Before I cast my own votes for the Winter T25, I said that the drafting of Axel Rindell was the move by Kyle Dubas that seemed designed to make this exercise really hard this time. Most people didn’t see it that way.

Rindell’s most common vote in the community ranking was 35. And because of his age — the community list started out oldest to youngest — he was 27th on the list, so people had to actively pick others over him or shove him down.

On the PPP list, he appeared as an honourable mention, ranked 27th, and with five voters putting him on the list. He was very nearly tied with Adam Brooks, who was absolutely tied on our list in the summer with Mikko Kokkonen in 11th place.

I’m not going to tell you where we all ranked Kokkonen this time, but he’s in the Top 25 on both our list and the Community Vote, and that puts him at some significant separation from Rindell in most people’s minds. But what is the difference between these two teammates? Oh no, here we are again, trying to evaluate defencemen at a remove. Thanks, Dubas, can you draft some forwards next time?

Rindell suffers a little from a lack of buzz as a Leafs prospect. No one seems to go hunting his highlights like they do Veeti Miettinen the NCAA winger taken nine spots above Rindell. No one is arguing about his status on the Finnish WJC team because he’s too old. No one is getting him mixed up with Mikko Lehtonen in the “two guys named Mike is too confusing” way Kokkonen is.  The most you get is bad puns on the name Axel.

All of that is fair. If I asked 400 Leafs fans which of Topi and Roni is the forward, I’m not sure the answers would swing much above 50% for each. It’s hard to know much about new players, and it’s easier to know things about players that have been on the books as prospects for a couple of years. Hey... what if we rated the players more conceptually before they were drafted? Like as just a draft pick? No — crazy idea that wouldn’t teach us anything. Forget that. No one would rank a sixth-round pick anyway.

But while Veeti Miettinen is on the community list as unranked, you might have noticed he’s not on the PPP list of unranked or honourable mentions. So, some people did rank a guy just taken with a sixth-round pick. Which is also fair. If you really think this new hotness is a draft steal, you should rank him over the boring old players of yesteryear.

Rindell, like Brooks before him, comes to the table already boring as a 20-year-old. But because Brooks was a forward playing junior hockey, his points looked sparkly and got even more sparkly as he stayed in junior hockey one year longer than he needed to. And then he slammed hard into the realities of pro hockey, and he’s a lot easier to evaluate in the AHL where he’s good, but the shine has certainly dulled quite a bit.

Rindell, though, is playing pro hockey, has for years, and has that boring cachet of a defender who gets some points, but not a lot, and if only he played on a team that could give him sparkly Corsi numbers, maybe he’d have some fans. The trouble is, that’s a good description of Kokkonen as well. Time to see what actually separates them beyond perception issues.

Both players are defencemen on Jukurit in the Finnish men’s league, Liiga. Rindell shoots right, Kokkonen shoots left and played all of last year on the right side, while he’s doing both this season. They have played as a pair some of the time, most of the time not.

Kokkonen is from Mikkeli, the city Jukurit is located in, and has played for the club since childhood. Rindell is from Espoo, and has only just moved to the Jukurit system at the start of the 2019-2020 season.

Kokkonen vs Rindell

MeasureMikko KokkonenAxel Rindell
Height181 cm180 cm
Weight90 kg79 kg
Draft Position84177
Liiga Games Played12664
U20 Top Level Games Played64111
National Team Junior Games Played758

Rindell, playing in a different club, stayed in the lower ages of the junior system longer. Kokkonen last played meaningful time at the U18 level in 2015-2016, whereas Rindell was still there in 2016-2017. Kokkonen got some loans out to Mestis (second division to Liiga) mean’s teams very young (he wasn’t any good, of course), and he was tapped for national team play back to the U16 age group.

Kokkonen has also bulked up a little more, which is something I’ve seen anecdotally as a sign of NHL draft status.  One phone call with the NHL GM and guys hit the gym more.

The picture here is one of a player, Kokkonen, singled out from a very young age and consistently promoted and challenged with tougher team environments, then rewarded with international play and national team selection. The second player, Rindell, was passed over until he’d proved he was ready for more. No one looking at that history should be surprised that Kokkonen was drafted at 18 and Rindell at 20.

