Maybe the most dominate player in the draft when going at his best, Kaapo Kakko is the only player to truly push Jack Hughes for the top spot in the 2019 NHL Entry Draft. Combining speed, power and elite stick-skills, he has played against men all season long, Kakko proved that he was the most NHL ready draft prospect.
Name: Kaapo Kakko
Date of Birth: February 13, 2001
Nationality (Place of Birth): Finnish (Turku, Finland)
The above spider graph, courtesy of Kyle Pereira of Puck77, displays the available data from Will Scouch. As shown, Kakko doesn’t excel in any of the categories above but he does grade out well in his NHL eScore. The reason for the middling statistical numbers above and the high NHL eScore is that Kakko played the entire season in the Liiga. This led to slightly muted production but despite that, Kakko isn’t at the bottom of any of the areas. His produtcion for his age group was elite. He broke records and he showed that not only can he play against men, he can produce at a high level as well.
The young Fin is an exceptional skater. He has a powerful stride that aids in accelerating to his top-speed. He uses his edge work to change direction and has the ability to stop-and-start is exceptional. He is one of the best players in this class at protecting the puck while skating through the neutral zones and offensive zone. Kakko’s balance on his skates allows him to work along the boards and in the corners with efficiency even while playing against men in the Liiga, Finland’s top level league. Kakko plays with power and physicality in all aspects of his game. In the video below, you can see Kaapo Kakko as the primary puck carrier on the powerplay utilizing his teammates to open space for himself and the zone entry. Once in the zone, he doesn’t shoot the puck around the boards, rather he turns back looking for a pass.
Kaapo Kakko is the primary puck-carrier on the powerplay entry for his unit. This is a play they’ve been doing all tournament on the man advantage. Kakko drops it back to the defenceman, swings outside, and gets a pass back. The play has been very successful for them so far. pic.twitter.com/G3hcL1ZEQi
— Sam (@DraftLook) January 1, 2019
Tweet courtesy of @DraftLook
One of the biggest misnomers in the evaluations of Kakko is that he is an excellent sniper. This isn’t the case however. Kaapo Kakko is a very complete player. Defensively, Kakko tracks back into the zone like a center and does a good job of staying involved in the play in his own end. Kakko’s high hockey IQ allows him to follow plays and read the play as it develops. His positioning is sound and he regularly disrupts offensive plays for the other team. When the puck goes to the boards he is able to successfully battle for the puck, recovering and transitioning to offence with ease. Using his powerful stride and excellent agility to weave his way into the offensive zone.
Once into the offensive zone, the outstanding tools that Kakko possesses are able to show their true value. When Kakko is going full bore, he can’t be stopped. His ability to protect the puck, drive to the net with power and finish with soft hands in tight. In tight on the net, Kakko is able to gain position in front of the net or in the slot and make small adjustments to change the shooting angle. Kakko’s tool set includes the ability to score from anywhere on the ice. Kakko’s shot is hard and heavy, it comes off his stick lightning quick which causes goalies to be often unprepared for the shot. He locates his shot quite well from anywhere in the offensive zone. Below is an example of his outstanding shot. This shot from the point comes as he rotates to cover the pinching defender on the blue line and the retrieves an excellent pass for a one-timer.
— IIHF (@IIHFHockey) May 11, 2019
Tweet courtesy of @IIHFHockey
While not necessarily known for his playmaking ability, Kakko has excellent vision and delivers passes with precision and crisp pace. He has the hockey IQ to read and recognize where and when his teammates will be in prime scoring areas. The young Finn is able to drive the net and create space and drawing extra attention. The second that Kakko realizes where his teammates are in open space, he fires a pass on their tape. Kakko does an excellent job finding space for himself or others and then making passes that many players can’t because he reads the play better than most.
Coming into the season Kakko was ranked second or third on almost all public draft boards. The dazzling Finn knew he’d be spending his season with TPS of the Liiga, the top men’s league in Finland. Kakko opted to attend the World Junior Showcase rather than the Hlinka-Gretzky tournament. A similar decision was made by other top prospects Jack Hughes and Dylan Cozens. Kakko didn’t blow anyone away at the showcase but he played a lessor role on a U20 squad as a 17-year-old. With the beginning of the Liiga season around the corner, the Showcase was merely a warm-up for what was still to come.
Deferring to teammates, Growing in the Liiga
At just 17 years of age, Kakko was set to spend the season in the Liiga. The top men’s league in his home nation of Finland was the perfect place for a physically mature player who dominated the junior level. Playing on TPS, a team expected to have a good season, Kakko started a bit timid. While he was putting up points at a good rate, he played to role of playmaker and relied on his high IQ and vision to make plays for his teammates to mediocre results. Deferring on good shot chances to set his teammates for marginally better chances despite a stark contrast in skill level in favour of Kakko often led to empty chances.
The first couple months of the season past and the production for Kakko was solid as he had nine goals and 20 points in 29 games, he was scoring at a pace that would come close to setting some age-17 season records in the Liiga. Kakko secured a spot on the Finnish World Junior U20 squad and despite being a young player, he was expected to play a large role on offence. After a successful tournament, shining on the world stage and coming home with the gold medal, Kakko’s confidence seemed to have grown.
