Christian Roatis: Kaapo Kakko could be one of the best prospects to come out of Finland in recent years, but there doesn’t seem be another high flying follow up to him. How would you characterize this Finnish draft class as a whole? Is it a little lighter on high end talent than recent years?
I would say the Finnish draft class is pretty good. It may not have similar high-end talent compared to some of the most recent years, but there are a lot of solid players available after Kakko, who is without doubt the cream of the crop. Because of the depth that this draft class has to offer, I’m confident that there will be at least 20 Finnish picks, probably even more.
On Kakko, he’s been considered an elite prospect for years, but has garnered a ton more attention in recent months with a strong finish to his Liiga season and a dynamite World Championships, to the point some believe him to be the worthy first overall selection in the 2019 NHL Draft. Are you in this camp? What’s your evaluation of Kakko, do you see superstar potential in him?
I absolutely see superstar potential in Kakko. He has always elevated his game when moving up to a higher league and I think his style of play will fit very well in North American ice. He can already create a lot of offense in small spaces and he’s one of the smartest players I have evaluated over the last five years or so. He is already extremely strong on the puck and will be even tougher to play against with additional muscle. He gets a lot of recognition for his play in the offensive zone – and deservedly so – but he also competes very hard away from the puck and does the little things. I think the gap between Kakko and Hughes is minimal, so the Devils and the Rangers are going to get players with superstar potential, no matter who goes first.
McKeen’s Hockey doesn’t have another Finnish draft eligible in the top 31 after Kakko. Are there any candidates in your mind to sneak into the first round come June 21?
Lukko defenseman Ville Heinola is someone I could see ending up in the first round. His development has been very impressive over the last three years. He has always played with a lot of poise but I think his offensive game took off this season. He is a confident blueliner who makes smart plays in all areas of the ice. Has a really good stick and maintains tight gaps. Heinola may not be the most flashy or dynamic blueliner but he has an excellent understanding of the game.
Anttoni Honka is a divisive prospect this year, with some slotting him into their first round talent, while others are unwilling to draft him altogether. What is your evaluation of Honka? Why is he such a controversial prospect?
I was very high on Honka going into the season and had projected him as a first rounder. But he was unable to live up to those expectations. He was good at the start of the season in a two-game set against Czech Republic U20, however, his play was less than stellar in the other international tournaments, where his lack of physicality and defensive awareness were exposed. He’s a very good skater with great puck skills but his decision making is very subpar. For me, the ultimate question is can he put all the pieces of his game together? He has a lot of work ahead in certain aspects of the game.
Finland has a reputation for producing high-end goaltenders year in and year out. Are there any netminders in this draft class that you feel have the potential to continue that trend?
In goal, I think this is definitely a down year for Finland and we may have to wait until middle or even late rounds to see the first Finnish goalie picked. Pelicans U20 goalie Jasper Patrikainen is the top Finnish netminder in my book. Patrikainen, an overager who was the top goalie in the Finnish U20 league, reads shooters effectively, has good quickness, net coverage and a calm demeanor. I wouldn’t consider him a surefire draftee but personally I’d be willing to use a pick on him.
Every draft produces a number of diamonds in the rough – high potential players that can be had in the later rounds because there’s plenty of work to do to reach that potential. Who do you consider this Finnish draft class’ diamond(s) in the rough, and why?
Overage KooKoo winger Joonas Oden finished the Liiga season with nine points in his last seven games. He is a very good skater, with the agility and speed to be difficult for defensemen to handle. He has good offensive skills and understanding of the game, he controls the puck well in small spaces and can shoot the puck with good results. However, he is not very physical and needs to gain situational toughness. Those flaws apart, there is a lot to like about Oden, as he has a lot of speed, skill and good offensive instincts.
Just like Oden, TPS defenseman Valtteri Pulli’s game got consistently better as the season progressed. He earned a promotion to the U20 team and had some really solid performances. At six-foot-four and 205 pounds, he is a big, mobile defenseman with good wheels and the ability to make sudden changes of direction. He has good strength, a hard point shot and decent puck skills. Pulli is not particularly flashy but his development is trending upwards and I think he has a pretty high ceiling.
Which Finnish draft eligible has been your biggest surprise this season?
I’d have to say Ässät U20 defenseman Antti Tuomisto. He really surprised me by his growth as a player, he has been improving by leaps and bounds. I was especially impressed with his game in one of the U20 tournaments early on the season. He sees the ice well, keeps his head up at all times, has a heavy shot and competes in his own end. He had a ton of ice-time and will stay with Ässät U20 for another year before leaving for the NCAA. I firmly believe that with improvement in his skating, mechanics and strength, he could become a very dependable two-way defenseman.
Who has been your biggest disappointment?
Above-mentioned Honka was the biggest disappointment for me. If there was another player who disappointed – though not to the same degree – it was Antti Saarela. I expected much more from him at the U18 World Championship. He’s a strong skater, versatile and competitive but seems to lack a dominant trait in his offensive skill set, something that I think will drop him in the draft. Oftentimes during the season, I was also hoping that he would be more engaged in the game.
If you had to choose a most overrated and most underrated Finnish prospect (in the public forum) for this year’s draft class, who would they be?
I think Jukurit center Henri Nikkanen is ranked a little bit too high by some. He has great size and puck skills but I have been concerned with his offensive awareness and decision making. His season was hampered by injuries and he was cut from the U18 World Championship roster. Nikkanen does have a lot of raw talent which makes him an intriguing player. Going into the season I considered him a potential top-two round pick, but due to a rough season and some increased concerns around his game, he is more of a mid-round prospect for me now.
Jokerit U20 defenseman Santeri Hatakka had a good season and I think he’s a somewhat underrated. The biggest improvements came in his play in the defensive end, he clearly reduced the number of turnovers and overall became a more reliable player. Hatakka skates well in all directions and is very competitive and assertive. He has improved his shot power as well. He did not have an overly productive season offensively, but he can carry the puck up the ice and is a well-rounded defenseman.
Lastly, who is your favorite Finnish draft eligible this year, and why?
I really liked the way Patrik Puistola played at various levels this year, in the juniors, Mestis and Liiga. He is creative with the puck, has quick hands and sees the ice very well. His ability to generate shots from inside the dots is what makes him extremely dangerous – he can finish from close range and around the net. Tenacious and wins puck battles. He still has to get quicker, however his skating has improved from his U16 days. Puistola is an exciting player with skill, smarts and a special finishing ability.
2019 NHL Draft Scout Series