In previous profiles of other 2020 NHL draft prospects, I’ve picked guys who I find interesting and who have different reasons that I think have made them “sleepers”. For reference, or if you wanted to read the other profiles, they are as follows:

Tristen Robins (profile here) — a historically small guy who was never given an opportunity to play in his team’s top 6 until this year, and lacked a long period of exposure.

William Villeneuve (profile here) — an awkward skating defenseman who still has strong agility and transition play whose rankings are hurt by ugly mechanics.

Veeti Miettinen (profile here) — a small Finnish winger who took an unusual development path that hurt his exposure, and whose birth month may be held against him.

This time I wanted to take a look at a very, very young defenseman who played in Finland and doesn’t have great box stats (read: points) but who seemed to gain the trust of his coaches at every level he played. Karri Aho is a 6’1” left shot defenseman who played mostly in Finland’s U20 junior league, and he’s also born September 6th, 2002 which makes him one of the youngest players in the draft.

As we saw last year with Nick Robertson, that can make a big difference since they have more room to develop than other prospects. If how he finished this season is any indication, he might have another big developmental leap next year, similar to Robertson’s improvement in his draft +1 season.

While I don’t think it’s likely that Aho is chosen before the middle or late rounds, I think he’s definitely worth a roll of the dice with one of the Leafs’ many sixth and seventh round picks if he’s still available. I think he could be a relative steal.

Karri Aho’s Backstory

Maybe the remarkable thing about Aho’s backstory is... he doesn’t have much of one. There was no real hype around him until late this year, and even then it was a very small handful of people who have taken notice of him. He never played on Team Finland... until this year. He was not aggressively promoted and playing way over his head and his peers. He never had a season with bonkers points totals, even when he was much younger and that’s something you see from truly special prospects.

What you saw this year was a guy who seemed to figure it out. Considering he has always been one of the younger defensemen wherever he played, that’s saying something. He started the season playing for Ilves in the U18 league. After only four games, he was promoted to their U20 team. He played 47 games for them, where he had two goals and 14 points.

It is worth noting Ilves was not a very offensive team. He was actually tied for 2nd on the team in points among defenseman, and he did actually get used on their powerplay a bit. More importantly, he led the team in even strength ice time for the season.

He was eventually loaned to Koovee in the Mestis league, a professional league in Finland and one level below the Liiga. There he played eight games, and actually had one goal and five points and averaged 17 minutes a night. For the very first time in his hockey career, he was used by Team Finland in international play — getting into eight games, and putting up three assists with some power play time.

So he managed to rise up through three different levels and earn a spot on Team Finland. He generated an okay amount of offense along the way, which might lead you to believe that he’s more of a defense-first prospect. And you’d be right! But you’d also be wrong.

Karri Aho Scouting Report

The most noticeable skill that Karri Aho possesses is his skating. He has a very smooth stride, and has very good speed as well as mobility — he can be agile and quick with his acceleration and skating on his edges. His skating is what makes him such an effective player, especially when it comes to his defense.

Here’s what some scouting reports say about his skating, and notice how often they tie it to his defensive play:

From Finnish Jr. Hockey:

Aho is a smooth-skating blueliner who is light on his skates and has good four-way mobility. He is poised and confident no matter what situation he’s in.

Here’s what Marco Bombino at McKeen’s Hockey said about him:

Light and nimble on his skates, he has strong edges and can pivot well. He uses powerful strides to reach a good top speed and his straight-line quickness allows him to join the rush well. He skates really well backwards which helps him to effectively defend opposing rushes.

From Die By The Blade:

Very good skater and fantastic in transition. Has some defensive lapses in the zone, but overall I’m very impressed with him in terms of gap control, his ability to exit the zone and he has enough offensive instincts that I’m really interested in taking this very late birthday player.

Now’s a good time to mention the other strength of Aho’s game: he’s clever. He makes smart plays, he doesn’t have a lot of errors or brain farts, he pays attention and notices plays developing both offensively and defensively. He has the ability to avoid pressure from forecheckers and make a play to avoid it, either with his skating or by passing the puck. He can step up on a forward in the neutral zone to deny an entry. The combination of his skating with his ability to anticipate plays works out well both in transition offense and transition defense.

In this clip, he sets up a goal and gets a primary assist. You can see him skate smoothly through the neutral zone, and cut directly in between two defenders to draw them both to him. He then makes a clean pass who has a wide open one timer in the faceoff circle.

Here’s what scouting reports say about his awareness and defense:

From Marco Bombino at McKeen’s:

He shows great poise and confidence with the puck. He remains calm even under heavy forechecking pressure. He senses pressure well and often plays accordingly without getting into trouble. He is alert and focused in his own end, but occasionally chases opponents too much for my liking.

From Finnish Jr Hockey:

He has a good stick, keeps tight gaps and is a solid defender both in the neutral zone and defensive zone. His game is trending upwards and he has upside.

From Jokke Nevalainen at Finn Prospects:

Aho is a reliable two-way defenseman. He’s a good skater and a pretty good puck-mover but he doesn’t have any high-end offensive abilities. He’s shown good defensive awareness at times but struggles with consistency there.

For what little stats there are for draft-eligible defensemen who played in Finland’s U20 junior league, and in the Mestis, they show good things about Aho’s ability to keep the puck out of the net. I can look at tracking data done by Will Scouch who looks at things like shot attempts, shot quality, passing, zone entries/exits, etc. He looks at smaller samples than a full season, but when you look at what tracking he did manage for Karri Aho, he is among the very best of his peers in all defensive metrics.

