Finland has never had a player selected first overall in the NHL Entry Draft, and finally the time for this to happen has arrived in 2019. An imposing forward standing at 6’2’’ and 190 pounds, Kaapo Kakko moved into the centre role during the month of December, and his power and creativity made it a smooth transition to be able to excel in that position.
While Jack Hughes played Junior hockey in his draft year, Kakko was playing with the pros, which could have more value in the draft. If that wasn’t enough, Kakko beat Patrik Laine’s Liiga regular-season scoring record for draft-eligible players. While Kakko didn’t have a deep playoff run with TPS, it was he who carried a shell-shocked team in its games against HPK. He was the only hope for his team, and in the end it was too much for the centre to carry the team alone though the quarter-final.
While Kakko was sheltered with offensive zone starts (attacking-defending percentage, or AD%) all through the season and especially in the playoffs, his numbers really stand out compared to his team. In the playoffs, Kakko led TPS in Corsi-for percantage, over two percentage points better than the next player. He led the team in scoring with twice as many goals as the teammate in second.
Birthplace: Turku, Finland
Weight: 190 lbs.
He will not play in the World Under-18 Championship with many of the other prospects in the draft class. He has forgone the teenage squad in order to take a roster spot with the Leijonat’s World Championship team later in the spring.
Kakko is never in a rush. He slows the game down to his own speed, reads the play very well, and oozes hockey IQ. He is usually in the right position even before the puck has left the stick of his teammate. His movement without the puck is great for such a young player, though his speed could be improved during the off-season. His agility and lateral movement already stand out, and suggest that improving his pace shouldn’t require a lot of work.
Due to his size, he can protect the puck well, even in the tough battles along the boards. When his hands aren’t being used to dangle defenders halfway to Helsinki, they’re protecting the puck before delivering a pass out of a scrum to an open teammate.
When he was given the first opportunity to play centre, he grabbed it with both hands. He took control of TPS’s top line and became even more involved in the game than he was on the wing. Had his linemates been as adept at shooting as Kakko is at delivering passes, his point total from a first pro year in Liiga would have been substantially higher.
Rankings (not all rankings are final)
Future Considerations: 2
Hockey Prospect: 2
ISS Hockey: 2
McKeen’s Hockey: 2
NHL Central Scouting: 1 (EU skaters)
Kakko wants the puck on his blade, but he will deliver it to the player with the best scoring opportunity in the situation. His hockey IQ makes him a prime playmaker, and it would make sense for the team that drafts him to make the change of position from wing to centre permanent.
His shot is the biggest weakness of his game. It wouldn’t hurt for it to get better, and you wonder how much of the problem is confidence with that aspect of his offence. He has some issues with the play in his own end, but with his hockey sense, that should come quite naturally with his development.
He has already had success at the international level, delivering in the World Junior Hockey Championship with five points (2G, 3A) in seven games as Finland claimed gold, and being named to the men’s team as an 18-year-old. In his year played with professionals, he showed that he has what it takes to play against experienced opposition.
In some of the most recent rankings, more and more scouts say it’s a toss-up between Hughes and Kakko. If the roles were reversed — a Junior player from Finland versus a big American professional — would it really be up for discussion who should go first?