On Saturday, Kaapo Kakko scored his 21st goal of the season which moves him tied for first on the all-time list for under-18 players in the Finnish Liiga. Sasha Barkov played 10 more games in 2012-2013 when he had the same amount of goals. Kakko still has two games left in the season. Considering how hot he’s been lately, I’d bet on him breaking that record.
Kakko is more of a playmaker than a goal-scorer but he has a great shot, and he’s been using it more frequently after the World Juniors. He likely realized his teammates are unable to convert the scoring chances he creates for them, so he decided to start finishing them himself. Only Barkov and Mikael Granlund have scored more points than Kakko in their under-18 Liiga seasons.
I’ll try to find time for a full Kakko article over the next few weeks, so I’ll save my thoughts on him for that. I’ve received plenty of questions about Hughes vs Kakko, and also if he’s going to be a winger or a center in the NHL, so I’ll try to answer those questions in more detail there. Here’s Kakko’s goal number 21.
Speaking of prospects eligible for the 2019 NHL Draft, I hope you’ve noticed that we’ve added a ton of profiles for draft-eligible prospects over the past couple of months. In fact, our dedicated page for the upcoming draft is getting pretty stacked at this point as you can see from this screenshot.
23-year-old defenseman Oliwer Kaski has had an incredible season in the Finnish Liiga. He needs four more points in the final two games to break the all-time scoring record among defensemen. Kaski is an undrafted free agent who should get a lot of NHL contract offers after this season. He might need some time in the AHL but I wouldn’t be surprised if he plays in the NHL already next season.
If we compare him to last year’s free agents, I like him more than Joel Persson who was signed by the Oilers. They’re both offensive defensemen with a right-handed shot, and both have been putting up big numbers this season. Persson is about a year and a half older than Kaski, and both will be pushing for a spot on the NHL roster in the fall.
Even though some people connect size with defensive play, I would argue Buffalo signee Lawrence Pilut was considerably better defensively than Kaski despite being four inches smaller. But 6-foot-3 right-shot defensemen are coveted in the NHL, so someone is likely willing to look past Kaski’s defensive deficits and give him an opportunity to use his strengths at the NHL level.
Kaski is the European free agent generating the most buzz right now but don’t forget Russian winger Ilya Mikheyev. If he decides to cross the pond, he could jump straight to an NHL roster and play on the third line. The only real question is if he wants to sign an NHL contract or not. In the short-term, he can definitely earn more money by staying in the KHL.
Another interesting name you may have noticed among Liiga’s leading scorers is Florida’s second-rounder Aleksi Heponiemi who is currently ninth among all players. He’s likely taking home the rookie of the year award after the season (although Kakko is making a great push for it), and this may end up being his one and only season in the Finnish Liiga.
It’s a realistic possibility that Heponiemi needs another year of development before playing in the NHL because he still needs to add a lot of weight to his thin frame. But then again, being skinny hasn’t been hurting Elias Pettersson too badly. I’m not saying Heponiemi will be as good as Pettersson but there are definitely similarities between the two.
Heponiemi has spent most of this season playing wing. The only times he’s been used at center have been when his partner in crime Rasmus Kupari has been injured. Even though Pettersson also played mostly wing during his magical season in the SHL, I don’t see Heponiemi making the switch to middle at the NHL level like EP did. But sometimes Heponiemi makes plays that remind me of Pettersson.
Detroit’s seventh-round selection Otto Kivenmäki has been on fire lately. He started the season with three points in 21 games but since then he’s put up 12 points in 11 games. His team Ässät has had a horrible season as they’re dead last in the Liiga but Kivenmäki has been a bright spot on the team. He’s been a center in junior but has played mostly wing at the pro level. Because of his size (5-9, 146), it’s very likely he stays at wing for good. He’s been playing on their top line and getting very good ice time since the calendar flipped to 2019.
Montreal’s second-round pick Jesse Ylönen has also been hot lately with 18 points in his last 26 games. It’s good to remember that this is Ylönen’s first season at the Liiga level, so it’s understandable he needed some time to adjust early on. I wouldn’t be shocked if he pushed for a spot on Montreal’s roster as early as 2020-2021.
Columbus’ second-round pick Alexandre Texier has been really good all season long but especially so lately. He has 21 points in his last 22 games in the Liiga. He has already signed his NHL contract, and it’s very likely he plays in the AHL next season – and getting some NHL call-ups isn’t out of the question either. His Liiga season ends on March 14th, and his team isn’t going to the playoffs. It’s possible he jumps to the AHL after that.
I’ve really enjoyed watching him grow and develop over the past couple of years. He was such a raw prospect when he came to Finland but now he’s much bigger, stronger and faster. He’s also grown mentally a lot. His high-end skills are really starting to shine because of those things now.
Jokerit got eliminated from the KHL playoffs, and rumor has it that Kristian Vesalainen isn’t going back to Winnipeg this season even though he’s free to do that now. Vesalainen was benched for the early part of the final game, and only played a total of 6:28 after Jokerit had already given up on the game. He had just one point in six playoff games. All things considered, going to the KHL wasn’t a very good decision for Vesalainen.
UPDATE: It appears the rumors coming out of Russia were incorrect and Vesalainen is going back to the Manitoba Moose for the rest of this season.
One name for ultra-deep leagues is 19-year-old, 6-foot-5 goaltender Oskari Salminen. He went undrafted in his first try last summer even though he had a very good season in Jr. A SM-liiga. He has split this season between junior and the Liiga. Saturday’s Liiga game against Lukko may have been the best of his young career so far.
Lukko spent about half of the 3rd period on the power play with 3-4 minutes of that time at 5-on-3. Oskari Salminen was by far the biggest reason #KooKoo took the win. He made stops like this. #Liiga pic.twitter.com/SFzQc49s34— Jokke Nevalainen (@JokkeNevalainen) March 9, 2019
And that’s all for now, thanks for reading. Feel free to add comments below. Remember to follow me on Twitter @JokkeNevalainen.
- Prospect Ramblings: Kakko, Kaski, Heponiemi, Ylönen, Texier, Vesalainen & More (March 11)
- Prospect Deep Dive: Ville Heinola
- WHL Report - March 2019
- Liiga Report - Kakko, Heinola, Honka & More (March 2019)
- USHL Report - March 2019
- NCAA Report - Ryan Poehling (March 2019)
- SHL Report - March 2019
- DPR Episode 52: Junior Scoring Leaders, Shane Wright, and NCAA Free Agents