You can take the data with a grain of contextual salt, as I do, but I look at his data and see what is matching his scouting reports: his is an effective defensive defenseman.

Karri Aho’s Big Flaw

So, you have a very young defenseman who is a very good skater and can play some very effective defense. He’s played internationally, he advanced to the professional level in Finland, all great things that typically help a player’s ranking. So why is he barely registering among public scouts for their lists?

Well, there’s the usual issue of playing most of the year in a junior league in Europe. That hurts both for exposure, and because it’s one of the lowest tier junior leagues in terms of competition. But the real issue is that, as far as Aho has grown and developed, and as far as he’s advanced up the development latter, his ability to put up points is pretty meh.

Is that more to due with his younger age? Maybe a bit, but the scouting reports also point out some red flags. Specifically, he has a pretty weak shot. He can be quick and accurate with it, and when he does shoot he seems to do it to generate rebounds or try and get tips. He isn’t shooting to score, necessarily.

The other issue is that while he has gotten some PP time, he doesn’t do a lot with it. So if he does make the NHL, you can expect him to never get any PP time. This isn’t to say that Aho can’t be helpful to the offense, but his strength in that regard is more to do with transition: making a pass out of his own end, carrying it through the neutral zone, jumping up into the play to give another option, and so on.

In this clip, he’s the player in the neutral zone or passes the puck off to the guy who carries it for most of the play and sets up the goal. You’ll see more of Aho in the replay in the second half of the clip, barreling through/around his man at center ice before helping set up the goal.

In this clip, you can see Aho’s one goal in the Mestis league. He receives a pass as he skates into the zone and flicks a very quick wrist shot right away. It doesn’t have a lot of velocity, but it’s well placed and the goalie was screened.

In fact, here’s what some scouting reports say about his shot and puck moving ability...

From Marco Gambino at McKeen’s Hockey:

He can get point shots past the first defender and traffic to the net with regularity. However, his slap shot and wrist shot are fairly mediocre in terms of power. Unless he improves the power, it is hard to envision him scoring many goals at the next level. That said, he does a good job of keeping his shots low – even if he does not score, they can generate dangerous rebounds in front of the net.

Aho is a firm and strong passer who can move pucks quickly to the forwards. He passes the puck effectively out of the defensive zone and he can deliver accurate long-range passes that arrive on the tape.

From Finnish Jr Hockey:

He is a firm passer who has the puck control and vision to move the puck quickly and effectively to the forwards. He has a decent point shot and often shoots to create rebounds.

From Finn Prospects:

He’s a good skater and a pretty good puck-mover but he doesn’t have any high-end offensive abilities.

Going back to the little data we have for Finland’s U20 league, courtesy of Will Scouching, we can see that that the numbers generally back up these assessments of Aho’s offensive ability. Some of them are below average, some of them are good and above average for his level, but not great. Most of his overall value comes from defense, even if we apply the same portion of salt to the data here as well.

What points he gets will come from plays like the various videos above. He’ll get a secondary assist starting a rush play through the neutral zone, he’ll jump up in a play to set up a better shooter, he’ll get “assists” off rebounds and deflections, and occasionally one of his wrist shots will get through a screened goalie.

Karri Aho Is Worth a Late Round Gamble

I already said this in the introduction, but I’ll elaborate on why I think Aho is absolutely worth a pick. The Toronto Maple Leafs have a lot of picks in later rounds. In fact, they have nine picks from the fourth to seventh rounds, including:

  • 4th round = x2
  • 5th round = x1
  • 6th round = x3
  • 7th round = x3/

Some teams might see some red flags in his offense, but I can’t help but be tantalized by Aho’s strengths — especially considering how young he still is. He showed remarkable development this year, and if he still has more room to grow he could turn into a capable supporting and reliable defensive partner that helps tilt the ice the right way.

As Arvind likes to say, you don’t just win games by scoring a lot of points — you just have to score more than the other team. Being able to shut down the other team’s offense, get the puck out of your own end with control, and help your team’s transition game all help meet that goal even if it doesn’t show up on the score sheet.

And as far as his weaknesses go, they’re real and they could hold him back. But I’m imagining him getting stronger, older and wiser, and more experienced to the point that being nine months younger than some of his peers doesn’t matter much anymore. I’m imaging him working hard with the Leafs’ development program: strength coaches, skating coaches, defensive coaches, skills/shooting coaches, and so on.

Aho might not be a sexy pick, but he can still have an impact. His chances of making an impact in the NHL might not be that great, but that’s why you use a later round pick on him. We all roll our eyes at defense-only prospects, but I find Aho to be a bit different. He’s not just big, and devoid of all skills. He can skate, he can play smart, and he can make a pass.

He’s a player I’m willing to bet on with a later round pick. He might turn into nothing, or something like a Martin Marincin who can have basically no offense but good overall numbers thanks to his style of defense. If we want a pie in the sky dream, maybe he’s the next Niklas Hjalmarsson as a truly elite defensive-defenseman in his prime drafted in the fourth round.

But who I think Aho most reminds me of is Travis Dermott, in terms of his skating and defensive abilities. Dermott is another defense who has some offense, good enough to play on the PP at lower levels but not likely to do in the NHL, and who can help drive offense through transition rather than racking up points.

Imagine being able to get another Travis Dermott in the 5th round or later? He might not have as high of a chance to make the NHL as Dermott did, but I think that has a lot to do with the uncertainty around his age and where he played. Simply put, that’s exactly the kind of player I roll the dice on with a later pick.

What round are you comfortable taking a prospect like Karri Aho?

4th round33
5th round46
6th round71
7th round17