One of the intriguing things about draft research on things like the birthdate effect on draft position is that the effect is best explained when you understand that players are sorted into the NHL-draft-prospect class and “everyone else” much younger than 18. Younger than 17. Younger than 16, even. And that rings true for anyone who has watched the growing draft prospects fandom take shape.  It rings true for anyone who watches junior hockey and sees the elitism at play, and it rings true for anyone who has spent too much time looking up the history of just-drafted prospects. Young NHL prospects don’t come out of left field very often.

But NHL teams keep finding players at 23, 24 and older, who have never been drafted and who are at least the level of their second-round picks. They find them in European leagues, the NCAA and Canadian junior hockey. The undrafted free agent class of NHL players is a big one. In a recent season, there were more undrafted NHLers than those from any draft round but one and two, and that fact has stayed true even as teams spend more and more on scouting, and the wilds of Finland or Russia aren’t a mystery anymore.

On the balance of probabilities, the other Mike, Mikko Lehtonen, is more likely to play NHL hockey than either Kokkonen or Rindell (or Miettinen). Lehtonen has a history a bit like Kokkonen’s — he played some national team young, and a bit like Rindell’s — he took longer to get out of junior hockey.

Using draft status as a measure of prospect value isn’t a terrible place to start. It should be considered, but the difference between that third-rounder and that sixth-rounder in average value is nothing. The difference in the distribution of potential outcomes is almost nothing. And then when you consider how that ranking is achieved by most of those late round picks, you have a collection of players who were good at 14 or 15 and have been somewhat successfully sorted since then. That likely correlates fairly well with future quality — better than just points, for example — but it is far from a perfect measure.

Where are these two defenders right now?

Kokkonen is on his way to the WJC, and Rindell is trying to find things to do while the Liiga is on pause. But so far this season, they have this to tell them apart:

Kokkonen vs Rindell this season

2020-2021 LiigaMikko KokkonenAxel Rindell
Games Played1817
TOI per Game21:0020:07
PP TOI9:2050:02
PK TOI64:392:11
EV TOI304290
Corsi %48.848.6

It very difficult to find two defenders on the same team more alike. They can’t both be the top PP guy, so Rindell gets that job, and Kokkonen gets the top PK job. The team Corsi is 44%, so they are both above average performers. They lead the defenders and all but two forwards by this measure. Rindell shoots more because he’s on the power play, and he gets some assists that way too.

There’s also a new thing in Liiga stats from player tracking that gives their distance travelled and speed. They’re identical there too.

If Dubas hadn’t drafted Rindell this year, at some point, I’d be saying about Kokkonen — but he’s exactly the same as the undrafted guy, so how good is he? And that’s where I ended up with this T25 voting. Either Rindell is the steal the popular imagination is declaring Veeti Miettinen to be, or Kokkonen is really not that great. Because the difference between them now is that Kokkonen was perceived to be better at 15 and he’s a few months younger.

It’s possible that all Rindell is, is a power play shot that works in the easy environment of the Liiga. It’s not a hard league to play in, and if your prospect isn’t topping some lists at 19 or 20 in the Liiga, he’s not good. Top class ECHLers are playing there this year, and doing well. Top class AHLers rip it up. Everyone is overrating Liiga performance, in other words.

When it came time to vote, I dropped Kokkonen down, but I did rank Rindell too. Age considerations aside, I’m not convinced there’s much there beyond what Kristians Rubins and Joey Duszak bring, and I don’t think there’s a lot of justification for a big separation between the two of them. However, the average difference for the official voters was 10 places (calling any unranked vote a 26th place).

This exercise is hard. It’s subjective, and it’s fraught with all sorts of biases mostly driven by the imbalance in information available about players. If the Leafs had five Russian defenders drafted, I wouldn’t be telling you their ice time splits or their Corsi. I wouldn’t have that for Canadian juniors either. It’s easier to convince yourself that a little shot data makes you better informed about Finns or Swedes and can make you overconfident of you opinions.

I am really confident that Rasmus Sandin is the best defensive prospect on the Leafs. Everything else is guesswork.