Three years ago, it seemed natural that he’d make it to the men’s national team, unless of course, he’d already be in the NHL.
But life’s never a straight line, and Vehvilainen has had his share of ups and down during his short career. Yes, he did win under-18 World Championship silver, and yes, he made the tournament All-Star Team. But he didn’t backstop Finland to the World Juniors gold medal, having lost his starter’s job to Kaapo Kahkönen early in the tournament. He was nominated for Rookie of the Year in the Finnish Liiga, but didn’t get drafted to the NHL.
The year after, when Finland defended their World Juniors title and Vehvilainen did get the starter’s job, the team made history by ending up in the relegation round and firing their coach mid-tournament, making it difficult to analyze Vehvilainen’s strong numbers. His save percentage was 93.1 and GAA 1.51, but the quality of competition was weaker.
At the NHL draft, he was passed over again.
In the fall of 2017, Vehvilainen left his hometown, Jyvaskyla, and the only team he had played for since he was a small boy, for Karpat Oulu. Last April, he got to hoist the Canada Bowl as Finnish league champion, amid mixed emotions as his father suddenly passed away during the season.
“Looking back it’s easy to see that a lot can happen in a year. I’ve grown mentally through experience. I’m a better goalie now, both physically and technically, and almost in every way,” Vehvilainen told IIHF.com in November.
“It can be hard for me to notice the changes, but having seen some old games I can tell that I move better in the net now, my foundation is better, thanks to the help of our goalie coach Ari Hilli,” he added.
Hilli was also important for Vehvilainen last spring when the goalie’s father passed. Vehvilainen and Hilli spent hours just talking, and not about hockey.
When Karpat won their seventh Finnish championship since 2000, the 21-year-old posted a 93.3 save percentage and a league-best 1.53 GAA. He also recorded three shutouts, two of them in the final. When captain Lasse Kukkonen was called to receive the championship trophy, he invited Vehvilainen to join him and the two hoisted the trophy together.
“Winning the title gave me a confidence boost. It proved that I was good enough. Nothing comes for free, I’ve worked hard, and it was nice to be rewarded for it,” he said.
“It’s a cliché but my secret is simply hard work.”
Anybody still thinking Vehvilainen’s good playoff run was a fluke has been proven wrong by his strong play this season. Vehvilainen tops Liiga’s goalie statistics practically in every category. His 93.27 save percentage and 1.58 GAA was best in the league. A total of 25 wins in 38 games, including six shutouts, has cemented him as the top goaltender in the league going into the playoffs.
“Well, now that’s happened and I do my best every day to get better and that’s all I can do. The rest is in other people’s hands,” he says matter-of-factly.
Vehvilainen is still only 21, and he’s in no hurry. While he may have had a reputation of somebody who couldn’t handle the pressure, he suddenly sounds mature for his age.
“Who knows where I’ll be in a year, but I hope to be a better goalie and a person. I’d love to get a chance to play in North America, but there’s no rush, I’m still young, and the best goalies are usually at least in their mid-20s,” he says.
“If I could go back in time, I’d change many things. When I played for Jyp, I was young and while the will was there, I do things in another way. But I’m happy with my career path. What’s important is that I’ve been able to learn new things all the time,” he says.
He’s only getting started.