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WORLDS: Kakko completes an unbelievable 13-month stretch with world title

"He will be one of the best players in the world" -- Finnish head coach Jukko Jalonen

by Julie Robenhymer / Special to newjerseydevils.com

In the last 13 months, Kaapo Kakko has won the U-18 world championship, world junior championship and completed the trifecta Sunday night in Bratislava, Slovakia when Team Finland defeated Team Canada 3-1 to win the 2019 IIHF Men's World Championship. It's a gold medal hat trick that only six players have done before. 

The 18-year-old, who is the top-ranked European prospect for the upcoming NHL Draft in Vancouver next month, finished the tournament with six goals and an assist for seven points in ten games and, in the process, made the debate revolving around him and Jack Hughes, the top-ranked North American prospect, and which one the New Jersey Devils should pick first overall a lot more interesting. 

According to Finland's head coach Jukko Jalonen, there is no debate. 

"If NJ wants a winner, they should pick Kaapo," he stated. "Hughes is a great player, but in those tight games, Kakko has always come out on top. He's playing like a man and looks like he could play in the NHL right now. He's better than he was a few months ago at the world juniors and, in a few months more, he will be even better. After a few years, he will be one of the best players in the world."

The 6-foot-2, 200 pound winger has shown not only his elite skills - vision, playmaking, skating, shooting - but that he can use his big frame to protect the puck, win one-on-one battles and create space for himself in the dirty areas and it's caught the attention of Devils head coach John Hynes, who was at the tournament as an assistant coach for Team USA.

"He's a very, very strong player," he said. "You can see it in tight spaces, below the goal line, along the boards. He has great hands, great vision, very difficult to defend and he can make plays. I've been pretty impressed with the way the Finns are using him - basically in a lot of key situations. I've had the opportunity to see him play in a couple games and he's been one of the better players on the ice in all those games. 

"He's going to be a top forward in the NHL," Hynes continued. "He's going to be a tough a guy that can drive a team at the NHL level and, right now, when you look at his talent level, his competitiveness, his size, and his skill and what he's doing now against men, and what he's done all year long, even at the world juniors, you can see that he's going to be a special player. So, wherever he ends up in the NHL, he's going to be a guy that can help get a franchise back to being a competitive team in the playoffs and competing for the Stanley Cup."

When the season started, playing for the men's national team wasn't even on Kakko's radar. He said through a translator that his goals were to play in the Finnish league and be on the national junior team at the world junior championship, but that he is really happy to be here in Slovakia and feels good to be able to contribute offensively at the men's level. 

All seven of his points came in the first four games of the tournament, raising questions about whether he could sustain his production and be a consistent point producer. 

"I'm not unhappy about my lack of scoring in the final few games," he said with a shrug. "If you score six goals in the men's world championship, that's a good performance. If I can leave this place with a gold medal, I don't care if I have zero or six or ten goals."

Kakko also said he didn't feel that he made a lot of progress at the world championships, but that's because he's spent seven weeks now with the national team and an entire season adjusting to playing against men. 

"I put in the work before I got here. I wanted to make this team and play well here." he said. 

While Kakko was one of the top scorers on his team during the regular season and led all rookies in the Liiga, he really didn't start producing consistently until the second half of the season, after an impressive performance at the world junior championship where he scored the golden goal late in regulation. He's carried that momentum all the way through to this world championship.

"He's one of our best players and he's really confident. He's always a threat when he has the puck and he can beat NHL defensemen on one-on-ones," Jalonen said. "He's mentally a very disciplined guy and very humble. I love coaching him. You can see his talents right away with how he handles the puck and how he shoots. His confidence is rising all the time and the sky is the limit for him.

"Of course, we are surprised that he can dominate at this level against NHL guys," he continued. "We knew he could do it in our league, but against NHL players it's a little bit more difficult and he's doing really, really well."

Kakko was scheduled to leave for the NHL Scouting Combine on Monday, but a public celebration in Helsinki means he won't arrive in Buffalo until later in the week. He's also scheduled to go through the physical testing on Saturday, but isn't sure now if he will participate. 

"It was really important for me to be on this team. The players are stronger and bigger and it's helped me so much," he said. "There's so much talk about me and Jack, but I don't think about it too much. Of course, I want to be number one, but I am enjoying the opportunity to be here and I play well and we win.

"That is the best part," he said with a big smile. "We win. I am so happy."

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