Long Read: Sweet 16 – The Top 16 Finnish Prospects for the 2019 NHL Draft

Lassi Alanen

2019-06-10

 

I base these rankings on many live viewings and comprehensive video scouting. I’ve seen every player who played in Finland this season live (except for the top-ranked player), a big chunk of them many times.

I value hockey IQ, skill and skating the most, in that order. The reasoning behind being that hockey sense is generally the hardest to improve and while skating flaws aren’t easy to fix, I think skill is even harder to teach for the most part. Since there are quite significant gaps between some of the players, especially at the top, positional differences don’t matter much but I tend to prefer forwards to defencemen since they are easier to project. The abilities mentioned above are the most important for both positions. I like players with high upside and at least some tools that are particularly noteworthy. Most importantly, it is my personal rankings and not reflective of what I think will happen in the actual draft.

This crop of Finns is very good. We will very likely see 20+ Finnish players going in the draft and 25 is not an impossible number to reach either. While there aren’t as many 1st round caliber talents than in 2017, we have, in my opinion, the best Finnish prospect since 2013 and lots of quality players for rounds 2–4.

It might take some time to load the whole article, but I hope that the clips included are worth it.

 

  1. Kaapo Kakko – LW – TPS (Liiga) – Feb 13, 2001 – 6-foot-2 – 190 pounds

The top player on my rankings hasn’t changed from the time I put my first 2019 list together last May. It has never been even close. Kakko had an excellent campaign in 2017–2018, putting up 55 points in 38 games with TPS’ U20 team before looking dominant at the U18 Worlds, forming one of the best lines of the tournament together with Jesperi Kotkaniemi and Niklas Nordgren. This season, Kakko broke the Liiga record for most goals in a season by a U18 player, a mark previously held by Aleksander Barkov. His 33 points in 45 games are third-most by a U18 player in Liiga history. At the U20 Worlds, he scored the golden goal against the USA in the finals and was excellent for the whole tournament.

Kakko reminds me of last year’s second overall selection Andrei Svechnikov in that they both are very well-rounded prospects. It is hard to find a clear weakness in Kakko’s game because even his lesser hyped qualities are still easily above-average.

To me, Kakko’s most notable qualities are his instincts and puck skills. Despite scoring more goals than he had assists this season, he was excellent at setting up his teammates for scoring chances.

This clip below is ridiculous for so many reasons. First of all, the pass reception is just amazing, as he receives the puck from mid-air while holding his stick with only one hand. Then beats the opposing defenceman in 1 on 1 situation by using his lightning-fast hands and skating technique. Even though the play doesn’t result in anything other than controlled zone entry, it is a solid demonstration of Kakko’s skill level. He pulled off these kinds of plays all season long, playing against professionals in the top men’s league.

If there is one weakness in Kakko’s game, it is his skating. His speed is not particularly great, especially compared to an elite speedster like Jack Hughes. The main question is how much it will impact him at the NHL level. Aside from straight-line speed, Kakko’s skating is actually pretty good. His lateral movement, first few steps, and edge work all get a good grade. He is nearly unstoppable when he has the puck in corners due to his elusiveness and puck protection. He will be a monster at cycling the puck down low.

In the clip below, Kakko shows pretty quick acceleration after receiving a pass (again with one hand. Kakko’s pass receiving skills are just nuts), protects the puck well and shows amazing balance, gliding on a single leg, controlling the puck and deking the goalie and using his reach to finish. The whole sequence is another masterpiece. And the defenceman he beats in the clip? Brandon Montour, a top-four defenceman in the NHL.

To me, Kakko is the best Finnish prospect I have watched since starting to evaluate players more seriously in 2016, and many people share this notion claiming that he is the best talent Finland has produced since Barkov. He has a wide array of tools and very few flaws. He has proven himself playing against men both at the Liiga level and in international competition. Kakko is the safest pick in the entire draft and his radical improvement over the past two seasons makes me believe that ceiling is also very high.

