This is an article I have been dreading to write for a couple of weeks. It is important to know we are speaking about people here, in this case a young, talented Finn. Joni Ikonen’s return to the the ice this season is an absolutely stunning thing; playing in one of the top five to six leagues in the world (depending on how you rank the NLA) after a two-year absence is close to a miracle, and no one can fault his character. Based on that alone, he would get a much better grade than he will at the end of this article.
His return on January 23 this year was something many had looked forward to, and Ikonen scored a goal in his second game back, showing flashes of what made him a very intriguing prospect at the time of the draft. However, taking into account the overall season that he had play wise, there are some things that stand out.
#Habs Joni Ikonen scores in his second game back from his injury. Ikonen wears #11 and is in the middle of the slot.— Patrik Bexell (@Zeb_Habs) January 29, 2021
Ikonen told me “The knee felt good, and also solid.” after last game, I am sure he feels even better after this:
A @HabsEOTP report pic.twitter.com/jfZHfcfjOn
His skating is good for having been off the ice for so long, and his knee seems to hold up well to twists, turns, and board battles. His defensive reads are where you can spot his absence from the ice easiest. In many ways his hockey IQ is rusty; he overcommits and puck-watches a bit too much. While he has added kilos to his frame he is still on the smaller side, and he has been pushed around in situations on the ice, away from the boards. Despite that, it actually seems that he is most comfortable along the boards rather than in the open ice in front of the net.
Ikonen has shown that his shot is still strong. He has a quick release and he hides it well. He can be useful on the power play, and he got some chances with Ilves in his shortened season. Unfortunately, he really didn’t grab those chances. he finished his season with five points (2G, 3A) in 28 games, including five playoff games, for a 0.18 points-per-game average. These numbers are lower than his draft-plus-one year when he had 10 points (3G, 7A) in 47 games (0.21 PPG).
Ikonen’s upside has always been on the attacking side of the puck and he shows flashes of those instincts every now and then. His puck-possession and his shot are the most noticeable characteristics.
Much like Martin Réway, Ikonen was never a player that would fill out your bottom six, where those talents wouldn’t come to use. He needs to be played in the top six, and on the first power-play unit. The numbers this year show that he really doesn’t get those opportunities anymore as other players have passed his development level due to the long injury breaks.
His body is what will hold him back. It is terrible to write it out, but it is the truth. His long time off the ice has made other players pass him in Liiga, and the jump to the top league in the world is not one ocean wide anymore; it is as far as the distance to the moon.
Adding to that distance is his play in the defensive zone. It is one thing to watch the games and try to do your homework from afar, but nothing beats the real thing, and Ikonen has been left behind his classmates.
If I were to only grade Ikonen’s character and drive it would be an A. To come back from the injuries he has dealt with speaks about a player that has an enormous drive and can will his body to perform. Unfortunately, we have to grade the whole package, and Ikonen hasn’t developed at the necessary rate. His five points in 28 games are too low for someone who would look to play in the AHL/NHL for next season as an offensive dynamo. He didn’t get the chance to lead from the top line, but he has to deserve to lead it too. He can not just come in and demand a top role, and it is to Joni’s credit that he hasn’t.
Combining that with the defensive-zone problems, there really isn’t any other grade to give. Ikonen hasn’t failed, he has just been unable to make an impact to reach the NHL.
In many ways I think that Ikonen and Ilves were aware of the situation last summer as he signed a two-year contract. The organization was very careful in managing the games that he played in. He mostly played two out of three games in a week, or if he played three games one week his TOI was managed accordingly.
I can certainly see Joni Ikonen as a professional hockey player, but it will be in Europe, starting with Liiga and with a good season perhaps moving to the KHL, NLA, or maybe even the SHL if the breakup with Frölunda hasn’t scared the other clubs away.
He needs to be signed by Montreal this spring in order for Montreal to keep his rights. With the season that Ikonen has had, I have a tough time seeing that happening.