Prospect Ramblings: The Curious Case of Anttoni Honka

by Jokke Nevalainen on January 7, 2019

 

Prospects like Moritz Seider and Ville Heinola may seem controversial because North Americans don’t have a chance to watch them frequently, so it surprises people when Europeans rank them so highly. But Anttoni Honka is controversial even among people who scout him regularly. In fact, he may just be the most controversial player in the 2019 NHL Entry Draft.

 

Anttoni is the younger brother of Julius Honka who was drafted 14th overall by the Stars in 2014. There are some definite similarities between the two brothers. They’re both undersized right-handed shot defensemen with high-end offensive abilities but issues in their decision-making and defensive game.

 

Some scouts seem to be big fans of the younger Honka, ranking him comfortably in the top ten and not budging from that stance. Others have more doubts about his game and rank him in the second round. Some are saying he’s underrated whereas others think the opposite. Pretty much everyone can recognize his upside and see the talents he has but there are definitely varying opinions on his chances to reach that upside. What makes him so controversial? Let’s take a closer look at him as a player.

 

The first thing everyone should know about Anttoni is that he’s an amazing skater. As an undersized defenseman (he’s 5-foot-10), you need to be a good skater. But he’s not just good, he’s great. And I’m not just talking about his speed either. He has great acceleration, amazing ability to change pace, and unbelievable agility as he can twist and turn like most people can’t. That skating ability allows him to join the rush, and that’s something he loves to do. He will also happily lead a rush if needed.

 

Honka also has high-end puck-skills. He can make tape-to-tape breakout passes. He can make plays at high speed. He can slow down the game and create space with his puck-handling. He can make opposing players look foolish with his tricks and fakes in one-on-one situations. You want to give him the puck because he knows what to do with it. He’s a creative and dynamic player with great offensive vision.

 

He can also create offense with his shot. It’s not a huge bomb but he can find open lanes and get pucks to the net. Some of his shots go into the net – either directly or after being redirected by someone – and many others create good rebounds. I wouldn’t classify his shot as a huge strength but it’s not a weakness either.

 

So those are the good things. The bad things are that he takes too many risks to create offense, loses too many puck-battles, and his defensive ability is questionable at best. He’s not just thinking offense first, he’s only thinking about offense in every situation. Often times those risks pay off but many times they also end up being costly mistakes. And when he turns the puck over, he’s not really capable of making big defensive plays to cover his own mistakes.

 

Last season, Honka made a big splash with JYP in the Finnish Liiga. They were in desperate need of a puck-moving defenseman and dipped into their junior system. Honka made an immediate impact, scoring nine points in 20 games. It was obvious he could create offense even at the pro level. His defensive shortcomings were visible but a strong group of two-way forwards helped mask some of them. Honka also managed to keep his game simple enough to limit the amount of high-risk plays.

 

Honka also started this season with JYP but after 15 games where he scored four points, he was sent down to second-tier league Mestis to find his game. He wasn’t making good, simple plays anymore, and instead was always trying to create something flashy which often times backfired. JYP’s group of forwards wasn’t as good as it was last season, and they also didn’t have such a big need for a player like Honka anymore, so they were unable to cover for his mistakes.

 

Most people – myself included – expected Honka to show improved defensive game and decision-making this season in the Liiga but clearly that didn’t happen. We were also expecting him to improve his game in the Mestis but that wasn’t visible at the World Juniors either. He was a number seven defenseman for Team Finland, and even though he showed some good flashes, his weaknesses were also clearly visible.

 

Even after Team Finland lost defenseman Ville Heinola (2019) to injury, they were often playing with five defensemen instead of using Honka. Finland won gold in the tournament but Honka wasn’t really a part of it because he was unable to earn the trust of his coaching staff. He didn’t follow the team’s system, so he was benched for the entire third period in the gold medal game.

 

Honka is actually a two-time World Champion because he was also part of the team that won gold at the U18 Worlds last spring. But don’t read too much into that. Even though Honka finished the tournament with five points in seven games, he was a bottom-pair defenseman and a power play specialist. Three of those five points came on the power play – although to be fair, he was really good on the man advantage there. He did have an impact but it’s not like he was the reason Finland won that tournament.

 

With a scouting report like that, it’s easy to draw comparisons to players like Adam Boqvist (CHI) and Ryan Merkley (SJS) from last year’s draft. They were both right-handed shot defenders with elite offensive upside but questionable defensive game. Boqvist was drafted eighth overall whereas Merkley slid to 21st overall, partly because of some reported attitude issues in addition to shortcomings in his defensive game.

 

The one important thing to remember is that Boqvist and Merkley – who are born just one day apart in mid-August – are just a month and a half older than Honka who is born in early October. So even though Honka is part of a different draft class, he’s not that much younger than some players who were part of the previous draft. But I do think his offensive upside is in a similar range with those two.

 

But the age difference is important when evaluating teenagers. Honka has had more time to improve his decision-making and defensive game but he hasn’t used that time properly. That raises big red flags about his willingness and ability to fix those shortcomings. Sometimes it’s just a mental thing, a player not realizing something has to change. That’s why it’s so difficult to project prospects.

 

So what does this all mean for Honka in the 2019 NHL Draft? His combination of skating, puck-skills and vision are a perfect fit for the modern NHL, and those tools are possibly even worthy of a top ten selection. But if he continues playing poorly this entire season, there’s a chance he slides all the way to the second round. A more likely scenario is that he gets drafted in the second half of the first round. At that point, the risk/reward ratio starts to favor a boom or bust type player like him. Our very own Cam Robinson had Honka at number 31 in his December ranking.

 

Honka was expected to return to JYP in the Liiga after the World Juniors but that remains to be seen because he hasn’t really shown any growth after some time in the Mestis, so they may decide to send him back there. And in all honesty, it may not be a bad thing for his future. He needs to wake up and realize what it takes to become an NHL player.

 

Honka comes from a hockey family because his father and three older brothers are or were hockey players. He’s a naturally gifted talent. But you can’t make it in the NHL with talent alone. You also need to play with the team system, and you need to put in the work to become a well-rounded player. There’s still a lot of hockey to be played this season and Honka is still a very young player but he needs to change his course quickly because he’s not headed to the right direction right now.

 

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And that’s all for now, thanks for reading. Feel free to add comments below. Remember to follow me on Twitter @JokkeNevalainen.

 

 

Main picture courtesy of JYPLiiga.fi