Prospect of Interest: No. 2-ranked Kaapo Kakko

kaapo-kakko-of-finalnd-celebrates-goal

Finland's Kaapo Kakko celebrates after scoring during the 2019 IIHF worlds. (Petr David Josek/AP)

Get ready for some highlights, hockey fans. Kaapo Kakko is coming to the NHL and all signs point to this prospect being ready for the pros.

U.S. National Development Program forward Jack Hughes has been the most talked about player throughout this draft year, but Kakko might just be the most intriguing. The speedy winger didn’t attend the NHL Scouting Combine earlier this month after claiming gold at the world championships, but he didn’t need to – he’s got quite the resume as it is, having turned early-season success into a pretty incredible draft year in Finland’s top league and on the international stage.

Fans will fall in love with the Finn’s fast-paced game and creative playmaking, while coaches and teammates have already been raving about his drive and dedication to improving his craft.

Kakko is about as NHL-ready as they come. Here’s what you need to know about the soon-to-be star:

Age: 18 (born Feb. 13, 2001)
Height: 6-foot-2
Weight: 194 pounds
Position: RW
Shoots: Left
Current team: TPS (Finnish Liiga)

He’s already playing – and playing well – amongst men

After a dominant junior season in 2017-18 that saw him tally 25 goals and 55 points in 38 games, Kakko was clearly ready for the next step and he wasted no time making his mark on Finland’s top league while playing for his hometown team, TPS, in Turku, Finland.

The teenager shot out of the gates with a red-hot September, scoring three goals and adding four assists for seven points in his first eight games in Finland’s elite league, including back-to-back game-winning goals in his first two contests of 2018-19.

Not only did he lead his team in goals (22) and game-winners (7) this past season, Kakko also surpassed Aleksander Barkov’s Liiga record for most goals scored by an under-18 prospect (Barkov scored 21 markers in 2012-13 before being selected second overall by the Florida Panthers, and he played eight more games than Kakko). He also finished the season ranked sixth in goals league-wide and second among his first-year peers in overall points (38) while earning rookie-of-the-year honours.

We call him a scorer, he prefers playmaker

He’s both, of course — his highlights say it all — but he views himself as a setup man.

“I like to play in the offensive zone and play and handle the puck, creating plays and scoring situations for teammates,” he told NHL.com’s Mike Morreale via an interpreter last summer.

He’s great at reading the play and controlling the pace and can nimbly maneuver himself out of a tight spot and into scoring position in a way that looks effortless. He’s also pretty tough to knock off the puck.

Kakko’s TPS linemate for much of the 2018-19 season, Zach Budish, painted a pretty nice picture of what it’s like to play alongside the youngster:

“He sees plays before they happen,” Budish told Morreale in an article published on NHL.com earlier this month. “They always say you can’t give a good player a bad pass, and I’m sure I had a couple of assists that Kaapo made look even better than they were, but he found a way to open up and find the puck, get it on net. He’s got all the skills in the world, but he’ll go to the dirty areas. Yes, he gets the fancy goals you see on the highlights, but a lot of his goals are net-front, rebounds where he beats the guy 1-on-1. He has such quick hands to put home little plays in front of the net within 5-to-10 feet in the crease.”

If he looks like he’s operating at a pace that’s one step ahead of his peers, it’s because he is. His keen hockey sense and offensive vision make him a constant threat in enemy territory, not to mention, really fun to watch – even in practice.

“The things Kaapo did in practice were insane,” Budish said. “I played in Milwaukee (Nashville’s AHL club) for four seasons and saw guys like Kevin Fiala and Filip Forsberg who are pretty skilled. But Kaapo is different.”

(Yeah, we’re talking about practice right now.)

He excelled on the international stage – just ask Jack Hughes

A remarkable year in Finland’s top league wasn’t the only thing propelling Kakko to the top of his draft class this year to challenge Hughes for the top spot. Perhaps the best way to contextualize his rapid development is by looking at his clutch performances on the international stage over the past year.

He tallied four goals and 10 points in seven games to help the Finns claim gold over Team USA at the Under-18 World Championship in April 2018 – a tournament in which Hughes was named MVP. He then ushered in the new year with another gold against Hughes’ American squad – this time at the world juniors, with Kakko scoring the game-winner with less than two minutes to go. Looks like we’ve got ourselves a rivalry for years to come.

Kakko topped off his incredible international run this past May by leading Finland’s men’s team to gold at the 2019 World Championship with a team-high six goals.

Kakko’s three gold medals in a 13-month span as a teen isn’t just impressive, it’s historic – at 18, he broke Connor McDavid’s record as the youngest player to win gold at the under-18 tournament, world juniors, and world championship (McDavid was 19 when he completed the trifecta).

Unsurprisingly, his performance in May earned him some pretty high praise from national team head coach Jukka Jalonen, who was clear about what he’d do if he found himself in the Devils’ position:

“If New Jersey wants a winner, they should pick Kakko,” Jalonen told Julie Robenhymer during the tournament.

“Hughes is a great player as well, but in the important games, Kakko has always been better,” he said. “He is already playing like a man. He could play in the NHL right now, and in a few months, he will be even better. After a few years, he will be one of the best players in the world.”

“I’m glad I’ve been able to play well and execute,” Kakko told NHL.com correspondent Aaron Vickers via a translator in May. “There are so many great NHL players in this tournament and it’s huge I’ve been able to play well against them. I’m hoping I could play in the NHL.”

He’s the next man up in a strong line of Finnish success

Considering the circumstances of this year’s draft – a high-scoring Finnish winger chasing a strong USNTDP centreman – it’s easy to suggest Kakko is the Laine to Hughes’ Auston Matthews, but Kakko says it’s actually Matthews whom he models his game after.

TPS’s director of hockey operations, Antero Niittymaki, compared Kakko’s impact on the team to that of fellow Finn Saku Koivu and added that he believes “Kaapo is also right there with other players who starred in Liiga before getting drafted like Aleksander Barkov, Patrik Laine, and Sebastian Aho.”

Another common comparison is Mikko Rantanen, who also played for TPS and who followed up a remarkable NHL breakout in 2017-18 with another tremendous 80-plus point season in 2018-19 as one of the most dynamic young forwards in the league. Kakko said he’s a fan of Rantanen’s, who was drafted 10th overall in 2015.

“In some ways, he reminds me a lot of Mikko Rantanen at the same age, but I think Kaapo is a better skater, more skilled,” Niittymaki said of the two TPS alumni.

When you look back at the past three drafts leading up to the 2019 edition, a Finnish prospect has been selected in the top three of each: Jesperi Kotkaniemi to Montreal in 2018, Miro Heiskanen to Dallas in 2017, and Patrick Laine to Winnipeg in 2016. (That 2016 draft was particularly stacked with Finnish talent, with Jesse Puljujarvi and Olli Juolevi going fourth and fifth.) That’s an incredibly strong run for Finland, a country of 5.52 million, and that will continue with Kakko.

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