Video courtesy of Hockey Prospect Center Youtube channel
Upon his return to TPS, Kakko began to exhibit his full skill set. The timidness and deferring that seemed to be evident in his game early in the season was gone. Replaced by a man possessed, Kakko began his true ascension to challenging for the top spot on the draft. The young Finn unleashed the power side of his game on his Liiga opponents, showing that although he was yet to grow into a man himself, he could play like a man amongst boys in a men’s league.
The second half tear for Kakko ended up driving him to a record breaking season. Battling against men, he showed his physical maturity compared to most 17/18-year-old players. His powerful skating and protection of the puck was key in being able to play his game in a league that rarely has effective players at Kakko’s stage of development play major roles. Kakko finished the season averaging north of 18 minutes a night, at times playing in all situations. His 22-goal campaign broke the record previously held by Alexander Barkov for draft eligible players in Liiga play. Kakko’s penchant for scoring was paying dividends during the second half of the season, which helped earn him a spot on the men’s IIHF World Championships team for his home country of Finland. Kakko continued to prove that he was not only worthy of being considered for the first overall pick, he should be taken in the if top spot.
Video courtesy of Puck Prodigy Youtube channel
The international stage has been Kakko’s biggest stage all year. Initially he showed up huge for the Finnish World Junior U20 team as a 17-year-old. Then after his 18th birthday he was able to show his true potential and skill against men in the men’s IIHF World Championships. Showing up as a big-time player on the big stage has been the primary driving force for Kakko’s ascension to truly challenging Hughes for the top spot.
In the World Junior Championships, Kakko played a huge role for the Finns. Despite being just 17 years of age, Kakko was able to manhandle players two years his senior. Scoring 5 points in seven games was impressive enough for a player at his age in a tournament traditionally dominated by 19-year-olds. The moment that Kakko will likely be remembered best for during his draft year may have come during this tournament. Going into the gold medal game against Jack Hughes and the United States, Kakko was the hero for his national team. The video below shows the biggest goal of Kakko’s young career. Kakko battled in front of the net, finding the loose puck after a shot from the point was lost in traffic. Kakko was able to put the Finnish team ahead with just over a minute remaining.
#WJC: There it is — Kaapo Kakko pots what turns into the golden goal as Finland beats Team USA 3-2 to win WJC gold. What a tournament.
Congrats to Finland. They really were the beast team. pic.twitter.com/CqfIDNw1fw
— Steve Kournianos (@TheDraftAnalyst) January 6, 2019
Tweet courtesy of @DraftAnalyst
His follow-up international performance helped produce the same result, only this time at the men’s level. Following the elimination of his club team, TPS, from the Liiga playoffs, Kakko joined Finland’s entry into the IIHF World Hockey Championships. This was a chance to prove that the young Finn was ready for top competition. Having shown that he was able to play against men in the Liiga, this was a chance to prove that he could keep up with and compete with NHL caliber talent. To say he past this test would be an understatement. Kakko produced six goals and seven points in ten games, helping Finland to another gold medal. Despite having 0 NHL goals on the Finnish team and only two players to have played a game in the NHL this past season, Finland was not expected to be a factor at this tournament. Play began and the Liiga-player-led Finns were impressive to say the least, Kakko maybe among the most impressive. In the video below, Kakko does an excellent job finding space in the middle of the ice as he crosses the blue line to recieve the pass but then the magic happens. Kakko is tripped up by a diving Canadian defender, at which point the Finnish sensation performs a balancing act, going up on one leg and outlasting the Canadian netminder before tucking in a beautiful, highlight reel goal to open the tournament for the Finns.
Absolutely incredible #IIHFWorlds debut for Kaapo Kakko. Finland🇫🇮 (very weak roster minus Kakko) defeats Canada 🇨🇦who has lots of NHL talent. This is the goal Kakko scores on Matt Murray @pitchforkedpuck pic.twitter.com/Jk5cR4MG5l
— Vinnie Parise (@VinnieParise) May 10, 2019
Tweet courtesy of @VinnieParise
What the Detractors Say
This may be the easiest prospect to pick out a weakness. There isn’t one really. His defensive game could improve a bit but he is already quite good in his own area. One of his weaknesses during the first half of the season was the fact that he was deferring too much to other more experienced players on TPS in Liiga. As the season wore on this became less of an issue as he was able to become more aggressive. The one thing that Kakko can do to continue to improve is to build muscle as he matures physically. Continuing to stay competitive and engaged once he arrives in the NHL will be key to any players progression and Kakko is no different. Kakko is a very complete player.
Kaapo Kakko will be taken…
Second overall, possibly first. Kaapo Kakko is clearly one of the top two prospects available for this draft. The gap between Kakko and Hughes had become smaller and smaller through the the season. Many around the scouting and prospect world feel that the talents levels of the two became razor thin, one way or the other, after the IIHF World Championships. Kakko played outstanding throughout the year, improving steadily all year long.
The record setting year for the next great Finn was absolutely phenomenal. He deserves to be the first overall pick, and any other year he would probably be the clear cut number one. This year he headlines a draft that has two franchise talents, Hughes and himself, along with an extremely strong top half of the draft. Kakko’s complete game, offensive domination at times and his penchant for winning have all made him a can’t miss prospect that either the New Jersey Devils or New York Rangers will be able to build around for years to come.
For more on the NHL, prospects and the NHL Draft, follow me here at @TheTonyFerrari on twitter!