Mikko Kokkonen, a defender taken last year at 84th overall, comes in high this year in a tie for 11th place. Two players were ranked exactly at a weighted average of 12.5 giving us a rare mid-list tie.

Kokkonen is one of the prospects most adversely affected by not having a playoffs to colour in our understanding of him. He had a serious concussion last summer, missed his training camp in Finland as well as the start of the season. He needed some games in junior to get back up to speed, but by the end of the year, he was flying, back on the top pair in the Liiga, and playing very well.  He was aiming to peak at exactly the right time to make a big impression. Without the playoffs to guide us on how he developed in his first year post-draft, we’re guessing more than normal with him.

There’s so many older prospects in the Leafs system, that the really young ones (other than Nick Robertson) get a little lost in the shuffle until you step back and think about the years of expected upward growth someone like Kokkonen has — unlike players ageing off the list ranked in similar spots this year. Even Timothy Liljegren is almost two full years older than Kokkonen. Liljegren just finished his third season in the AHL, and Kokkonen has two full pro seasons in the Liiga, with half of another from when he was very young. Liljegren never played more than part of a season in the SHL before he was drafted, partly due to illness.

But the Liiga is not the AHL, and judging a defender drafted in the mid-rounds as he slowly develops from afar is not as easy as watching a handful of AHL games and having a very good understanding of the defenders there, how they’re used, and what their potential is.

The Votes

This section of the list we’re in this week is full of unanimous votes, but a wide spread in rankings. Kokkonen’s cover the range from #9 to #17, and I ranked him higher than most voters.

Votes - Mikko Kokkonen

PlayerMikko Kokkonen
2020 Rank12
Average Rank12.50
Lowest Rank17
Highest Rank9
Spread in Rank8
Total Votes12

Don’t think that makes me sure about him. I’m unsure about a lot of my votes this year. My confidence ranking for the 2019 and 2018 drafted players starts with Semyon Der-Arguchintsev, Nick Abruzzese and Mikko Kokkonen from least sure to most. But I’m a lot more confident of my ranking of Nick Robertson than any of those. As are most of us, I would imagine.

The Player

I find judging Finnish players (or Swedes that play in Finland in the case of Jesper Lindgren) really difficult. The Liiga is not the KHL. Its top teams are close to the SHL’s top class, but overall it’s weaker. And when you look at who the Leafs have in their system who have been on a Liiga blueline, you have:

  • Mikko Lehtonen
  • Jesper Lindgren
  • Teemu Kivihalme
  • Mikko Kokkonen
  • Kalle Loponen (only one game, but he’s set to play there next season)/

None of the rest really touch Lehtonen, who last played in the KHL. But he’s 26 years old, not a junior-eligible like Kokkonen. The task of imagining Kokkonen’s upside when he’s doing now what Lehtonen didn’t do at 19 — hold down a top-pairing, full-time job in the Liiga — is tricky because Lehtonen is the proof of concept that some players aren’t draft-quality at 18 or 19, but are NHL-quality by 26. And as we know, the opposite is very often true.

A Tale of Two Mikkos

Name: Lehtonen Kokkonen
Age 1627 GP in U1638 GP in U20, 1 in Liiga, 3 in Mestis
Age 1718 GP in U18, 12 GP in U2014 GP in U20, 12 in Liiga, 29 in Mestis
Age 1839 GP in U20, 12 in Liiga56 GP in Liiga
Age 1939 GP in U20, 13 in Liiga39 in Liiga, 10 in U20
Age 2046 GP in MestisExpect full time role in Liiga
Age 2137 GP in Liiga, 19 in Mestis-
Age 2243 GP in Liiga, 9 in SHL-
Age 2355 GP in Liiga-
Age 24 52 GP in SHL-
Age 2560 GP in KHL-
Age 26NHL-

Kokkonen’s game is not a flashy one. He’s a good enough shooter himself, but will never be known for his shot (that’s Loponen’s trick). He passes well, has a decent transition game, and supports the offence well, but he hasn’t really impressed in junior tournaments with his defensive-zone play. He’s not top class for Finland’s WJC team, but he almost certainly will be on the team again, and was invited to their summer camp as expected.

