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A deeper look at Joni Ikonen’s first year in the pros

Comparing Ikonen’s performance to those who have taken a similar path, with comments on his stuggles and progression from his coaches.

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It is difficult to assess Joni Ikonen’s first full season playing with the professionals, especially considering that there are not enough NHL players from Finland that either stayed in Finland or went back to their native country for the season after the draft. It is interesting, however, to know where Ikonen stands at the moment in relation to the ones who did.

We have to remember that Ikonen played 10 games, with short minutes, in the SHL and three games under similar circumstances in the Champions Hockey League with Frölunda last year, showing promise but not being very successful. He was an upcoming player, someone whom Frölunda looked at with interest, and he had a year left on the contract with Frölunda, with the team hoping he could break in with the SHL team during the 2017-18 season.

Eyes On The Prize spoke with Frölunda’s head coach Roger Rönnberg a few days after the draft about Ikonen’s strengths and potential development with the team, and Rönnberg had quite a few good things to say about the Finnish prospect.

While the breakup with Frölunda wasn’t the smoothest, and interrupted his summer training, his coach for KalPa, former NHLer Sami Kapanen, shed some light on the situation when he spoke with us.

“The summer [of the draft year] is a lot of times really chaotic and hectic for young European players. They travel back and forth [between North America and Europe] for the combine camp, come back to Europe and then it’s the NHL draft. Some players will even travel back [to Europe] before the development camp.”

This takes its toll on the young players and sets back the recovery time and practice regimen. This is probably one big reason for the slow start to the season Ikonen experienced.

There is no denying his difficulty at the beginning of this year, and every time something good happened Montreal Canadiens fans expected Ikonen to break through and start to produce at a higher level than before, hoping it was a sign that the young centre had adjusted to a the professional ranks and a new league.

His ice time has varied over the season but it has been trending upward. There are a few games with extremely low time on ice, but a closer look at the data reveals that those games have come when KalPa found itself trailing its opponent, especially at the start of the season. While the odd game with less than 10 minutes TOI still shows up in the data, they are not as frequent as they were.

Coach Kapanen says Ikonen “has taken some major steps” this season. He also points out that “we all know he was a talented, offensively gifted player,” but mentioned that it had only been shown at the junior level. “When we started to compete at the CHL, especially against teams like Malmö and Brno, the players are experienced professionals we could see that the physical readiness competing and protecting the puck wasn’t exactly at the level it needs to be to play in a high level in the Liiga.” The loss of confidence from not being able to transition to the pros immediately added to the woes.

At the mid-season evaluation, Coach Kapanen says it was clear that Ikonen had reached “a whole other level,” especially when it comes to puck protection and his defensive awareness. Kapanen says Ikonen’s role has increased over the season, and he’s now relied upon in tougher situations like at the end of the game, especially in situations where KalPa is in the lead and the opposing team is chasing the equalizer.

This obviously leads to increased ice time, as Ikonen now plays in situations that he used to sit out, which is nothing but positive for his development. It also points to something that Ikonen’s former coach in Frölunda said: “he has his best assets in the smartness of the game.” A coach wants smart players on the ice at all times, but especially when the game hangs in a balance, and Ikonen has had the potential to be one such player. It is close to the end of the season, and KalPa seems likely to grab a spot in the playoffs without going through the wild-card round, and Ikonen has played a role is achieving that.

Looking at the players who have stayed in Liiga (or been on loan to a Liiga club after signing with an NHL team) Ikonen’s stats looks similar to Leo Komarov’s in his draft-plus-one year, which is somewhat reassuring, but we will have to remember that Komarov’s path to the NHL wasn’t a linear one.

KalPa has worked itself up the standings table, despite having scored the second-fewest goals (129) in the league; a situation not all the other prospects we are comparing Ikonen to have experienced. Still, Ikonen is marooned at the bottom of this table, and it is not an encouraging sight for Canadiens fans.

He has worked out hard during the season, which is clear given the way he has built up muscle, and it seems to have led to an increased confidence that obviously translates well onto the ice too.

However comparing Ikonen with some of the other Finnish players that stayed in Finland after their draft in 2017, it is clear that he has struggled more than others to adjust to the professional game.

Kristian Vesalainen is the standout in this comparison. He played on a low-ranked team, HPK (131 goals scored), and still has produced the most. (He has transfered from HPK to Kärpät for the last part of the season and the playoffs).

Playing for top teams has probably helped the next three prospects on the list. Virta and Palmu with TPS and Repo in Tappara are probably benefitting from the increased production of these teams (166 and 146 goals scored, respectively) compared to KalPa’s situation.

Adding to a bit of discrepancy is the fact that Virta (1996), Palmu (1997), and Repo (1996), and even Ikonen’s teammate Eetu Loustarinen, have been passed over in at least one NHL draft. The comparison with Alexandre Texier also falters a bit as Texier has played a full season with the pros in Ligue Magnus (France) and will have gotten used to the bigger players there, even if the league itself isn’t known for producing high-level prospects.

While Ikonen is at the bottom of the table when it comes to points, in both comparisons, the attitude that both Ikonen and Coach Kapanen have about his development is something to build from. Having a former NHL player as a coach is also something that can benefit Joni Ikonen as his coach has been there and done that, and can serve as an inspiration.

Where can Ikonen make his biggest improvement? Coach Kapanen is clear that it all comes down to his mobility.

“We need to make sure that the skating is on a higher level, as it looks like the NHL, year by year, is getting a lot faster. So he’s got to be ready to respond to that one and get on to a certain level in order to compete with the top players.”

The fact that the Canadiens see Ikonen as an investment for the future is also obvious, as they sent a specialist coach over to Finland to help with his workout program and special drills, something that should help an undersized player to prepare for a jump across the Atlantic to the smaller rinks when he is ready.

It will be interesting to see Ikonen in the playoffs. He has now adjusted to the regular season of professional play, so the next step is to show he can handle the increased pressure and play of the post-season. It is the next step on the ladder to reaching his full potential.

The important thing is that Ikonen’s trend is positive. He has increased his workload and has earned more time on ice. He looks more comfortable in a pro league than he did before. He also has a coach that believes in him and pushes him the right way.

It is obvious that this summer will be of great importance to Ikonen’s development, and not having to travel as much over to North America and not switching teams in the off-season should only increase the development of the young centre. While the numbers might be disheartening, hearing Mr. Kapanen speak about his young charge in such glowing terms should be encouragement enough in the Montreal camp.

You can find previous interviews relating to Ikonen by listening to the conversation with Roger Rönnberg or hearing from Joni Ikonen himself. The full interview with coach Sami Kapanen is below.