This is my third of six 2019 NHL Draft Recap articles, in which I do a deep dive into every Maple Leafs selection from the 2019 NHL Entry Draft.
Mikko Kokkonen, selected 84th overall in the 2019 NHL draft, was the Maple Leafs’ second pick of the afternoon. He was also their second good pick in a row. The Finnish defenceman may not bring high-end upside to the table, but Kokkonen is quite likely to become an NHL player, which is something that can rarely be said about any 3rd round selection.
Kokkonen was ranked higher than his eventual draft slot by many, as a lot of respected draft analysts had him pegged as a likely second-round pick. Here, I’ll dive into what Kokkonen does well, what he needs to work on, and what exactly the Leafs have in this player.
I’ll start out by breaking down an area where Kokkonen really excels: the defensive game.
Kokkonen is calm when defending in his own zone. He doesn’t chase the play, puck watch or leave his assignment. He knows where he has to stand and when he has to stand there. Kokkonen gets his stick into passing lanes, which forces attackers to either get their pass intercepted, reset or take poor shots from distance.
This is one of my favourite GIFs of Kokkonen playing defence, taken while on the penalty kill. The opposing forward clearly wants to force a pass through the middle of the ice. Kokkonen responds accordingly by getting his stick in between the puck carrier and the player in the bumper position, effectively closing that lane. As the puck carrier slides down, Kokkonen’s teammate comes and grabs the man Kokkonen was covering. and Kokkonen realizes this and covers the man in front of the net.
At one point (although very briefly), Kokkonen has his body between the puck carrier and the net front guy, and his stick between the puck carrier and the bumper guy. It’s just some great positioning and awareness from Kokkonen (and his teammates), and as a result, they don’t allow a chance against.
Here’s a more exciting and less detailed clip of Kokkonen defending, while still displaying the same part of his game. Once again, it shows great poise and great positioning by the young Finn, but this time, he actually breaks up a pass (one that could’ve resulted in a very good scoring chance against):
Here’s one more, just for fun.
Kokkonen is in good positioning yet again, and he gets his stick in the lane to break up a 2-on-1 against.
As you can see, Kokkonen plays an intelligent game and defends really well. He gets his stick into the correct lanes and breaks up a good amount of potentially dangerous plays against his team.
As I talked about in my Mike Koster article, there are two sides of the transition game: moving the puck out of your zone and into your opponent’s zone, and preventing them from doing that to you. There are two ways to do the first part: you can skate the puck out of your zone yourself, or you can pass it to a teammate.
Kokkonen won’t ever be the primary puck mover on an NHL pairing. By that, I mean he’ll never be a Jake Gardiner type or a Morgan Rielly type. This isn’t a bad thing, it just limits his upside overall.
He can complete his breakout passes just fine, that’s not the problem:
As for when Kokkonen rushes the puck, he’s decent at it. He’s not quite skilled enough or deceptive enough to make me believe that he’ll be a fantastic carrier at the NHL level, but overall, he does a good job.
Here’s a nice entry from Kokkonen. He carries the puck up ice, makes a move between a couple of Karpat players and finds his teammate on the right:
Below is another Kokkonen rush. This one isn’t as nice, but there is still merit to breaking it down. Here, Kokkonen protects the puck well, but only has to because he can’t separate. At the NHL level, he would get tracked down here by a quicker, stronger opponent:
Overall, Kokkonen is not a creative, dynamic zone exit threat like Jake Gardiner or Morgan Rielly, but he’s capable at exiting his end with control in both ways. Thankfully, he isn’t a Nikita Zaitsev – the type of player who constantly fires the puck off the glass and out.
Kokkonen would much rather make a safer play (and by this I mean a low-risk pass, not the Zaitsev thing) than a jaw-dropping one, and while that’s okay, I think that makes him “good” but not “great”. People like to compare him to Rasmus Sandin in this aspect, but I think that Sandin is more skilled, a better carrier, more willing to take risks, and a better skater. I don’t really think it’s that fair of a comparison.
While Kokkonen isn’t going to be a Gardiner or Rielly type when it comes to moving the puck, I see him as a good compliment for a smooth-skating, puck-moving defenceman along those lines. Something that Kokkonen is good at is holding onto the puck long enough to the point where opposing players are chasing him, therein leaving his partner wide open. Kokkonen will then slide the puck over to his partner, who has all the time in the world to exit the zone.
Here’s an example of what I’m talking about if it’s hard to picture:
Furthermore, Kokkonen brings a steady defensive presence that a lot of high-end puck-moving defencemen don’t have, which supports my theory that he would operate very well alongside this type of player. Overall, Kokkonen is a defenceman that can complete his outlet passes and lug the puck if needed but should be more of a compliment to a high-end puck mover at the NHL level as opposed to the main focus on a pairing. This is part of the reason why I believe he has the potential to be an effective NHLer, but his upside is not extremely high.
On the defensive side of the transition game, Kokkonen is “meh”, but with the potential to improve. I have seen him play good gaps before, but sometimes he will get burned because he’s not the greatest backwards skater. Other times I’ll notice him give the opponent the blue line to compensate for his lack of speed.
If he can clean up his skating, Kokkonen has what it takes to play a good gap in transition.
Despite what Kokkonen’s 19 points in the Liiga might make you think, he is really not a high-end offensive defenceman. That being said, he can still contribute on offence.
Kokkonen is a good passer in the offensive zone. Just like in transition, Kokkonen likes to bait defenders into collapsing on him when he has the puck to free up room for his teammates, which he does most noticeably on the power play. Kokkonen also does not shoot from poor locations often, which is another good sign for his NHL future. His shot isn’t crazy hard, but it is pretty accurate, and he’ll get it low and on the net. Kokkonen is also willing to join the rush to help create odd-man rushes for his teammate.
He doesn’t have elite tools or skating, so, once again, he’ll never be a Morgan Rielly type, but his offensive game is good enough to the point where I could see him possibly running a PP2 on an NHL club.
This is an area of weakness for Kokkonen. He tends to bend from his lower back when he is skating forwards, which is something that can be corrected. When you bend from your lower back, you aren’t using the correct muscles, thus limiting your power when you’re pushing forwards.
Kokkonen also tends to lean forward too much when he is skating backwards, which is obviously a problem. These are areas of skating that Barb Underhill, who works with the Leafs as a skating coach, really focuses on, so it’s not hard to see Kokkonen becoming a better skater as he spends more time around the Leafs’ organization.
Overall, Kokkonen is not a big swing on upside, but he does bring a high probability of becoming an NHL regular. Although I do tend to prefer to swing for the fences in the draft (especially in the mid-to-late rounds), you’ll rarely get a player at 84th overall that is as likely to make the NHL as Kokkonen is, so it’s a good pick.
The majority of 3rd round picks don’t turn out anyways, so getting even a third pairing defenceman at that stage of the draft is a win.
Kokkonen’s lack of a high-end skill set and below-average skating are what give me hesitation when it comes to projecting him as anything more than a #4 defenceman in the future, but his smart reads, sturdy defensive game and decent set of skills make me think he’s quite likely to become a third pairing defenceman, or maybe even a #4 guy.
He’ll also be a regular penalty killer, and potentially an option for a second power-play unit. He’s a player that won’t necessarily be the primary puck mover on his pairing, but he’s a calculated defensive presence who will compliment a more skilled puck-moving defenceman quite nicely, and while he’s not elite at moving the puck or making things happen offensively, he’s definitely not hindrance in these areas of the game either.