Joni Ikonen, the highest-ranked 2017 draftee on the list last year, takes a tumble in the rankings after a disappointing season in Finland, a World Junior Hockey Championship where he failed to make an impact against his peers, and, adding to the woes, a knee injury and resulting surgery he dealt with at the start of summer.
Ikonen is a playmaker, and his offensive talent is at the top of the chart. However, he struggled because of his physique and with the adjustment to the pro ranks in Liiga. Head coach Sami Kapanen revealed that at the start of the season, Ikonen was found wanting and needed to improve in many ways.
The trend for Ikonen was that his ice time was going up as KalPa’s season went along, showing that as he gained confidence and strength he was rewarded by the coaching staff. At the start of the season Ikonen was lining up on one of the top two lines, but after a few games he was shifted to the bottom six, with limited ice time. The gradual increase in deployment does seem to have given Ikonen the chance to build up muscle, stamina, and, just as crucial, confidence during the year, as he was finishing the regular season and playoffs playing around 14:30.
Great individual effort from Joni Ikonen #KalPa #Habs to get his second assist of the game. As he says to @HabsEOTP himself, his strength has given him confidence, and it shows. pic.twitter.com/M1RtpKq3bF— Patrik Bexell (@Zeb_Habs) March 1, 2018
In a generally disappointing season for both Ikonen and KalPa, which finished sixth in the league but went out in the quarter-finals to eventual runner-up Tappara, Ikonen finished the season with an average of 12:20 of ice time, and 14 points (four goals, 10 assists) over 52 games.
The voting for Ikonen was relatively consistent. Most votes were in the 15-25 area, with one over 30 and one as high as 11. He had one of the tighter ranges of any player in the middle third of the overall rankings.
Top 25 Under 25 History
In his first year of eligibility, he made a big entry at number 11 after a great camp and a good playoff run in the U18s and U20s in Sweden. Added to that was his performance in the Under-18 World Championship, where he was one of the top players, leading Finland to a silver medal. With how the 2018 season played out, his ranking falls nine places.
What both his former coach, Roger Rönnberg, and current coach, Kapanen, mention is his hockey IQ. Ikonen has an understanding of the game that makes him a player that you want on the ice just from that perspective, but that is secondary to what really makes him stand out.
His best feature is that he has skill to spare. He’s at his best with the puck in the offensive zone. He can find small passing lanes, hides his dangles, and can make a split-second adjustment to throw off any defender. He even has a heavy shot that he can unleash from any area of the zone. It is not as accurate or disguised as a sniper’s, but it will most definitely create problems for a goalkeeper. This makes him a gifted player to say the least.
#KalPa's Joni Ikonen scores his fourth goal of the season. A well placed wrist shot from the top of the circle on the power play. #Habs #GoHabsGo #EuropeanProspectReport for @HabsEOTP pic.twitter.com/hDrcJyQ9Jw— Patrik Bexell (@Zeb_Habs) March 9, 2018
While Ikonen will never be a top scorer or challenge for an individual scoring award, he has the vision and creativity to set up a shooter for his chances. With deceptive, accurate passing, together with the vision he has, he should be considered to be an assist machine who can drive a power play or set up linemates for goals.
There were a few things that Kapanen mentioned to Eyes On The Prize at the end of the season with regard to Ikonen’s development, and one area he targeted as the most in need of improvements was his skating.
“We need to make sure that the skating is on a higher level, as it looks like the NHL, year by year, is getting a lot faster. So he’s got to be ready to respond to that one and get on to a certain level in order to compete with the top players.”
It’s a good sign that Kapanen and his coaching staff are taking it upon themselves to help overcome the issues with Ikonen’s game, but it will still be up to Ikonen to put in the work.
Ikonen is a bit on the small side, though shorter players do make it to the NHL and can make a difference at that level. However, given the type of game he plays, it is tough for Ikonen to find ways to compensate for his height.
It leads to problems protecting the puck, having neither the reach to evade defenders nor the pace to outrun them, and it was obvious that he had a hard time in this area when he reached the pro ranks in Liiga. Whereas at the under-18 and junior levels he was strong enough to carry a player on his back and still make a play, it is different when the player tasked with defending you is taller and weighs 20 to 25 kilograms more.
Combined with what was said about his skating, he has a significant hurdle to clear if he wants to move closer to an NHL position.
There is no doubt that Ikonen possesses top-six talent. After being able to get by on that skill alone through his youth, it seems that he has started to put the effort into his game off the ice to really improve and take the steps necessary to make an NHL career out of his qualities.
There is difficulty in projecting Ikonen’s future, and much of that comes back to the knee injury he suffered and how his rehabilitation and recovery goes. The fact that he isn’t expected to return until December means that he is likely out of WJC contention as well. Ikonen will have four, five months at the most, of playing professional hockey in the upcoming season, and these months will have a major impact on whether his hockey career pans out.