If you don’t follow prospects especially closely before the Leafs draft them, you probably have a draft day experience a little like mine. When the Leafs pick somebody, you Google him, and then you look for smart people to tell you it was a good pick.
Happily, lots of people I trust on this sort of thing really liked the Leafs’ 2019 draft. Mikko Kokkoken was a particular standout; former blogboss Scott Wheeler liked him so much he had him fourth (!) on his ranking of Leaf prospects outside the NHL under age 23, behind only Rasmus Sandin, Timothy Liljegren, and Jeremy Bracco.
Why are people so keen on the 84th overall pick? Let’s find out!
Mikko Kokkonen Votes
Mr. Mikko Kokkonen is a left-shooting defenceman who just completed his rookie season manning the blue line for the Liiga’s Mikkelin Jukurit. (Jukurit is not to be confused with Jokerit, who are the Finnish team in the KHL and have an extremely good logo.) This means that Kokkonen was plying his trade in a pro league against grown men; he actually led all rookie defencemen in Liiga with 19 points. While he is a left shot, he has played a fair amount of right defence, according to Scott; this was out of necessity, as for a while Jukurit had a lot of left-shooting defencemen and few righties. Can’t imagine what that’s like.
Kokkonen was drafted by the Leafs under Kyle Dubas, so naturally he is on the smaller side (5’10”, 190 lbs.) At the same time, he is reputedly strong for his size and plays aggressively. He is also, by most accounts, a smart and defensively aware player who picks his spots on offence well (another Dubas draftee trademark.) Ben Kerr, of Last Word On Sports, has some mixed notes about his skating ability:
*Kokkonen will need to work on his skating going forward. His first few steps and his acceleration are a bit below average and will need to get better. His feet could be quicker and his startup less choppy. Once he gets moving his top-end speed allows him to keep up with the play. His edgework and agility are very good. This allows him to keep himself in front of attackers and maintain good gap control. It also allows him to walk the line in the offensive zone to open up shooting and passing lanes. Kokkonen has good muscle mass and core strength for his age. He is strong on the boards and in front of the net. His balance is excellent and he is able to fight through checks and is tough to knock off the puck.
Kokkonen sounds like yet another in the string of Leaf draftees who do not dazzle with their physical gifts, but play mature, high-IQ games even as young players. The meme on Mark Hunter, perpetuated by yours truly among others, was that he loved tall defencemen. Kyle Dubas and amateur scout John Lilley seem to love them some brainy teens.
Because Finland is a progressive and highly-developed society, the Liiga website actually has Corsi as a listed stat. Kokkonen did not impress much in this respect—42.3% with the score close—but this is mitigated somewhat because Jukurit last year was a suck-ass failure squad, and he was in the middle of the team’s regular defencemen in the stat. I think we can generously say he wasn’t a pronounced problem among Jukurit’s many last season, and insofar as he was, it’s outweighed by him playing in a pro league and not imploding as a 17-year-old.
All in all, it’s interesting to wonder if the poor team context caused Mikko to drop in the draft; the rankers listed here all projected him to be gone by the mid-second-round latest. Getting another cerebral Kyle Dubas Player™ with a late third seems like a satisfying ROI for the Leafs.
Kokkonen is poised to spend at least one more year in the Liiga; hopefully he can help Jukurit ascend from second-last in the league to something a little more respectable. It’ll be a bit before we get to see him in North America, but he’s certainly worth keeping an overseas eye on.
One of my favourite things about doing the Top 25 is watching highlight videos and talking myself into literally every player who has one, because everyone looks good in highlight videos. That said, Kokkonen looks very cool; he’s agile along the line, he makes cool passes, he rushes the puck, it’s all terrific. [idly pencils Kokkonen in on our third pair for 2020-21]
Some commentary from our panel, starting with the boss:
Katya: Kokkonen is a very mysterious prospect who we all have had to take a leap one way or another to rank or to leave off the list. He was rostered at the WJSS for Finland, but never played due to injury, but that tells us he’s somewhere near the top of the Finns’ prospect pool on defence. He got more points than most defenders his age playing a regular role in the Liiga last year (there were less than 10 in his peer group), but his Corsi was not inspiring. He’s likely going to play in the WJC, and will be in his second year of pro this season before he even turns 19. He was playing U20 in Finland at 15, so this playing way over his head is not new. I ranked him based largely on the simple fact that he can do that well, and he’s not doing it with height and reach.
Brigstew has thoughts a lot like my own on Mikko:
Brigstew: My ranking comes mostly from getting excited at what I’ve read from people like Katya, Kevin, Scott Wheeler, and other writers who have seen Kokkonen play among his peers and who understand the context of where he plays at his age. As a younger guy who was just drafted, there’s some excitement at a greater ceiling he can reach compared to the multitude of older defensemen we have in the AHL by now.
And Kevin encourages you to get excited about this pick:
Kevin: He’s probably the most underrated prospect on this list. Kokkonen played big minutes for Finland at every stage, and I have no idea how he fell to 84th overall in the draft. He’s already played 69 games in Liiga, and I think he has a pretty good chance of playing NHL games someday. I don’t want to compare him to Rasmus Sandin, but he carries a few similar characteristics: left shot, smart, slightly undersized but doesn’t play like it, consistently his coach’s favourite player, capable of playing in all situations, and impressive point totals in his draft year. He’ll be higher on this list next year.
A certain amount of caution goes in hand with any recent third-round pick; for whatever reason, Kokkonen did drop to 84th. But I’m glad we picked him up when he did.