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Kakko confident, not cocky ahead of 2019 Draft

Potential No. 1 pick says he's improved but still has 'a lot of work to do'

by Mike G. Morreale @mikemorrealeNHL / NHL.com Staff Writer

Kaapo Kakko has star quality that's reminiscent to some of the greatest Finland-born hockey teenagers to play in Liiga, the top men's professional hockey league in the country.

"The last player to have the type of impact Kaapo had for us at HC TPS this season was probably Saku Koivu in the early 90's," TPS director of hockey operations and former NHL goalie Antero Niittymaki said. "I think Kaapo is also right there with other players who starred in Liiga before getting drafted like Aleksander Barkov, Patrik Laine, and Sebastian Aho.

"Kaapo is a confident kid and knows he's good because you can see he wants to show everybody. He said he wants to be the No. 1 pick in the NHL Draft, but he's not in any way a cocky player. He wants to be out there when the game is on the line. He wants to be the guy."

 

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The 6-foot-2, 194-pound right wing, No. 1 in NHL Central Scouting's ranking of International skaters, is considered a top-2 pick in the 2019 NHL Draft to be held at Rogers Arena in Vancouver on June 21-22. He hopes to become the first Finland-born player chosen No. 1 in the draft. The New Jersey Devils hold the No. 1 pick and the New York Rangers have the No. 2 selection.

The first round is June 21 (8 p.m. ET; NBCSN, SN, TVAS). Rounds 2-7 are June 22 (1 p.m. ET; NHLN, SN).

Kakko, 18, was the youngest player on a roster that averaged 25.43 years in age, but that didn't keep him from leading HC TPS in goals (22) and game-winning goals (seven), finishing second in average ice time (18:11) among forwards, and third in power-play goals (seven).

He had 38 points (22 goals, 16 assists) in 45 regular-season games. Laine, who was the No. 2 pick in the 2016 NHL Draft by the Winnipeg Jets, had 33 points (17 goals, 16 assists) in 46 games for Tappara in his draft year.

"I feel I'm a lot stronger now and my skating improved as the season went on," Kakko said. "I think those are the two most important things."

Video: Kaapo Kakko lands at No. 2 on Draft Prospects list

TPS forward Zach Budish played on line with Kakko for most of the season and said his linemate had an innate sense for knowing when and where to go with the puck.

"He sees plays before they happen," Budish said. "They always say you can't give a good player a bad pass, and I'm sure I had a couple of assists that Kaapo made look even better than they were, but he found a way to open up and find the puck, get it on net. He's got all the skills in the world, but he'll go to the dirty areas. Yes, he gets the fancy goals you see on the highlights, but a lot of his goals are net-front, rebounds where he beats the guy 1-on-1. He has such quick hands to put home little plays in front of the net within 5-to-10 feet in the crease."

Budish, 28, who had 38 points (20 goals, 18 assists) for TPS, including a team-high eight power-play goals, was selected in the second round (No. 41) in the 2009 NHL Draft by the Nashville Predators. The native of Edina, Minnesota, played four seasons at the University of Minnesota and 97 games in the American Hockey League before signing with Jukurit in Liiga in August 2016. He signed with TPS in February 2018.

"The things Kaapo did in practice were insane," Budish said. "I played in Milwaukee (AHL) for four seasons and saw guys like Kevin Fiala and Filip Forsberg, who are pretty skilled. But Kaapo is different. 

Video: Kakko impresses in World Junior Championship

"I sat next to him in the locker room for the majority of the season and he was quiet and reserved. Part of that is probably being a young guy and being a bit intimidated, but he's super nice, always wanting to talk hockey and what we could do better as a line or something we could change for next game. All he wants to do is hockey, hockey, hockey. Even on our off days, he'd rather skate outside for a few hours."

To Budish, the biggest adjustment for Kakko in the NHL will be the physicality and speed on the smaller ice surface.

"Liiga is physical and there's older players, so he's used to that part, but North America is definitely more physical and a bit more North-South whereas Finland and the other European leagues, in general, play a more controlled game with the bigger ice and there's not as much hitting," Budish said. "For him, it'll be being able to take those big hits and learning on the fly. I'm sure whatever team takes him, it'll be fine."

Budish was asked who he thinks should go No. 1 in the draft. Center Jack Hughes of USA Hockey's National Team Development Program Under-18 team is No. 1 in NHL Central Scouting's final ranking of North American skaters and the projected No. 1 pick. 

"I don't know if I'm allowed to say it as an American, but I'm rooting for Kaapo to go No. 1 in the draft," Budish said. "I skated with him for a full year and I'm rooting for him. I'm sure Hughes is very talented and must be a special player, but I think Kaapo is going to have a long career and he'll score a lot of goals."

Kakko feels more comfortable playing wing, but he's also experienced at center, a position he played at least eight times when TPS was dealing with injuries this season. He went 52-for-107 on face-offs (48.6 percent), including 51.1 percent in the offensive zone (24-for-47) and 65.2 percent in the defensive zone (15-for-23).

"I don't think he prefers center, but I don't think he minds it either," Niittymaki said. "You get more out of him offensively if you play him on the wing, but that's my opinion. He plays a safe game when given the responsibility at center, but that's not a bad thing. I was surprised how defensively responsible he was for an offensive player. We never had to worry about his defensive game all year.

"In some ways, he reminds me a lot of Mikko Rantanen at the same age, but I think Kaapo is a better skater, more skilled."

Rantanen was selected in the first round (No. 10) in the 2015 NHL Draft by the Colorado Avalanche. He had 28 points (nine goals, 19 assists) in 56 games for TPS in 2014-15.

Kakko led TPS with four goals in five playoff games and finished tied for the team lead with five points, averaging 20:53 in ice time. 

He scored the game-winning goal with 1:26 remaining in the third period of the 2019 IIHF World Junior Championship final to give Finland a 3-2 win against the United States, finishing the tournament with five points (two goals, three assists) in seven games. He also had seven points (six goals, one assist) in 10 games to help Finland win the 2019 IIHF World Championship. 

"Hopefully I'm ready for the NHL next season, but I know I still have a lot of work to do," Kakko said. "I need to get stronger and faster in the corners. Playing against other NHL players at the World Championship, I noticed I'm good with the puck, but that's still one area in my game I can improve."

Said Niittymaki, "Would I like to see Kaapo return to HC TPS for at least one more season? Of course. But I don't think there's any chance he returns. He's playing in the NHL next season."

 

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