Since Day One of his first season in North America, Joel Armia has been battling a hand injury. The Buffalo Sabres' 2011 first-round draft pick missed the opening stretch of the season after getting hurt in the pre-season. It took until mid-November for Armia to make his debut. It wasn't until after the American Hockey League All-Star break that the hand was 100 percent. Now that he's at full strength, the 20-year-old is starting to make progress in his all-around game.
On Wednesday night, the Amerks beat the Iowa Wild 3-2 in overtime at Blue Cross Arena. With under five minutes to play and trailing 2-1, center Kevin Porter chipped the puck to Armia, who flipped it off the goaltender and set up a game-tying rebound goal by Johan Larsson. The Amerks went on to win on a Larsson pass to set up Phil Varone.
With three assists in his last two games, Armia has five points in eight February games.
The Finnish forward's skill set is that of an offensive creator and goal scorer – and his skill has been evident from the start – but the Finnish forward's defensive effort, puck battles and backchecking have been at their best in the past two games.
“The biggest difference that we're seeing is that he is competing harder and a part of that he is healthy and he is harder on his stick,” head coach Chadd Cassidy said. “You see how many times he goes after pucks and he is coming out with it, whether there is one or two guys in there.
“He does a good job of using his body to stay over pucks and he's a big kid. He has a big frame and he's going to continue to get bigger. We have seen some really good things in the last couple of weeks here.”
While his game-tying assist was the standout play of the game, a shift midway through the third – with the Amerks trying to come back in the game – was the most impressive. Armia disrupted several attempts by the Wild to exit their zone, which eventually led to a shot for the Amerks.
“That is the hand getting better and feeling more confident on his stick not playing in pain all the time,” Cassidy said. “Hopefully that's the case. That is the way he has to play to be effective. He has to have his nose in there and he has to play hard and work for loose pucks.”
Armia is in a good spot to learn a two-way game. The Amerks have put together great group of two-way role models, some with NHL experience such as Kevin Porter and Mike Zigomanis. He is on a line with two of the harder working players on the team Dan Catenacci and Colton Gillies.
“Part of what hurt Joel earlier in the year, along with the injury, was the fact that he knew he was playing with good players....and he felt he had to get them the puck all the time,” Cassidy said.
The question that comes up with any first-round pick is: When will he be ready? That day seems pretty far away, even considering recent developments. Armia still has large leaps forward to take before he can play every night in the NHL. The young winger has not entirely adapted to a smaller ice surface where he has to let shots rip quicker and where he has to get to the front of the net to score. His skating ability is decent, but could use improvement and he needs to take huge steps in consistency. But it's all attainable.
-Chad Ruhwedel was a healthy scratch Wednesday. Cassidy said his play has simply not been good enough and he expects a bounce back
-Johan Larsson has been flat out awesome. He has 71 shots on goal in 29 games - a huge jump from his AHL time in Minnesota's system. He's up to 30 points and is +14
-Nathan Lieuwen played a solid game in net – again – stopping 18 of 20 shots
-The Amerks' top 2 pairs of Mark Pysyk-Brayden McNabb and Drew Bagnall-Rasmus Ristolainen are probably the best in the AHL. Shots are darn near impossible to come by for opponents.
-Phil Varone has clicked right back in after spending some time in the NHL. He's put up four points in his last two games
-Kevin Porter has been a presence on the Amerks' top line. He had four shots on net and had the second assist on the game-tying goal
-Rasmus Ristolainen played his best game of the year on Sunday, then followed it up with another tremendous performance. He and Bagnall work extremely well together and he's learning to balance offense and hitting with playing a simple game.