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Welcome to the countdown for this year's Top 25 Under 25 Maple Leafs prospects. The list opens with the 25th ranked player, Mikko Kokkonen.
|Age as of July 1
Whenever I think about Kokkonen, which isn't often, I blame Patrik Laine. Drafted in 2016, behind Auston Matthews, and along with Jesse Pulujärvi, Laine marked the moment everyone got obsessed with Finland. Actually it was when those two and Sebastian Aho dominated at the World Juniors with their skill and scoring just before the draft.
The story went that Finland was the next big thing in hockey and NHL stars would continue to roll in from that country. Did that hype machine affect GMs of teams and their scouting departments? Maybe. It sure seemed to again when Slovakia was recently going to be the next big thing. But it was mostly built out of hopes and fantasy and a profound misunderstanding about numbers, probabilities and well, common sense, really.
Finland has a population of five and a half million people. If you beamed up every Finn and transported them to a city in Canada, it would be a touch smaller than metro Toronto. It would have a lot more rinks, though.
Finland has one of the highest per capita participation rates in hockey of any country where the game is played. Czechia is the other place with similar rates. In Finland, the Liiga, with 15 teams, averages over 4,000 people per game. That's more than the Marlies draw, and there's only one Marlies in Toronto. So Finland City in Canada would be the most hockey-mad place this country has ever seen.
But that level of participation and passion can't overcome the simple reality that a city-sized country (by North American standards) isn't going to have the same depth of skill in its pro league and in the small subset of those players who are draft age in any one year like North America can. Finland can't even quite match Sweden, at just under twice their population.
If Aho was the real star, Laine a skilled player with some limits, then the rest of the rush of Finns drafted at that time may well have been overrated from the start.
Mikko Kokkonen was playing pro hockey in Finland before he was drafted. That's the minimum standard for a Finn to have some hope of future success. It was his first year out of junior, and he mostly stayed pro, playing the top pair defence on a middling to poor Liiga team until he joined the Marlies in late 2021.
His play there last year was... well, he's hard to judge without watching him, something I won't claim to have done. But he had six assists in 36 games and played eight games in the ECHL.
Back in the Liiga or on Team Finland, he was the defensive guy who played PK. He has no real power play value, and if he's going anywhere but back to the Liiga, he has to defend really well. What I saw of him at several WJCs, where he was easily outplayed by younger teammates like Topi Niemelä, Ville Heinola and even Detroit's Eemil Viro, was a guy who played a game 10 years out of date. He was fine with an uncontested zone exit, not without some skill at defending, has no shot, and his entire offensive game is to start some dump-and-chase. He was the safe and boring number three who was there to do the defensive jobs his more active partner couldn't handle.
If the role of the "modern puck-moving defender" is to get out of the zone and make the first pass, well, he can do the first part of that. It remains to be seen how he does on the Marlies with the new coach. The last one thought he should try the power play, and the tough call with Kokkonen has always been figuring out what is him, and what is coaching style.
It should be noted that Kokkonen's old Liiga partner, the offensive guy he played boringly beside was Axel Rindell, and he couldn't even make the Marlies, so his dull and safe game hides a level of skill that is legitimate.
Having talked about his likely future in less than glowing terms, it's fair for you to ask why I ranked him where I did at 18th.
The truth is, he can play pro hockey, and while he struggled to adapt on the Marlies, I don't think that's all on him. He will likely improve and do fine there and top out as Carl Dahlström with a different accent. Most of the players from 15 on down are lucky if they can claim that. I can understand the very low rankings others gave him because he's fully known and understood while someone like Noah Chadwick is perceived as a young player quivering with potential to explode up the ageing curve. It's much easier to see faint hopes as more valuable than a player you know too well. Deciding when the hopes are too faint is a judgement call, and we won't all ever agree on the right answer.
For a player to become better than Kokkonen, he likely needs to be obviously better now than Kokkonen was as a teenager. And as a teenager, he was playing pro, not junior. He was likely overrated when he was drafted, but not by so much that I'd consider a CHL or NCAA player with nothing to show but some assists as better than Kokkonen just because they are younger. I need more of a reason than that.
At 22.3 in weighted average, there is a real line between Kokkonen, ranked by seven voters, and the unranked below him, although Joe Miller did attract six votes, they weren't as high.
The other voters had some thoughts on this player:
Brian: I’m not a Kokkonen believer when it comes to a potential NHL future. I do like him, I just think his strengths are not at a high enough level to really make it, and he’s not at an age where I would expect a huge improvement. He’s not quick enough, and doesn’t have enough skills to compensate for it. He’s pretty smart and makes good defensive reads, but doesn’t always have the ability to execute on those reads.
dhammm: Better a first year in the North American pros than none at all, I guess, but can't help but wish for a better year overall. Kokkonen seemed to be the odd man out as the Marlies sputtered down the stretch, leading to him ending the season in the ECHL. I've been a naysayer for a few seasons now because his game looks awfully wooden to my eye, and people underestimate how much NHL defensive defensemen typically score outside the NHL (recall the Petter Granberg debates). Kokkonen hasn't proved me wrong yet after his first season on the other side of the Atlantic, but the departures of Kral, Hollowell, and Hoefenmeyer from the org mean there's still opportunity for him on the Marlies. I can still imagine a world where he puts together a solid enough sophomore season in the AHL to vault him ahead of the Leafs' midrange junior prospects, but the best case scenario for him might be Martin Marincin.
Catch-67: I remember for the first few years after Kokkonen was drafted, I was quite excited about him, particularly in an era where the Leafs were much more starved of defensively-minded defensemen. Somewhere along the way, I kind of forgot about him, and in his first full season in North America he somehow seemed to fall even further into the background for me. He’s young enough that I wouldn’t be surprised if he still makes it somewhere on an NHL roster as a 7D at some point, but I don’t expect much from him.
Hardev: For many years, Kokkonen has been the most mature and sensible defender on the ice for his team. In junior (club and country) and the Liiga, it made him valuable. Now that he’s in the North American pros, he’s not as much of a standout in that category. Kokkonen’s skills may have hit a level and stayed there, which is why he’s fallen down the order in the T25 to just barely making it. The one course for a comeback might be in a new Marlies head coach. How much does a good defensive defender get pigeon-holed by a coach who’s defenses have been between frustrating and intolerable? TJ Brodie is the one reliable defensive guy on the Leafs and this past playoffs he was thrown to all the wolves, bears, and dragons in the league – which is why it looked like he had a bad playoffs. I’m interested to see what Kokkonen can do with a clean slate, and maybe he’ll be allowed to do more and develop a wider ranging game.
And now it's your turn. Where did you rank him? Did you rank him, and how do you measure an orange like Kokkonen against the apples that are going to grow from the new buds like Noah Chadwick and Brandon Lisowsky?
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