Transition to Forward Pays Dividends for Oksanen, BU
By Pat O’Rourke
BU News Service
Ahti Oksanen hadn’t skated at the forward position since he 10 years old. And when David Quinn decided to move the Finnish defenseman up to left wing, it was initially met with resistance.
“He didn’t react with a huge smile,” said Quinn. “There was definitely some reluctance on his part. I had to do some convincing and arm twisting.”
Oksanen was coming off a strong sophomore season for a BU team that won just 10 games. Putting up 24 points in 35 games, he tied for the team lead with 17 assists while ranking third on the team with 55 blocked shots.
“It was a huge change for me,” said Oksanen. “It practiced the whole summer as a [defenseman]. I still believed I’d play defense here at BU.”
But Quinn knew reinforcements needed to be made up front. Only two forwards had 20 or more points for the Terriers in 2013-14, when they finished 49th out of 59 Division I programs with 2.31 goals per game. Oksanen (24 points), Garrett Noonan (20), and Matt Grzelcyk (11) — all defensemen — accounted for more than one-quarter of BU’s scoring output.
“We had a glaring need up front,” said Quinn, “and after coaching Ahti for a year, I thought all his strengths were going to be up front.”
The move up front paid dividends quickly. Placed on BU’s top line alongside Jack Eichel and Danny O’Regan, Oksanen scored four goals in a 12-1 drubbing of St. Thomas in an Oct. 4 exhibition game.
“I proceeded to just practice after that, just focus on playing forward,” said Oksanen. “Maybe the first five, 10 games I didn’t feel as comfortable, but then it started coming back.”
The turning point came on Jan. 9 in Wisconsin. With BU trailing, 2-1, after two periods, Quinn bumped Oksanen down to the second line in favor of Evan Rodrigues.
While Rodrigues has led the nation in scoring since joining Eichel and O’Regan, Oksanen’s season has taken off as well. Down 3-1 with two minutes to play, the junior scored two goals in the final 1:52 to force the tie. In 21 games since, Oksanen has 14-6–20 totals.
“I wasn’t too happy about [being bumped up to forward] in the beginning,” said Oksanen. “But thank God coach moved me to forward.”
As Quinn said, the move to left wing has allowed the 6-foot-3, 207-pound winger to play to his strengths. A strong, rugged player, Oksanen is ferocious on the walls, strong on the stick, and creates offense with his bull-in-a-china-shop mentality.
His wall work wasn’t more evident than in overtime of the Beanpot final against Northeastern, winning a puck battle off the half-wall to set up Rodrigues, who made the quick pass over to Grzelcyk, who then scored the game-winner to bring the silver chalice back to BU.
“I don’t know if anyone has a stronger set of hands or a stronger stick in college hockey,” said Quinn.
With Oksanen in the lineup, the Terriers have scored nearly four goals per game in 2014-15, an uptick of nearly two goals from last season. The Fin has been a key part of that attack, scoring 24 goals to tie Eichel for the team lead. In the first half of the season, he played a lead role on the left side of the nation’s best first line. In the second half he provided secondary scoring that has been an overlooked aspect of this team.
All transition that’s been so smooth despite such pushback.
“[Oksanen] went home to Finland and he called me again and said, ‘I’ve been practicing on defense all summer and I’d really like to play defense’,” said Quinn. “I said, well, Athi, you’re never going to play another second of defense at BU.”
“Twenty minutes into his forward career, he had four goals and he’s never looked back.”