Hughes started the season as the clear-cut top prospect, but Kakko’s improvement and impressive performances at every level have closed the gap entirely for me. Honestly, for me, it is a coin flip between these two at the moment and you can make a very strong argument for Kakko as the best prospect in the entire draft. While Hughes has speed and skating prowess Kakko does not, the 6-2 winger has dominated against men (recently at the men’s world championships) with both his skill and his physicality, which is something Hughes has not yet done. No matter which one the New Jersey Devils end up selecting in June, they’ll be getting a potential superstar talent to their roster.

 

  1. Ville Heinola – D – Lukko (Liiga) – Mar 02, 2001 – 5-foot-11 – 181 pounds

Unlike Kakko, Heinola was not considered a top prospect in his position until this season. Sure, he had looked very good at the U20 level as a 16-year-old, but players like Anttoni Honka, Lassi Thomson, and Mikko Kokkonen were ahead of him in every pre-season ranking. FinnProspects had Heinola ranked at #10 in August, but by January, he had jumped all the way to third. Heinola started the season with Lukko’s U20 team and after looking dominant, he quickly got promoted to the Liiga team. He recorded three goals and 18 points in 41 games with regular season and playoffs combined and played in five games at the U20 Worlds before a knee injury which kept him sidelined for a month.

I wouldn’t describe Heinola as a dynamic or a skilled offensive defenceman. He has some offensive upside, but I think that label fits Honka more. He is not a shutdown defenceman, either. I would say Kokkonen is defensively better compared to Heinola. The thing that makes Heinola so intriguing is his multi-dimensional, versatile toolkit. He is pretty good at everything, although he might not be great at any single aspect.

The notion that Heinola is not dynamic offensively doesn’t mean he can’t make plays like in the clip below. He reads and intercepts a pass at neutral zone (something I’ve seen him do regularly) and quickly translates from defense to offense, creating a zone entry in the process. He looks for a pass, but doesn’t find it and instead accelerates to beat the defender. When the second defender (wearing #6) makes a mistake by failing to cover for his man, Heinola identifies this quickly and the pass results in a goal.

When he got called up to play for Lukko’s Liiga team, Heinola had some problems early with picking his spots to do things like these, but by the end of the season, he didn’t many mistakes in transitions or in the offensive zone. At the U18 Worlds, he was easily Finland’s best blueliner (as most other defenders on that team struggled a lot) and a big reason for that was his improved decision-making.

Heinola’s speed and first few steps are not on the level of some of the other defenders expected to go in the same range, but his footwork can be pretty impressive at times. He is good at evading pressure and his movement can be very deceptive. His puck skills are overall good and they are well synced with his feet, a factor which makes him solid at quarterbacking a power play.

In the offensive zone and on the power play, Heinola is more of a passer than a shooter (his wrist shot has improved and is pretty accurate, even though the wind-up is pretty long). I haven’t seen high-end vision, but he creates space for himself well, which ends up regularly opening good passing lanes to use. I have also been impressed with his usage of the backhand pass while exiting the zone. It is not given that a defender trusts his skill and successfully uses the backhand pass that often.

In the defensive zone, Heinola is good at the basics. He closes and controls the gap, positions himself well and ties up the opposing forwards. With the puck, he mixes slow, more patient exits with quicker plays, but defensively he sometimes has problems with the pace. Turns out I’m not alone with this notion, as Mitch Brown also identified the slow-paced defending as a problem in his great article.

Overall, I think Heinola’s well-versed style and skill set makes him a very potential top 4 defenceman in the NHL with a second PP upside. He is not elite or even high-end in any single aspect, but projects as a modern puck-moving blueliner. I would not be shocked if his name was called before the 20th pick.

 

  1. Patrik Puistola – LW – LeKi (Mestis) – Jan 11, 2001 – 6-foot-0 – 174 pounds

Puistola’s season has been nothing sort of spectacular. After dominating the U20 circuit for a while, he played a handful of games on Tappara’s Liiga team but didn’t receive proper minutes or role (averaging south of eight minutes in 16 games). It was in Mestis (second men’s tier below Liiga) where Puistola made his most impressive mark, breaking U18 records by scoring 15 goals and 26 points in only 22 games with LeKi. He was among the best Finnish players at the U18 Worlds, too, putting up team-high five goals in five games.

