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Poise Beyond His Years

by Bill Meltzer / Philadelphia Flyers
Kukkonen thriving in first full year with Flyers

It’s often said of defensemen that you know they’ve had a good game when you hardly notice them. That description fits Philadelphia Flyers defenseman Lasse Kukkonen perfectly.

The 26-year-old Finn does nothing flashy but he rarely makes mistakes despite being just a second-season player in the NHL. His quick stick and intelligent body positioning make him tough to beat.

Acquired by Philadelphia from the Chicago Blackhawks as part of the deal that sent the disappointing Kyle Calder to the Detroit Red Wings, Kukkonen quietly had a rock solid rookie NHL season that portends a long, fruitful NHL career if he stays healthy.

Not only did he lead all NHL rookie defensemen with 151 blocked shots in 74 games, Kukkonen was statistically the NHL’s best defenseman at protecting the puck.
Lasse Kukkonen hits New York's Miroslav Satan during a 3-1 Flyers win on October 13. (Getty Images)

Averaging a shade over 17 minutes of ice time per game, he had just 19 giveaways for the entire season. Only Anaheim’s Joe DiPenta (16 giveaways in 76 games) had a better ratio of games-played to turnovers. But DiPenta averaged five fewer minutes of ice time per game. So in terms of total time spent on the ice, no NHL defenseman did a better job avoiding turnovers than Kukkonen.

The defenseman also managed to pull off the feat of being a plus-4 last year on Philadelphia and Chicago teams that gave up many more goals than they scored. He was also a team-best plus-6 for silver medalist Finland at the 2007 IIHF World Championships in Moscow.

“We are very happy with what he brought to the team,” says Flyers General Manager Paul Holmgren, who resigned Kukkonen to a two-year contract during the offseason. “He’s a young player, but he plays like a veteran defenseman. He’s been very solid and reliable for us.”

First and foremost, the mobile Kukkonen is a defensive-minded defenseman. But when given the responsibility of providing some offense – such as when his team is trailing in the third period – he’s displayed some capabilities in that area as well.

Last year, Kukkonen scored five goals and 14 points in 59 games for the Blackhawks. During the 2007 IIHF World Championships in Moscow, the 6’0’’, 187-pound defenseman was even occasionally assigned the unlikely role of playing in front of the opposing team’s net on the power play.

During his career in the SM-Liiga (Finnish Elite League) with Kärpät Oulu, he was an above-average point producer (topping out at 11 goals and 27 points in 56 games in 2005-06) despite focusing mostly on being a shutdown defenseman.

“Defense isn’t just one guy,” says Kukkonen. “It’s all six guys on the ice. My job is just to take care of the puck and get it the forwards. I’ve been fortunate to play with some good partners and goalies.”

In his young career, Kukkonen has often played in the shadow of fellow Oulu, Finland native Joni Pitkanen, who is two years younger. The two were teammates as junior and senior level players with Kärpät as well being reunited late last season in Philadelphia prior to the trade that sent Pitkänen to the Edmonton Oilers last summer.

During their time together in Kärpät, the two played as defensive partners on an infrequent basis. While Pitkänen drew the attention of scouts and media with his combination of size and impressive raw skills, it was the smaller Kukkonen who quietly won the trust of his coaches and teammates. By the age of 21, he became a captain on a Finnish-championship caliber Kärpät team, while posting a league-best plus-41 rating (one of two times he won the Matti Keinonen Trophy for the SM-Liiga’s top plus-minus rating).

After his stellar 2002-03 campaign for Kärpät, the Blackhawks drafted Kukkonen in the fifth round (151st overall) of the 2003 NHL Entry Draft. He surprised a lot of people by winning a spot on the NHL club (playing 10 games) but was soon reassigned to the AHL, where he played 56 games for Norfolk.

Kukkonen returned to Kärpät for two seasons before giving the NHL a second try. In the interim, he captained Oulu to a Finnish championship, won the 2005-06 Pekka Rautakallio Trophy as the SM-Liiga’s best defenseman and played a strong 2006 Olympics and World Championships for Finland.

“I felt that I wasn’t quite ready yet,” Kukkonen says of his decision to return home. “There were some things – my strength, my preparation – that I wanted to work on. I’m more comfortable now, so I think it was the right decision at the time.”

During his second stint with the Blackhawks, Kukkonen primarily played with Brent Seabrook early in the season. The duo was successful, but was later broken up by coach Denis Savard, and Kukkonen’s ice time was reduced considerably in the weeks leading up to the trade to Philadelphia.

When the Flyers initially acquired Kukkonen from Chicago shortly before the 2007 trade deadline, the team hoped to find a defensive partner with whom the enigmatic Pitkänen would feel comfortable. As it turned out, Kukkonen fit in with the team almost instantly both on and off the ice, while Pitkänen remained something of a puzzle. That’s why Kukkonen was retained and former first-round pick Pitkänen was actively shopped and then dealt along with Geoff Sanderson for Jason Smith and Joffrey Lupul in a key move for the now retooled Flyers.

“I think Joni will do well in Edmonton, and of course I wish him the best,” Kukkonen said during the preseason. “But my focus now is here in Philadelphia. I think we’ve got a much improved team here, especially on defense with veteran guys like Smith and Kimmo Timonen. Anyone John Stevens plays me with is fine. It’s a good group.”

So far, Kukkonen has played on Philadelphia’s third pairing, along with fellow 26-year-old defenseman Randy Jones. He has also seen some time with countryman Kimmo Timonen.

Through 12 games, Kukkonen is up to his familiar tricks, with a goal and an assist, and a plus-9 rating which leads the team. Additionally, when teammate Danny Briere was elbowed by New Jersey’s Patrik Elias early in a 4-0 Flyers’ shutout victory on Oct. 10, the Finnish defenseman was the first Philadelphia player to rush in to defend the team’s top-line center.

“Lasse is just a real pro out there on the ice,” says Flyers goaltender Martin Biron. “I never have to worry about him screening me or deflecting the puck when he goes to block a shot. He gets a good angle and reads the play well. He’s also a good communicator back there. It’s easy to play behind him.”

Kukkonen’s shot-blocking technique is fearless to the point of seeming almost reckless. He rarely slides, so as not to take himself out of the play. When he’s unable to make a simple stick block, Kukkonen tries to get a good angle, time the shooters release and then crouches almost down like a baseball catcher trying to keep an errant pitch in front of him.  It’s only been his impeccable timing that has helped him avert some potentially nasty consequences through the years.

The player, who doesn’t wear a visor, shrugs and grins when asked about his unorthodox style of shot blocking.

“You learn how to protect yourself on the ice,” he says simply.

Head Coach Stevens and assistants Terry Murray and Jack McIlhargey are all former NHL defensemen. Stevens says he has full confidence in Kukkonen, regardless of whether the player scores points or if other defensemen receive more ice time.

“He shows a lot of poise and he’s very aware on the ice,” says Stevens. “He’s a good penalty killer and he’s a guy who gives you the same effort on every shift.”

As he continues to gain experience as a member of Philadelphia’s reconstructed blueline, it would not be a surprise if Kukkonen emerges as a locker room leader and mentor for younger defensemen despite his own relative youth.
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