This season, Jukurit hosted two draft-eligible defencemen with opposite styles: Anttoni Honka and Mikko Kokkonen. While Honka was all about generating offence in any way possible — often forfeiting safer plays to do so — Kokkonen strived to contribute to his team by being a sound defender who picked his spot to jump on the attack.
Birthplace: Mikkeli, Finland
Weight: 198 lbs.
Playing in a men’s league at the age of 18 can be difficult, and earning consistent ice time even moreso. That time is earned through an attention to detail, a willingness to work hard on the ice, and generally being smart enough to adapt on the fly to the evolving on-ice situations. That is exactly how Kokkonen found a spot in the lineup for 56 games in Liiga in his draft season.
Kokkonen’s game away from the puck wasn’t perfect, but he found success playing some solid man-to-man defence, gluing himself to his coverage in front of the net and being relentless in his pokechecking attempts, especially while working the boards. He made up for his lapses in awareness and his slightly-too-reactive defence by catching up to his misplays and repositioning well to not multiply them.
Take the play below. Retrieving the puck low in the defensive zone, Kokkonen shoulder-checks a couple of times to find his support, but he doesn’t properly gauge the forecheck and misses his reversal pass to his defence partner. The puck is stolen, but he tails the thief. With one arm on his back to prevent a hard cutback that would leave him vulnerable, and his stick in the other hand, he sets the puck free by knocking it away.
Mikko Kokkonen wears #8 with Jukurit and #2 with Team Finland
The puck is cycled back down, so Kokkonen descends to support his defence partner in his battle along the wall, again scanning the ice for passing threats. The puck slides away from the scrum and the young defenceman jumps to take it, placing his body in front to protect it. He then manages a short pass to beat the forecheck and send his team on the attack.
As Kokkonen gains experience and his habits (stick on puck and in passing lanes, physicality in close quarters, scanning the ice to identify passing lanes and threats, etc.) become more consistent, they will be the building blocks of a solid defensive game.
The same could be said for his transition play. This season, Kokkonen wasn’t moving the puck up the ice in a flashy way, but he showed a desire to find good outlets for his passes and have the puck exit the zone in a controlled manner first and foremost. That could mean taking a hit to slow down and neutralize a forechecker and let a teammate in a better position take the puck and make a play, or turning back with possession, holding on to the puck just a little while longer, and regrouping rather than simply dumping the puck to the other team.
That being said, with space in front of him and a chance to join the attack, Kokkonen wasn’t shy to just jump on the rush and support his forward.
Once on the attack, the left-handed defenceman didn’t display a large offensive potential, but there were occasional flashes of skill, especially when playing against his own age group. Kokkonen could distribute the puck on the power play and slide down in the zone to show a sneaky wrist-shot release. In Liiga, he managed a respectable total of 19 points in his 56 games.
The main roadblock in the defenceman’s path to the NHL is his skating ability. His form is relatively good, which suggest it could improve with time, but Kokkonen rarely shows an acceleration or speed that lets him separate from opponents and enables him to make easier plays with the puck.
Rankings (not all rankings are final)
Elite Prospects: #30
Future Considerations: #33
NHL Central Scouting: #10 (EU skaters)
The fact that Kokkonen could hold his own in Liiga and stand out with his on-ice maturity this season while many of his counterparts where playing in lower levels of Finnish hockey will have a lot of NHL teams interested in selecting the prospect. But a lack of high-end mobility and standout attributes could have the defenceman wait a while in the second round to hear his name called.