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College men's hockey: NHL's Maple Leafs sign UMD goaltender Kaskisuo

When Minnesota Duluth returns to the ice for the 2016-17 season, it will feature a starting goaltender who has never played an NCAA Division I hockey game.

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Kasimir Kaskisuo (33) of Minnesota Duluth blocks a shot on goal during a game against Miami (Ohio) at Amsoil Arena earlier this month. (Clint Austin / caustin@duluthnews.com)

When Minnesota Duluth returns to the ice for the 2016-17 season, it will feature a starting goaltender who has never played an NCAA Division I hockey game.

That’s because sophomore goalie Kasimir Kaskisuo chose Monday to forgo his final two years of NCAA eligibility and sign a two-year entry level contract with the Toronto Maple Leafs organization, effective for the 2016-17 and 2017-18 seasons.

Kaskisuo, 22, said he plans to join the Leafs’ top minor-league affiliate in the American Hockey League - the Toronto Marlies - this week on what is called an amateur tryout. He said he hopes to suit up and make his professional debut for the Marlies as early as this weekend and finish the year with the club.

“I feel like I’m ready,” Kaskisuo said of his decision to leave school early. “UMD has given me two awesome years and time to develop, but now I feel like the opportunity is there and it’s time to take the next step and develop even more at a higher level.

“It’s always tough to leave a team like this, especially how close of a group we were. But sometimes you just need to be selfish in a way. I’m not trying to say it as a bad way, but when the opportunity is there and you feel like you’re ready to go and think this is personally best for you, it would be really, really hard to say no to that. I feel like that’s the best move for me right now.”

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Kaskisuo posted a 1.92 goals-against average (10th nationally, second in NCHC) and .923 save percentage (22nd nationally, third in NCHC) this year, starting 39 of 40 games. His freshman year he started 36 of 40 games, posting a 2.30 GAA and .917 save percentage.

The Bulldogs’ season came to an end Saturday in Worcester, Mass., after a 3-2 loss to Boston College in the NCAA Northeast Regional final. Kaskisuo stopped 31 of 34 shots in the final and 36 of 37 shots the night before in a 2-1 double-overtime win over defending national champion Providence.

Bulldogs coach Scott Sandelin said he was somewhat surprised when Kaskisuo informed him Monday afternoon that he was signing with the Leafs.

“The way he played his freshman year, he gained a lot of attention,” Sandelin said. “Being a free agent he was in a great spot. He followed it up with another year and that’s why I’m not really surprised. You always hope to keep guys around a little bit longer but I’m happy for him and, hopefully, he does well.

“He was a lot more consistent this year from start to finish, in my opinion, and part of that is maturity and I think (volunteer goalie coach) Brant Nicklin did a good job with him as well. Those are all good signs if you’re moving on.”

Kaskisuo said he chose the Leafs over about 10 other teams he said he’d talked with this season because of the interest the team showed - especially late in the season - the rich history of the organization and the city itself. He also said the situation Toronto is in helps.

The Leafs are in complete rebuilding mode under first-year head coach Mike Babcock, team president Brendan Shanahan - both former Detroit Red Wings - and general manager Lou Lamoriello - who led the New Jersey Devils to three Stanley Cups as president and GM.

Lamoriello, a former hockey coach and athletic director at Providence College and Hockey East commissioner, told the Toronto Sun on Monday he wasn’t sure where Kaskisuo fit into the team’s plans until they saw him a pro environment.

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“Our scouting staff has been watching him and they like him,” Lamoriello told the Sun prior to the Leafs’ game Monday against Tampa Bay. “He made a decision to come out of school and we got involved.

“I’m a fan of getting anybody who can help us no matter where they’re from and what they’re doing. We had an opportunity to get this young man, and we did it.”

The Maple Leafs have 27-year-old Jonathan Bernier and 22-year-old Garret Sparks, while the Marlies possess 21-year-old Antoine Bibeau and 28-year-old Alex Stalock, the former UMD standout who recently was acquired via trade from the San Jose Sharks. Only Bernier and Bibeau are under contract for next season, though Sparks will be a restricted free agent after this season.

As of now, Kaskisuo is the only goaltender the Leafs have signed for 2017-18.

“Their goaltending situation and a chance to develop there is probably the best place I could find,” Kaskisuo said. “I would have developed a lot next year at UMD, but when this opportunity arrived I feel like I had to take it. I feel like I’d regret it if I didn’t.”

In addition to Kaskisuo leaving two years early, the Bulldogs are losing senior goaltender Matt McNeely, along with seven other seniors, assuming no one else decides to leave early.
“We’ll find out over the course of the week,” Sandelin said of other possible departures.

The Bulldogs return freshman Nick Deery of La Crosse, Wis., but he never saw action as the third-stringer this season. Deery was voted the Manitoba Junior Hockey League’s top goalie in 2014-15 with a 2.27 GAA and .922 save percentage in 47 games.

The Bulldogs also have Hunter Miska of North Branch, Minn., coming in as a 21-year-old freshman who played with the U.S. National Team Development Program from 2011-13, the Penticton Vees of the British Columbia Junior Hockey League from 2013-15 and Dubuque of the United States Hockey League this season.

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Miska, who signed a national letter of intent in November, has a 2.46 GAA and .915 save percentage in 41 games this year with the Saints. He led all BCHL goaltenders a year ago with a 1.88 GAA and .923 save percentage.

“It’d be nice to come back with a little more experience there, but it’s much the same as when we brought Kas in,” said Sandelin, who added later he plans on bringing in a third goalie. “He did a good job with the (North American Hockey League’s Minnesota) Wilderness, and Hunter has done a good job. He’s been a starter for three years since he left the development program. He’s played three years of juniors. Nick Deery was the same way.

“I feel good about our goaltending, there is no question. Obviously there is just no experience at this level.”

 

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