Otto Koivula Turning Heads in First AHL Season
By Justin Cait and Alan Fuehring / Bridgeport Sound Tigers
Otto Koivula knew he was drafted by the New York Islanders before any of his friends or family found out.
On day two of the 2016 NHL Entry Draft, his family gathered around the television at their home in Nokia, Finland. Koivula was there too, but it was by scrolling through Twitter that he found out he was the 120th pick in the fourth round.
“Then like 10 seconds after that, everybody saw (on TV) and it was crazy,” Koivula said. “My siblings were so happy, and my parents were so happy. Just a great moment.”
Now more than two years removed from his draft day, Koivula is making an impression on the organization that chose him, however, it didn't come without some seasoning back in Finland first.
Koivula grew up playing the majority of his amateur hockey in Tampere, Finland – just under a 20 minute drive from Nokia. He skated for Ilves in the Jr. SM-Liiga, which is the SM-Liiga's (Finnish Elite League) youth hockey program.
If players find consistent success at the youth level in Finland, they have the opportunity to move up into the SM-Liiga and play for their parent team at the nation's highest level of hockey in their late-teenage years (similar to current Finnish superstars Mikko Rantanen with TPS and both Patrik Laine and Aleksander Barkov with Taparra.)
In the 2015-16 season, Koivula earned the same right and made his SM-Liiga debut for Ilves at the sprite age of 17.
“It's crazy to think that I played my first professional game when I was 17 years old,” Koivula added. “When I grew up, I watched every game in the Finnish pro league and it was so fun to play there with some of my idols.”
Since his debut, Koivula stayed in the league he grew up admiring for two full seasons and posted an impressive 57 points in 103 games as a teenager, good enough for second among all players born in 1998.
He also made two consecutive World Junior Championship appearances for Finland, skating alongside Springfield Thunderbirds center Henrik Borgstrom, Dallas Stars defenseman Miro Heiskanen and Calgary Flames defenseman Juuso Valimaki, just to name a few.
Following his last season with Ilves in 2017-18, Koivula made the 3,994-mile trip from Nokia to Long Island for his third New York Islanders development camp this past June, nearly three months after he agreed to terms on a three-year, entry-level deal with the club on Mar. 21.
Koivula stuck with the Islanders deep into training camp and suited up for one preseason game against the Philadelphia Flyers. He was loaned to Bridgeport to Sept. 22 to begin his North American career.
Now in his first season here, Koivula has secured a spot in the AHL and remained a consistent skater throughout his time with the Sound Tigers, playing left wing, right wing and even some center.
While Koivula has played in all but four of Bridgeport's 24 games this season, it took a few games before he began piling up points.
Defenseman Sebastian Aho, who made a similar transition last season, coming from the Swedish Elite League to North America at a young age, recognizes and understands the difficulties of adjusting to the different style of play.
“We're both used to having that extra second of space before play gets to you,” Aho said. “Here, it's more fast paced and whenever you get the puck, there's always going to be someone on you and shots are taken from everywhere.”
In Koivula's eighth game of the year, on Nov. 4, he scored his first AHL goal against the Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins by doing just as Aho said, shooting from anywhere. Koivula put his crafty set of hands on display, he shielded the puck with his rangy reach and snapped a wrist shot home from a position on the ice that goals are seldom scored from in the SM-Liiga.
Since then, Koivula has used his 6-foot-5, 190-pound frame and deceptive skill to his advantage.
Through 20 games, he has posted five goals and six assists for the Sound Tigers, highlighted by a two-goal performance last Sunday and a five-game point streak during November, in which he scored seven points.
The unique combination of size and skill has made it apparent that Koivula is indeed a heady prospect in the Islanders system.
“I think any time you can have a guy that big with the ability to create offense – he not only has slick hands, but he has great offensive vision,” Sound Tigers head coach Brent Thompson said. “I think he sees the ice very well, his hockey sense is good and he's adapting rather quickly to the North American style.”
Despite showcasing his upside and making a smooth transition in early parts of the season, Koivula knows the main aspect of his development will come through improvements in his skating abilities.
While Koivula's leggy stride already gives him a natural edge, his focal point of improvement this season comes through generating more power from his lower half in order to consistently match the fast pace of play in the AHL.
“He has that long reach with his stick and he can just protect the puck so well and is heavy in the corners, being a big guy,” Aho added. “He's pretty tough to get the puck from and if he continues to get stronger and get faster, he's going to become a great player.”
As many of his former World Junior teammates have found swift success at both the AHL and NHL levels, Koivula looks to do the same in the near future by building off of his promising start in Bridgeport.
“I want that,” Koivula said on continuing to positively progress in the AHL. “I just have to improve my skating every day and that's key for the season.”