The Nashville Predator’s announced Tuesday that they have signed former Virginia/Mountain Iron-Buhl goaltender Niclas Westerholm to a three-year, entry-level contract beginning in the 2018-2019 season.
Westerholm, a native of Helsinki, Finland, played in 28 games with the Blue Devils during the 2015-16 season as a foreign exchange student. More recently, Westerholm, 20, made his pro hockey debut earlier this season with SaiPa of the Finnish Elite League.
Reed Larson, Westerholm’s coach during his time with Virginia, recently discussed how monumental the Finn’s signing was for the Virginia program.
“It’s a really exciting time right now and it’s been kind of a surprise honestly,” Larson said Wednesday afternoon. “It’s not every day you get someone that played in your program signing an NHL contract. You have to go back to Matt Niskanen as the last time we had something like this.”
While the news may be exciting for Larson and Virginia, the former Devils head coach said it wasn’t a big surprise to Westerholm.
“He’s been busy playing junior hockey and a bit of pro hockey in Finland every since he went back home after our season. He was having a great season this year and someone in the NHL thought he was worth taking a chance on. So he’s worked towards this and he’s just excited to have an opportunity to come back to the states.”
According to Larson, the terms of Westerholm’s entry-level contract will move him between the Predators and their AHL affiliate, the Milwaukee Admirals.
“It’s a nice way for him to still develop while being a pro,” Larson said. “It’s easy to go between the farm team and the big show depending on where the organization needs you.”
On the surface, it’s easy to see why professional organizations are willing to give him looks. NHL goalies have been growing in size over time and Westerholm stands at an imposing 6-foot-4. Larson, however, says scouts see more than just a big body.
“He’s a really, really technical player,” Larson said. “When he was with us, you could tell he had some really good technical training from a young age. Everything he did in the net was robotic and his movements were very precise. You could say some of his movements were perfect due to the amount of repetition he’s had in the net.
“When he came to the U.S., you could tell he was used to a very strict regimen when it came to his training. He spent many hours beyond regular ice time working in the net. He eats, sleeps and breathes it all.”
The dedication Westerholm put forth clearly paid off. By securing his spot in the world’s premiere hockey league, Westerholm has officially set himself apart from the regular athlete, according to Larson.
“Goalies can be seen as a dime a dozen sometimes and the disparity between how many are out there and how many get taken is huge. When you break through as a goaltender, it really means a lot just because of how many goalies there are out there.”
With Westerholm’s decision to come to the states to play hockey, he took a slightly more unusual path to the pros than most other Scandinavian players take.
“It’s common in Scandinavia to stick with a club that takes you through all of the different levels of hockey until you go pro,” Larson said. “He played club hockey, went to Junior C, Junior B and Junior A and then Finnish pro. But he decided to interrupt that natural path for a year and play hockey in the states as a foreign exchange student. Playing as a member of a high school team is a big difference for a foreign player and we’re fortunate that he chose to come our way.”
While playing in the NHL is likely a dream come true for Westerholm, Larson says it’s somewhat of a similar feeling for himself as well.
“Just as a coach, seeing one of your players make it to the pros is something you dream of. You want the best for everyone you coach and it’s an awesome feeling when you see a player of your achieve his dream. It’s nothing for me to brag about, but I can just sit and think how awesome it is for him and it makes me smile.”