Ottawa Senators Top 25 Under 25, #20: Leevi Meriläinen

We launch the second week of T25U25 with yet another off-the-board pick who’s looking promising

#20: Leevi Meriläinen (Reader Rank: 21, Last year: 22)

The 2020 3rd-round pick moves up two spots in our rankings from last year. I wonder if it’s possible he would’ve moved up even more if we’d done the voting last week, when he was leading Finland at the World Juniors. It’s also possible that losing the starting job would’ve dropped him down the standings. Very few things are as volatile as prospect rankings. Everyone is always just one highlight away.

It’s amazing to think back on Meriläinen’s entry to the organization. In 2020, we were mostly stunned to see the Sens select a goalie who wasn’t listed on any of the 50 lists that went into Colin’s consolidated draft rankings. He had a .908 save percentage for Kärpät’s U20 team prior the draft, and followed that up with a .934 for the same team the following year. He entered the OHL the next season, backstopping the Kingston Frontenacs to the final playoff spot in the Eastern Conference. He then was instrumental in Kingston stunning the heavily-favoured Oshawa Generals, defeating them in 6 games, before falling in 5 games to the North Bay Battalion in the second round. Despite his .891 regular season and .888 playoff save percentages, he was strong enough to get the call for Finland at the replacement 2022 World Juniors, where he was the presumed starter. His questionable performance did mean he split time with Juha Jatkola, and in particular didn’t get to play the semifinals or finals.

Once he’s on the ice, we’ve seen him shine in shootouts and breakaways; he seems unflappable in these high pressure situations. He tracks the puck well, and his lateral mobility powers some stellar split second saves. Here a couple example from the World Juniors, as well as one from the end of the OHL season:

You can see his strengths even more clearly in this highlight package from a midseason win over the Generals. Meriläinen never loses sight of the puck, is able to make the positional saves, and has the athleticism to scramble and make the big save when necessary.

So what comes next for the now-20 year old? He’s signed on to return to the Finnish Liiga to play for Kärpät this campaign. Kärpät looks to have a very young platoon next season, with fellow-2002 birthday (and Penguins prospect) Joel Blomqvist in net, as well as 18-year-old Kraken prospect Niklas Kokko who will likely be loaned to the U20 team to start the year. Kärpät finished 6th in the standings last year, meaning they got to advance straight to the quarterfinals, where they fell in seven to Ilves. This year, their ambitions  are likely even higher, and so it remains to be seen what will happen with the Finnish netminder. If he has a great season, he could see himself coming over the AHL. If he stumbles out of the gate, he may become a hardly-used backup and end up spending a lot more time in Finland. Either way, he’s probably the second-highest goalie prospect in the system (behind Mads Søgaard), and with a somewhat thin pipeline, will likely get every chance to become an NHL goalie with the Sens if he seizes his opportunity in the next few seasons.

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