Welcome to the March edition of the Liiga report, where I will be going over players from Liiga/Mestis/Jr. A SM-liiga who have caught my attention lately. You can always follow me on Twitter at @lassialanen. Without further ado, let’s get started.
Kaapo Kakko, TPS
Kakko has been on fire for the past two months. After putting up six goals and eight points in eight games in February, he has kept his impressive production going in March by scoring three goals and adding two assists in six games. Kakko is currently tied with Aleksander Barkov for most goals by a U18 player in Liiga history. Only Barkov and Mikael Granlund have had more productive U18 seasons in Liiga history.
There is a solid chance that Kakko will debut with the men’s national team in the upcoming IIHF World Championship tournament, depending on how his Liiga squad will fare in the playoffs. The race for number one spot between him and Jack Hughes is now very close. Sportsnet’s Sam Cosentino was the first big name to have Kakko at the top of his list. I’m pretty confident that there will be others in the near future.
Ville Heinola, Lukko
Heinola has looked very good after returning to action after his knee injury, which he suffered at the World Juniors. There is a lot to like about his game, as he is very well-rounded for a defenceman who just turned 18. Heinola’s skating, hockey sense and skill get all good grades from me. He doesn’t have any standout skills but has the tools to become a modern puck-moving defenceman in the NHL.
Mikko Kokkonen, Jukurit
There is a lot of debate surrounding Kokkonen. His numbers from this season are really good. His 17 points in 55 games this season are the most by any U18 defenceman in 30 years. For example, Miro Heiskanen only put up 10 points in 37 games in his draft-eligible season with HIFK. I’m not saying that Kokkonen will be as good as Heiskanen in a year, but his production has been impressive nonetheless.
Kokkonen is very mature for his age and is the best defender out of all the Finnish draft-eligible players. His gap control is very good and he is difficult to beat in one-on-one situation. Kokkonen is only 5’11’’, but has already filled out his frame (190 pounds) and has the ability to compete physically against men. The big question is how much offensive upside he has. In my recent viewings, he has flashed good speed and some skill, but players like Heinola and Anttoni Honka are widely considered better offensively. I’ll be focusing on Kokkonen at the upcoming U18 Worlds.
Anttoni Honka, Jukurit
Honka was loaned from JYP to Kokkonen’s Jukurit in mid-February and has since then seen consistent usage in Liiga. He’s been averaging 18:38 minutes of ice time in 10 games with Jukurit compared to 13:52 minutes earlier this season with JYP. It is definitely good for Honka to be playing against men (he was with JYP’s U20 team before the loan), but the lack of progress in his game is pretty worrying to me. You could argue he looked better last season, when his possession numbers in Liiga were god-like and when he was awarded the best defenceman in the entire U20 league. He is still a second rounder in my books due to his upside, but long gone are the days when he was a top 15 pick in my pre-season rankings.
Henri Nikkanen, Jukurit
Nikkanen has been injured for a while now and only has played 25 domestic games this season between Liiga, Mestis and Junior A. From what I have heard, there is a decent chance he will play at the U18 Worlds, but it is hard to expect him to be in a peak form. He has not looked very good this season, but there is a world where his injury was already affecting him in fall. That’s why Nikkanen is a very difficult player to rank. His numbers were very promising last season and he has some very coveted qualities in that he is a 6’2’’ center who can skate very well. His hockey sense has been a red flag for me in the past, but if he falls to the third round, there is a chance he ends up being one of the biggest steals in the draft.
Tuukka Tieksola, Kärpät U20
Tieksola finished sixth in the Finnish U20 league scoring with 15 goals and 60 points in 51 games. He also made his Liiga debut with Kärpät, and in a less-stacked organization, he could very likely be a regular Liiga player. Tieksola continues to impress me with his offensive instincts and playmaking skills. He is great on the power play due to his vision and can drive offence at 5 on 5 as well. I really like his upside and currently, have him as a second rounder. He is another player I’m very interested to see in the U18 Worlds.
Leevi Aaltonen, KalPa U20
Aaltonen has not put up massive counting stats in the U20 league due to playing only 29 games, but his 1,24 points per game rank him third among the U18 skaters this season. Aaltonen continues to impress me due to his combination of speed and skill. I think he is the best skater among all the Finnish draft-eligibles and he is able to make plays in the offensive zone. I have not tracked KalPa, but I would think Aaltonen compares very well to other players in terms of his zone exit and entry numbers. At 5 foot 9, he is rather tiny, but I like him as a long-term prospect. I currently have him in the 60-75 range.