Joni Ikonen is the highest debutant on the list this year, making his first appearance at number 11. This after being drafted in the second round with Canadiens’ third pick in the 2017 NHL Entry Draft, finishing above both Ryan Poehling and Josh Brook who were selected ahead of him.
He is a centre at heart, and while many compare him to Artturi Lehkonen as they both have played for the same club in Sweden, it’s another Finnish player that he might be closer to: Saku Koivu.
Ikonen’s playmaking skills are more akin to those of the former Canadiens captain. He’s more of a passer than an accurate shooter like Lehkonen, though he does possess a similar quick and powerful release.
Ikonen has a ton of skill and he is certainly not afraid to showcase it at any time — including in his own zone. He will be a fan favourite wherever he plays thanks to his fearless stickhandling, his speed, and exceptional set-up plays.
Having come up through his hometown club, the Espoo Blues, he moved to Frölunda in 2015 where he was a standout on the junior teams. He played most of the season last year with Frölunda’s U20s. When the Frölunda junior squad was knocked out of the playoffs, Ikonen played on with the U18s and set the playoffs on fire.
Ikonen helped lead Finland to a silver medal in the World Under-18 Championship, where he played out of this world. He took that skill to the World Junior Summer Showcase where he once more lit up opponents with moves like this:
Last year he got a few shots with the main team in the SHL, but never really stood out in the way compatriot Kristian Vesalainen had done the year before. For that reason, his loan to KalPa in Liiga shortly after he was drafted came as no surprise.
The move back to the Finnish league is an interesting choice as it is usually considered to be a lower tier when compared to the quality of the SHL. Nevertheless, great players have come out of that league the last few years due to the strong Finnish development system. The question heading into his season is: will he be able to force his way into a good lineup in KalPa, or will he play another year in juniors?
Votes ranged from one at 30th, to four at eighth, with the majority of votes ranking him somewhere between 10-15. The community ranked him at 13, a few places behind his final ranking.
Skill, skill, and more skill. Joni Ikonen oozes talent, be it from his deft hands or lightning-quick feet. He can turn on a dime even in high speeds, will terrorize defenders while on the forecheck, and he has a great motor to keep that speed going all through a shift. He is fast and reaches high speed quickly due to his explosive stride.
When it comes to his skill with the puck it really is off the charts. Ikonen can thread a needle even when carrying a defender on his back. His hands can control the puck at high speed, and his play with possession is high-end to say the least, especially when one-on-one with a single defender.
Once he leaves the defence in the dust he has a shot that is fast and heavy, but lacks the accuracy a true sniper enjoys, and this is where he does need to put in a bit of work to really be able to stand out.
Head coach Roger Rönnberg of Frölunda says Ikonen “has his best assets in the smartness of his game.” Rönnberg also cited his strength on the power play, pointing to his creativity as one of his most significant attributes.
While Ikonen has great passing skills, he’s often a bit too individualistic and will look off teammates in a good position in order to make that one extra, unnecessary move. This sometimes also creates turnovers, as you would expect, and it will be something that Ikonen will have to adjust as he develops.
In a recent interview with Eyes on the Prize, coach Rönnberg said that the big challenge for Ikonen in the coming season will be showing up to be the same kind of athlete that Lehkonen was — “first in, last one out” — to really put in the work to be able to make that jump to the NHL.
The fact that a coach will say that, on the record, means that there is a risk that the talent that has carried Ikonen so far might have made things a little too easy for him. Ikonen left Frölunda for KalPa just a week after that conversation, and you have to wonder about the reasoning no matter what was said to the press at the time.
Having watched him against high-end competition in both the SHL and Champions Hockey League it is clear that he has struggled when playing against men. His size can be pointed at as one factor that has prevented him from jumping to the top level already, but with him never really being able to get his game going against professional players, it shows that he isn’t really there yet.
The inconsistent effort and decision-making with possession might be the only things that stand in the way of an NHL career. Having left arguably one of the best teams in Europe (both by results and player development history) poses a question about his professional game that Ikonen will need to provide an answer for, and playing in Liiga will give him the chance to do just that.
Whether he will get to keep playing centre in KalPa is yet to be determined, as in Europe the tendency is to learn as a winger before getting the chance to develop as a centreman.
That said, Ikonen has top-six talent; of that there is no doubt. The question is if he can put the effort in to really perform at a bigger stage. His raw talent is elite, and the fact that the Canadiens managed to grab him as late as they did in the 2017 draft is undoubtedly down to his size and a stat line that doesn’t pop out like that of a CHL prospect. He has a lot of upside with skill smarts, and speed. It will be an interesting season to follow to see how he adjusts to a pro league.
He is still young but his future belongs on NHL ice. KalPa will serve as a good development opportunity as the club has recently seen Sebastian Aho and Jesse Puljujärvi come through their lineup. If Joni Ikonen can have that same development of his overall game, Montreal will have snagged a steal in this year’s draft.