Risk management is one of the most important aspects of a defencemen’s game, especially as they rise through the ranks. With and without the puck, a playet has to gauge the pressure of the opposing team and react accordingly depending on the in-game situation.
With a minute to go in a game, up one goal and faced with a heavy forecheck, any skater, but especially a blue-liner, needs to know that the play to be made is the safer one. It doesn’t have to be uncontrolled (a rim to his winger up the boards, chipping the puck out of the zone), but it can’t end in a turnover that forces a scramble back to defensive positions.
Risk management also means the ability to limit the dangerous offensive looks of the other team, done by taking an inside-out approach to defence, guarding the slot and the blue-line, and generally being aware of when to act as defensive support. It’s at the base of hockey structure. It’s playing inside a system, something that allows for trust on the ice and effective control of the play.
This is the major element that is lacking in Anttoni Honka’s game. This season, too many turnovers cost his team goals and even games, like this one in the Mestis Final. The defenceman’s play away from the puck was also quite suspect at times. He alternated from standing up too aggressively or showing too passive a stance.
Birthplace: Jyväskylä, Finland
Weight: 176 lbs.
Team: JYP/Jukurit (Liiga)
That being said, if you can live with his weaknesses and bank on his ability to get better at managing risk, the defenceman’s abilities make him special in this draft class.
Rare are the backs who go to the same lengths Honka does to get the puck out of the zone in a controlled way. That is the flip side of attempting plays others wouldn’t. Honka finds breakout routes by straying way off the trail, forcing himself through a forest of sticks to emerge on the other side ready to take on the world.
Anttoni Honka wears #3 with Jukurit and KeuPa HT (with a brief stint as #88)
Some of the above sequences are equally ridiculous and exciting. The defenceman is a fast-twitching puck-handler who processes threats at high speed and can adjust his movements accordingly. He creatively uses all the tools around him to keep the puck away from the opposition: nearby teammates, the walls for self-passes, and the net to hang opponents and escape to open ice.
There is even a clip where Honka handles the puck with one hand on his stick — not the top-one, but his bottom hand instead — and raises the other arm to shield the puck, showing elements of puck protection abilities that, even if he isn’t the biggest player, buy him time to escape.
As stated before, some of Honka’s puck-moving sequences that don’t result in turnovers walk the line between effective and overdone. Actually, the defenceman doesn’t just walk this line, but rapidly oscillates from one side to the other, barely catching himself.
In this clip, the defenceman lacks immediate support retrieving the puck in his zone. He has a forechecker on his back and can’t reverse the puck to his partner. So he slows down and plans to try a few skate-fakes to create separation and, on occasion, to turn up ice to hit a teammate. Honka is very agile, but the forechecker doesn’t bite, and continues to tail him, even managing to push him off the puck.
With quick steps, Honka regains possession of the puck and sends a spinning, behind-the-back pass to one of his forwards on the boards off-camera; another crazy display of skill. The sequence was more than enough, however, to give any coach multiple heart attacks. Honka probably had the space to just skate this puck out from behind the net into open ice.
In the first video, a broader look at his puck-moving abilities, there are simpler passes that are just a product of the blue-liner’s vision. He scans the ice for options before getting to the puck and simply one-touches it to a teammate in position to flee the defensive zone.
Simpler plays are often more effective in the NHL to move the puck up the ice. Any time a defenceman goes forehand-backhand on the breakout, over-handling the puck, a passing lane rapidly closes, and so does the forechecking pressure on that defenceman. Honka will have to learn when to unleash his wild nature and when to simply hit the first option on the breakout — the right play the vast majority of the time.
Of course, the fact that most NHLers are in good supporting position at all times will definitely help this facet of the game for the defenceman, and is another element to consider when evaluating Honka. He won’t have to twist and turn while he waits for support.
In his offensive game, Honka is a little less flashy. He doesn’t have the creativity of a Ryan Merkley (to compensate for the holes in his defensive game), but he distributes the puck rapidly and effectively and finds shooting lanes for his quick wrist shots.
He also loves to sneak in from the blue line on backdoor plays or along the wall to get closer to the net. If given the space in the neutral zone, he will also rush the puck up the ice, gain speed, and attack the defence head-on to try to thread the puck through for a scoring chance.
Julius Honka, Anttoni’s brother, is a similar player with some of the same strengths and weaknesses. Selected 14th overall in the 2014 Draft, he hasn’t progressed as anticipated nor established himself as an NHL regular as of yet. It doesn’t mean that he won’t in the next couple of years, or that it will also be the story of his brother. But the fact that Anttoni hasn’t taken as many steps forwards as other prospects in his draft year after making an impact in Liiga as a 17-year-old, scoring two goals and seven assists in 20 games, doesn’t help alleviate the concerns. He is also one of the older players in the draft, with an October birthday.
Rankings (not all rankings are final)
Elite Prospects: #27
Future Considerations: #32
NHL Central Scouting: #22 (EU skaters)
Scouts learn from their experience and won’t want to repeat a potential mistake. This is another factor that will probably have the defenceman wait to hear his name at the draft.
But this is where there could be an inefficiency to exploit. The goal of the draft is to find impact NHLers, and that means making the right gambles. A team that bets on their staff and trusts their system to develop defencemen could be hugely rewarded by catching Honka in the draft. The skill is there, and the potential is great.