Expectations on Joni Ikonen were low for 2018-19. His previous season had been a disappointment, even if his underlying numbers were better than many thought. It was his offensive output that got him drafted in the second round, and that was limited, to say the least. Those expectations were even lower when adding in the eight months away from the ice due to a knee injury suffered in off-season training.
But the centre quickly answered the doubters — me included — when in his third game back he netted an amazing goal in Liiga.
Ikonen followed up that goal with two the next day, truly making it a weekend to remember for KalPa, and Montreal fans who needed to see progress. Ikonen’s skating was back to the fluid sweeping strides he had in Junior hockey, and the exemplary work ethic stood out as he once again played with confidence. This benefited a KalPa team that was in need of wins and goal-scoring as they pushed for a playoff spot after having struggled in the opening part of the season, though they did end up falling short in the end.
Ikonen played only 13 games, but came away from those with 10 points (5G, 5A). Half of the points came on the power play, where the deadly combination of Ikonen and now-Columbus Blue Jackets forward Alexandre Texier worked well. Ikonen had four fewer points in 13 games compared to the 2018 season when he scored 14 (4G, 10A) over 52 games.
Looking at Ikonen’s stats though the two seasons in Liiga, it is important to realize that Ikonen’s first season wasn’t as bad as one might have thought. When comparing the two seasons, the underlying numbers actually show them to be very similar. What really stands out is the shift in offensive zone starts, which has fallen with more than five percentage points as his sheltering has been decreased.
What really stood out in the games that Ikonen played was his confidence both with his play and his body. The poise with the puck was there off and on last season, but this year it was a secure Ikonen who delivered passes with accuracy even into traffic as well as bringing the puck into contested areas. He trusted himself to come out with the puck, and often succeeded where last year the puck was lost in the scramble.
A lot of things stand out with Ikonen this year. He has built up some muscle, which has benefitted him on the ice. His confidence is back, which has led to him returning to the swashbuckle style of play that he displayed in his Junior years. Back was also his shot, which was another thing that scouts were factoring in on draft day.
The biggest thing for the causal observer might be the fact that it was visible that he has put in the work, in a prolonged off-season, to develop as a hockey player. His character was no longer in question, and that bodes well for his future development.
It is a shame to say it, but injuries are what stand out this season. After his return, he was out for a few games with minor injuries before cutting the season short due to a small muscle injury. Rather than aggravate it, he and KalPa chose rest for the last games of the season.
The centre has cast away any doubts about his commitment and matured as a player in every aspect of his game. He took the chance to build up his body with the injury break, and it made him look more secure and more confident in his play with or without the puck. Unfortunately he only played 13 games this season, but those games showed that the centre is ready to take on a bigger responsibility with KalPa and to have a real breakout season when Liiga starts again in September.
The sample size is very limited, and to be honest I would have graded Ikonen’s last season with an F, but when he was on the ice this season he was a completely different player. Everything I would have wished for Ikonen to work upon after last season seems to have been improved. If he would have kept this pace up for the full season, or even half the season, the grade would have been an A.
Even though questions about his durability and how injury prone he is will linger, with the steps forward that he has taken, I am quite confident the correct grade is given, especially considering how he handled the adversity with the knee injury.