What makes Puistola so intriguing as a prospect is his skill. His hands are among the best in the entire draft class, and these three clips below are all great demonstrations of that.

Puistola is comparable to a player like Hughes in that they both attempt a lot of different moves and dekes. Some of them inevitable fail, but the fact that a significant percentage of them work makes that style work in the long run. Toe drags, between-the-legs dekes and quick forehand to backhand moves are all prominent features in Puistola’s game, which makes him both dangerous and extremely fun to watch.

Here are three more clips of Puistola creating scoring chances by stickhandling the opposing players. These three instances are all from the same game, and to save some time, I left a couple of other sequences out.

While he often got away attempting difficult stuff regularly at the U20 level, Puistola refined his style to succeed in Mestis. He still pulled off nice moves here and there but was forced to play a lot more without the puck and find openings using his hockey sense. Puistola has clearly a nose for the net and often recognizes opportunities faster than his peers.

Here is a clip where he reads the situation perfectly, separates himself and gets a breakaway opportunity (which he buries with a beautiful backhand five-hole move). While sometimes this can seem cheating on defensive responsibilities, Puistola is quick at finding other openings as well.

He also happens to have a very good, accurate release and a solid one-timer. His shot combined with his instincts were the main reason he was able to shatter Mestis record, scoring at a staggering 0,6 goals-per-game rate (playoffs included). Puistola’s playmaking is underrated, as he also creates a lot for his linemates.

The main thing preventing Puistola for being a bonafide top 20 pick is his skating. His stride could use some work, and his top speed and acceleration are both above-average, but not strengths. I’m confident that Puistola’s defensive game will develop due to his otherwise great instincts (that is not to say that he is bad defensively, his other skills are just more developed. He killed penalties regularly with every team this season).

I see Puistola as a first round talent and have him somewhere around 25-30 range. Based on other lists, he could fall to the second round, where he would be a great value pick considering that the upside is high (although he could rise in consensus rankings due to strong U18 Worlds).

  1. Lassi Thomson – D – Kelowna Rockets (WHL) – Sep 24, 2000 – 6-foot-0 – 186 pounds

After a good U17 season with Ilves’ U20 team, Thomson made the decision to move to North-America for his draft-eligible season. He played for a pretty weak Kelowna Rockets squad but put up great numbers scoring 17 goals (second-most out of any U19 defenceman in the WHL) and 41 points (second-most out of any draft-eligible defenceman in the WHL) in 63 regular season games. I was very surprised to see him get cut from the World Juniors team and still to this date think he would have been more effective than some of the players on that team.

Thomson’s biggest strengths are on the offensive side of things. He has worked on his skating a lot for the past few years and you could argue it’s actually his biggest asset right now. He has powerful stride and very good top speed, and his acceleration has also improved a lot. Thomson’s skating is the biggest single factor that allowed him to make plays like this last season.

Thomson’s second big strength is his powerful shot. It was no accident that a big portion of his points last season were goals, as this is a trend that has been going on for a few years (in 2017-2018, 12 out of Thomson’s 27 points were goals and in 2016-2017, the equivalent numbers were 9 and 20). His wrist shot and slap shot have both a lot of power behind them and his one-timer on the power play proved to be very effective. He is easily the most dangerous shooter out of the blueliners on this list. In the clip below, you can see Thomson utilize both his skating and his shot for a great goal.

Thomson still has some work to do in the defensive zone. He likes to play physically, but that can lead to him getting out of position. Sometimes he can also forget his assignments. Those are issues that can be fixed, so I’m confident that Thomson will become a better two-way player in the near future (he is already decent and ahead of players like Anttoni Honka). Thomson can also be a bit one-dimensional and he hasn’t shown the same levels of playmaking prowess as Honka has for example. He is also one of the oldest players in the entire draft among the top prospects.

Thomson recently signed a two-year deal with his youth team Ilves, so he should be getting a pretty big role in Liiga next season. He will most likely slide to second round, but we could also see him go in the late first if a team is particularly interested in him (this draft is not as stacked with defenders as last year’s, which could lead to some surprising selections in the late first round if a team is in need of one).

 

  1. Tuukka Tieksola ̵