The last WJC may have set Kokkonen back in some people’s estimation. Rasmus Sandin and Nick Robertson were stunning, putting up highlights every game. Sandin, in particular received gushing praise as a man clearly playing at a level that was now below him. Kokkonen was not in that class. And a more interesting comparison for him should be Filip Kral, but we already talked about how much of a mystery he is to us until he plays some AHL hockey.

Kokkonen played a more of a depth role on the eventual fourth-place finishers for Finland, and for people who measure defenders by points, he was a disappointment. The summer concussion which removed him from the World Junior Summer Showcase and delayed his season, also removed the chance for a closer look at his game.

This scouting report from his play in 2018-2019 for Jukurit produced by Finn Prospects is a clue as to why we find him a cipher:

Kokkonen is a reliable two-way defenceman. He is solid all-round, but none of his qualities really stands out. He is a decent skater with pretty good defensive game for a player of his age. For sure, his positioning is sometimes off and he could have even more intensity in his game, but these aspects should improve when he matures. His offensive game has translated pretty well to the pro game and while he isn’t flashy, he plays smart and solid passing game.

To me, the biggest question mark with him is his ceiling. He is already very mature player both mentally and physically. While of course these aspects will still improve to some degree, it is somewhat questionable how much he can still improve. Kokkonen is a smart defenceman though and he jumped to Liiga level relatively easy, something he might be able to do in the future too.

Remember this was published in February of last year, and the issue around ceiling is interesting to me. I actually think that usually means the player isn’t exciting offensively, with a personal scoring touch that is newsworthy, but with a defender, it can mean he’s just boring to watch.

You know what? Mikko Kokkonen is boring to watch. I’m not sure if I agree that because he’s not an obvious physical late bloomer like Nick Abruzzese, nor someone who needs maturity in their game like Semyon Der-Arguchintsev, that he’s got less room to develop. Another way to phrase that is that there’s nothing in particular in the way of his development.

I’ve said a couple of times during this T25, in comments and now here: I’m so tired of talking about defencemen. It’s hard! And it leaves me with this feeling of dissatisfaction that nothing anyone says is a lot of use. And yet, I know why my breath catches when I watch Rasmus Sandin, and why it does some of the time with Timothy Liljegren. It’s that elusive hockey IQ or playmaking or seeing the ice, or whatever you want to call it. It’s easier to understand what you’re seeing when Connor McDavid brains his way around a hockey rink. Or Mitch Marner, or Jeremy Bracco. It’s tougher with a defenceman.

Analyst Cole Anderson, did a presentation at CBJHAC this summer that used some tracking data to look at shooting in new ways, by tracking how the puck got to the shooter. One offhand comment he made on twitter interested me, “during the sample period, no skater passed up more hypothetical xG than John Carlson.”  What he was saying is that John Carlson is important for the shots he doesn’t take, that even when he’s in very good shooting position, he punts that puck right over to Ovi. I’ve been thinking about that ever since, because the things players don’t do show up in their results in ways that are very hard to see, but sometimes the things they do are all too easy to see. Tyson Barrie is not John Carlson.

Mikko Kokkonen isn’t John Carlson either, I’m pretty sure about that. But I’m not upset that Kokkonen is boring to watch. Eventually, he’ll get better at the things he does do, and it will be a question of what level he thinks at (Liiga hockey can be a little slow and mechanical) and how much value the sum of what he does and doesn’t do comes to.

Jukurit is set to play a preseason tilt against KHL team Jokerit on August 20, so for Kokkonen, the future starts very soon.

Other Opinions

Brigstew: He seemed to have a bit of a lost season due to an early injury and fighting his way back onto the roster, and while he didn’t have the big point totals you might want he did have a good shot rate. I haven’t really heard of a big reason to rank him along with or behind the slew of “meh” prospects from 15+, so I held him at the back of all the guys I still have real hope for.

Fulemin: Well, he’s young, at least.

Hardev: I really like Kokkonen. He looked great at development camp in his draft year. He’s been a teenager playing against men full-time for over two years now. He has all the things we know about Kyle Dubas defensemen (speed, skill, smarts). All of those things are reasons to be excited. I don’t know when he’ll come over to North America, I’m sure Jukurit would like to keep him, but if he can have a strong comeback season after the injury last year, he might be on the Marlies by age 20. I have really high hopes for this prospect.

Which Mikko would you want if you could have any you like?

Rantanen, please and thank you. 280