups where he also got his senior national team debut, the question is now when Lubys will be aiming to try and dethrone Armalis from his starting berth. Lubys meets the remark with a grin and an answer which bodes well for the continuation of the fine goaltending tradition in Lithuania.

“I don't know, but I will try to do it as soon as I can. Maybe when I play in the NHL or so,” said Lubys.