One of the great predictors of the ability to play pro hockey in North America is a track record of playing pro hockey elsewhere. At 26th overall, Finnish defenseman Mikko Kokkonen might be the player with the most pro experience available to the Calgary Flames.
Originally from Mikkeli, Finland, Kokkonen is a left shot defender who’s listed at 5-foot-11 and 198 pounds. He made his pro debut in 2016-17 at the age of 16, playing a game in the top SM-Liiga and three in the secondary Mestis. He spent most of 2017-18 split between SM-Liiga and Mestis, and then almost all of 2018-19 in SM-Liiga with Jukurit. All-told, he heads into the 2019 NHL Draft with 101 pro games under his belt. That’s not nothing.
Dobber Prospects’ Jokke Nevalainen broke down Kokkonen’s season:
Kokkonen has been a full-time player in the Liiga this season. He has 10 points in 21 games which is historically good production for a 17-year-old defenseman. Kokkonen is a reliable two-way defenseman who does everything well but doesn’t excel in any aspect of the game. He isn’t a flashy player by any means but he gets the job done both offensively and defensively. He’s very mature for his age both physically and mentally which has allowed him to play a significant role at the pro level. Kokkonen should be a lock for the World Juniors.
Over at Finn Prospects, Asko Huuki provided some more details about Kokkonen’s game:
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.
Kokkonen’s not flashy. But he plays a smart, structured game, and he played over 20 minutes a night in Finland’s top pro league at a 17-year-old because his coaches trusted him. He’s a player who’s good at everything, but arguably not great at anything. But he’s also barely 18, so there’s still opportunity for him to keep developing.
In his second season with Jukurit, Kokkonen had three goals and 19 points in 56 games. (He also represented Finland at the Hlinka Gretzky Cup and the Under-18 Worlds.)
Among all defenders in SM-Liiga, Kokkonen was 25th in points, 53rd in goals and 22nd in assists. But he was eighth in points among all under-20 skaters in the league (second among U20 defenders) and tied for second among all under-18 skaters in the league (first among U18 defenders).
Ville Heinola was the other blueliner with nearly as many points. Heinola played fewer games and had more points per game, but he also played on a team that (a) scored more and (b) won a lot more games. Jukurit was second-last in SM-Liiga, so Kokkonen had to do a lot more to help keep them afloat.
Availability and fit
Kokkonen is one of those players who rankers seem to lack consensus on – it might be due to the questions about how high his developmental ceiling is. ISS has him outside the first round, Dobber Prospects has him 35th, the Draft Analyst/Sporting News has him 69th, my rankings at The Hockey Writers have him 31st, Sportsnet has him outside the first round, The Athletic has him 78th and 23rd, and The Hockey News has him 62nd. He’s in the first round mix, but it seems likely that he’ll slide into the second round.
The Flames always seem to like grabbing Finnish or Swedish defenders. Kokkonen’s pro experience is likely also a plus, as is his track record as a smart two-way player. If nothing else, he seems like a “safe” pick – there may not be a lot of sexy attributes in his game, but there are no big red flags either. He’s under contract to Jukurit for another couple seasons – there’s a transfer agreement between the NHL and the Finns – but he seems like a guy that could come over to North America and be at least a useful depth body for the Flames for years.
Is rolling the dice on Kokkonen’s upside worth getting a guy who’s been as reliable as he has been in SM-Liiga? It likely depends on what other players are still available at 26th overall.
2019 first round targets