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In a tough season, the U19 tournament was a reminder of Joni Ikonen’s skills

Ikonen has lost none of his excitement creating plays on the ice.

Czech Republic v Finland: Quarterfinal - 2018 IIHF World Junior Championship Photo by Nicholas T. LoVerde/Getty Images

It’s been a difficult season for the highly-thought-of prospect. Adapting to professional hockey can be a process, as it requires a great deal of maturity and a game that is strong in its details. It’s not something you can ask of any young player immediately, especially one with the frame of Joni Ikonen.

There was a wave of excitement when he was drafted in 2017. It carried him all the way into our Top 25 Under 25 series even, incredibly, surpassing Ryan Poehling as the top hope of the organization from the draft. Ikonen can make great plays happen when on top of his game. With the Habs in need of an injection of skill at center, it was understandable to see the talented forward create such passion.

That passion has since been replaced with a more realistic outlook as his 2018 ranking reflects. However, I don’t think it’s time to stop dreaming about a half-playmaker, half-goalscorer Ikonen filling highlight reels in red, white and blue just yet.

When I was watching Jesse Ylönen this summer, I turned to the Five Nations and the Four Nations U19 Tournaments, which are smaller international contests that take place late in the hockey season and feature the Czech Republic, Sweden, Germany, Switzerland and Finland. While not being close to equal to the other junior international showcases in terms of competition level, they are still recouping some good young players out of those nations.

In those contests, Ylönen shined and finished as the top scorer. But, for a time, there was another presence that drew even more attention than Ylönen. Ikonen only participated in a few of the tournament games, but upon joining the Finland National team on the ice, he displayed the full extent of his skills against the junior-aged competition. He showed that he can still break away from defenders using deception, mobility and his great hands.

In the play above, he makes it seem as if he’s going to pass to the winger on the board during a breakout. Instead, he waits and cuts to the middle of the ice and in typical fashion, carries the puck himself all the way.

He continues to bait opponents by putting the puck in reach of their sticks only to take it away at the last second, escaping defensive pressure while pursuing his course deep in the offensive zone. With an abrupt cut, he creates an unopposed shot from the point after turning all heads on himself.

His playmaking chops were ever present in that tournament. He showed patience and could turn his handling ability into hard-selling fakes that created dangerous chances for his teammates, with Ylonën being one of the those who benefited from it the most.

Watch how Ikonen reaches Ylonën across the ice on the powerplay. He advances towards the goal with the puck, drops his shoulder and lifts his left skate in what looks like a shooting motion, only to push his top hand away from his body, turn his stick blade away from the net and slide a pass to his right-winger.

In another game, Ikonen finds Ylönen off the rush by switching the puck to his backhand and threading it to him in between the skates and stick of an opposing defender. This time, Ylönen manages to make a better catch and release, but the goalie intervenes with a diving save.

Ikonen might not be the fastest skater, but he’s agile and can make use of his edges to complement his hands. In the the play below, he jumps up on the forecheck, pokes the puck loose below the goal line, and by shifting his weight, picks it up while riding the inside edge of his right to bring himself back in a position to attack the net, abusing the lack of awareness of the defender.

He dodges the goalie’s pokecheck attempt with his quick hands and, opening his hips as he reaches the far post, comes close to roofing the puck top net.

The last, but not least, tool in his arsenal is his shot. He scored a great goal with his solid release against the Czech Republic at the U19.

Ikonen, skating up to the goal with the puck on his stick, signifies to everyone on the ice that he wants to shoot, including the opponents who’s job it is to block the incoming pucks. But instead of having this tell play against him, Ikonen uses it to his advantage.

He knows that the goalie can’t see his release if a defender is blocking the line of sight by standing in his shooting lane. To get his puck through and still benefit from the screen, he starts his shot with his hands away from him and drags the puck into his body, changing the angle of release and enabling his shot to fly past the defender in the new shooting lane he created with this motion. Bringing the puck closer to his body is also a way to bend the stick and add power to his release.

This dragged shot comes off the stick quickly despite the angle change that is used. If Ikonen could lessen the time he spends first winding up while carrying the puck, this shot could become even more of a weapon.

It’s no question that the time and space that was afforded to him by the context played a consequential part in his performance at the U19 tournament. Ikonen will surely need time to translate his talent to higher levels where those elements are limited. His talent will absolutely not be enough to carry him up there.

But, he has lost none of his excitement when you watch him create on the ice. Those few games were a great reminder of his skills and what he has to offer.