The last time the Calgary Flames took a player in the first round, they came away with Jusso Valimaki who was a great selection with the 16th overall pick. Anttoni Honka is another smooth-skating Finnish defender that could be available when the Flames reach the draft podium this year, and the Flames may be keen to repeat that pattern. However, while most scouts agreed on the general ranking of Valimaki, Honka may just be the most divisive player at this year’s draft.
The younger brother of former first round pick Julius Honka, the younger Honka was all over the map during 2018-19, both with his play and geographically speaking. The right-handed defender started the year with JYP in the Finnish Liiga after having a very good year with them in the previous season, as his offensive talent and skating ability helped make up for only being 5’10”.
However, he started out this year with just four points in his first 15 games, and showed the lack of commitment to defensive play that has scouts so perplexed over what kind of player Honka will truly end up being.
He would play with four different teams over the course of the season (not including being a tag-along for the gold-winning Finnish Juniors team) before turning it on with KeuPa HT in the Mestis league, which is essentially the Finnish minors. He was fantastic during the playoffs for them, which again left scouts divided.
Was it good that he was dominating the play at a level where he was expected to do so? Or is it a knock against Honka that as an older player in this year’s draft he still couldn’t find that true top gear? The answer won’t truly reveal itself until we see how the gamble of drafting him pays off, likely years down the road.
The Athletic’s Scott Wheeler had this to say about Honka (paywall):
Honka, though not to the level of Merkley, is mega talented. That makes evaluating him at lower levels difficult because he can dominate without having to try terribly hard. And though I think he deserves more credit for how good he was in Finland’s top junior ranks this year, or down the stretch in its second-tier pro league Mestis (he was excellent in the Mestis playoffs and that’s not insignifact), this analysis will attempt to play devil’s advocate by breaking down his Liiga play. It’s warranted seeing as he’s on the older side of the draft class and scouts are right to expect more maturity in his game and because some scouts say his play, as reflected by a minus-14 rating across 24 Liiga games this season, was awful (hence the shuffling across four different teams this season). Concerns about Honka aren’t concerns about skill, they’re about effort, commitment in the defensive zone, attitude and skating.
Most people – myself included – expected Honka to show improved defensive game and decision-making this season in the Liiga but clearly that didn’t happen. We were also expecting him to improve his game in the Mestis but that wasn’t visible at the World Juniors either. He was a number seven defenseman [sic] for Team Finland, and even though he showed some good flashes, his weaknesses were also clearly visible.
This is very much a case of the player’s destiny being in their own hands, as Honka has all the skills physically to put it together but might end up being a bust. Someone is going to bet on him, and they’re going to hope that it’s actually a risk worth taking on, because having a mobile defender like that is crucial in the way the NHL is evolving.
There definitely isn’t a lack of numbers, as playing for so many teams means you get to hit a plethora of different scorecards. Figuring out which numbers are the best predictors though is the challenge here. Do you look at the three goals and eight points for his 27 combined Liiga games? Or do you look at the three goal, 11 point performance during KeuPa HT’s 17 games in the playoffs?
Maybe you look at the zero minutes played in the third period of the gold medal match at this year’s World Juniors, because the Finnish coaching staff decided they’d had enough with Honka. It lines up with the zero points he produced overall during that tournament.
All in all, Honka played 50 regular season games for all his teams, totalling seven goals and 24 points. Having a defender produce half a point a game is a great clip, but this is definitely a case where the numbers only scratch the surface.
Availability and fit
The Flames currently have two prospects that are right-handed defensemen, and that’s only if you still consider Rasmus Andersson to be a prospect. The cupboard is pretty bare in that regard, so there is a fit for Honka.
Will he be available at 26th overall? Odds are pretty good, lest another team decides to make molding him into their number one priority. This seems unlikely though, as for all the talent that Honka does possess, he isn’t otherworldly.
The situation could end up playing out like another recent Flames draft pick. If general manager Brad Treliving and his staff decide that they like Honka and he starts to slide on draft day, they might try and make a play for him at a later point – similar to other mercurial 2015 draft selection Oliver Kylington. Treliving has shown no hesitation to go with players that are on the smaller side of the scale, as well as players who he knows will take a few years to truly blossom.
We’ve seen Treliving start to transition more from being a cautious GM to being one who is willing to swing for the fences. Honka does line up in that category, although maybe not in the first round.