It's often said of defensive-minded defensemen that they are at their best when their place is hardly noticed. Veteran defenseman Lasse Kukkonen has made a career out of being the sort of set-and-forget blueliner who may not play a flashy style or compile lofty statistics, but who excels in paying attention to the small, unglamorous details that go into playing winning hockey.
Kukkonen's NHL career was relatively brief, playing 159 regular-season games in two stints over parts of four seasons (2003-04, 2006-07 to 2008-09) with the Chicago Blackhawks and Philadelphia Flyers. In the NHL, his shot-blocking prowess and positional smarts were ultimately not quite enough to make up for his average-at-best speed and lack of size. However, in international competitions and European league play, the Finn has long been considered a top shutdown defenseman and a team leader.
For the past three seasons after leaving North America, Kukkonen played in the KHL for Metallurg Magnitogorsk and Avangard Omsk. Despite never posting more than six goals or 17 points in a season, he was named to the All-Star game in 2010 and was on pace for another selection the following year before injuries limited him to 36 games played.
A member of the Finnish Olympic teams in 2006 and 2010, Kukkonen has remained a mainstay on the national team. He played an important defensive role in Finland's gold medal at the 2011 IIHF World Championship and has served as an alternate captain in each of the past three tournaments. At the age of 30, the defenseman already has 101 international games to his credit between the junior and senior levels.
After completing his two-year contract with Metallurg, Kukkonen became a free agent this summer. While he received offers to remain in the KHL, he had stronger interest in playing elsewhere. Kukkonen briefly considered returning to Finland to play in SM-liiga for his hometown Karpat Oulu club or another team, but found his services were in especially high demand in Sweden's Elitserien. No fewer than four of the 12 teams in Elitserien -- Modo Hockey Ornskoldsvik, HV71 Jonkoping, defending champion Brynas IF Gavle and Rogle Angelholm -- bid on his services.
At first, it appeared Modo had the inside track to land the Finn. On Wednesday, however, Kukkonen elected to sign a two-year pact with Rogle. The first season is guaranteed, with an optional second year.
"In Lasse, we've gotten a defensive leader of very hockey international class, who will be enormously positive for our team, but also for the other players' development," Rogle team president Pelle Svensson said in a press release. "We've had contact with Lasse now for a longer time since he made clear that he wouldn't be returning to the KHL. I'm thrilled that he's chosen to play for Rogle BK."
Kukkonen is slated to immediately step onto Rogle's top pairing as its key shutdown defenseman at even strength and on the penalty kill. He is likely to lead the team in ice time next season. While he's always been better known as a defensive defenseman, the veteran may also be called upon to run one of the points on the power play along with offensive-minded defenseman Daniel Sondell (10 goals, 31 points for Rogle last season).
Over the course of his pro career, Kukkonen has occasionally taken on more offensive responsibilities. He tallied 11 goals and 27 points for Karpat Oulu in winning the SM-liiga's Pekka Rautakallio Award (the Finnish league equivalent to the NHL's Norris Trophy) in 2005-06. The following season, he had five goals in 56 games for the Blackhawks before being traded to the Flyers in exchange for forward Kyle Calder.
Rogle is a team that has yo-yoed back and forth in recent years between promotions to Elitserien and relegations to minor league Allsvenskan. The club will return to Elitserien next season after a two-year absence. In 2011-12, Rogle had a so-so regular season, but got hot at just the right time to become the lowest-finishing Allsvenskan club to earn an Elitserien spot in the subsequent postseason qualification tournament that pits the two bottom teams in the Swedish Elite League in a double round-robin with the top four Allsvenskan clubs. Rogle finished in second place to grab the final Elite League spot for the 2012-13 season.
If Rogle is to maintain its hold on an Elitserien spot for longer than one season, it will need Kukkonen not only to play his best hockey since his 2009-10 KHL All-Star campaign, but to take on a leadership role in helping the team to overachieve. According to the player, that is exactly why he chose Rogle's offer over those from teams that made the Elite League playoffs last season.
"I'm looking forward to the challenge of establishing Rogle in the top league," Kukkonen said to Helsingborg Dagblad. "I heard [Angelholm] is a hockey-crazy town with maybe the best fans in the country, so it will be fun. … I enjoy being a leader. Rogle still has a lot of talent on the team, and hopefully I can teach them a bit and also learn something from them. That's how it works."
While he has never been among the biggest, fastest or most naturally gifted hockey players in the world, Kukkonen has never lacked in spirit or leadership.
At the age of 21, he was named captain of a Karpat Oulu team that reached the 2003 SM-liiga finals. Playing in the shadow of more highly-touted teammate Joni Pitkanen, Kukkonen posted a league-best plus-41 rating (Pitkanen was plus-1) for the season. After the season, Kukkonen was selected by Chicago in the fifth round (No. 151) of the 2003 NHL Draft.
Kukkonen surprised a lot of people by winning an opening-night roster spot for the Blackhawks out of their 2003-04 training camp (playing 10 games) but was soon reassigned to the AHL, where he played 56 games for Norfolk. He then returned to Kärpät for two seasons before giving the NHL a second try in Chicago then Philadelphia. In the interim, he captained Oulu to a Finnish championship, and won the 2005-06 Rautakallio Award after posting 27 points and a plus-30 rating in 56 games.
Over the course of his European career in Sm-liiga and the KHL, Kukkonen has posted double-digit plus ratings four times and has never finished with a minus rating during the regular season. That streak will be put to the test with Rogle next season, but the player has always downplayed its significance.
"Defense isn't just one guy," Kukkonen said. "It's all six guys on the ice. My job is just to take care of the puck and get it the forwards."
Come next season, Kukkonen's main challenge will be to help Rogle keep the scores down in order to have a fighting chance to win games. The club will feature a top-flight but aging goaltender in former NHL netminder Martin Gerber, who played in his native Switzerland last season. The Rogle blue line also has promise.
Kukkonen and veteran Slovakian defenseman Martin Strbak will anchor what will largely be a young defense corps. While gifted offensively, 28-year-old Sondell has a reputation for being a bit of a defensive liability at times. The defense corps may also feature a pair of highly regarded teenagers -- 2012 Anaheim Ducks first-round pick Hampus Lindholm and Florida Panthers prospect Rasmus Bengtsson.
Offensively, the club is less impressive on paper. The top producers are likely to be former NHL forwards Mike Iggulden (13 goals, 36 points with the Vaxjo Lakers last season) and Mathias Tjarnqvist (coming off a down season with Djurgarden) as well as team captain Jakob Johansson and defenseman Sondell. Beyond that, the offensive pickings may be slim at times.
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