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NHL Draft

Kakko not hiding from big moments against older competition

Top 2019 NHL Draft prospect excelling in Finland's best league

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

Every Thursday, NHL.com will look ahead to the 2019 NHL Draft with an in-depth profile on one of its top prospects.

Kaapo Kakko said critical moments in a game should be viewed as an opportunity to prove yourself in the clutch, particularly as the projected top European prospect for the 2019 NHL Draft.

"There's no real pressure; it's a great chance for me to play the game and play well in Finland's top league (Liiga)," the 17-year-old said. "I need to show that I can be the No. 1 guy.

"I'm excited this is my draft year. I know it's going to be tough, but I want to show how good I am."

 

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Kakko (6-foot-2, 194 pounds) hasn't disappointed; he has 10 points (three goals, seven assists) and 65 shots on goal in 16 games with TPS. The left-shooting right wing is the youngest player on a team whose average age is 25.38; he leads TPS with three game-winning goals and is fourth in average ice time (17:39).

"He's an offensive threat every shift and knows his defensive duties," said Goran Stubb, NHL Director of European Scouting. "He has an excellent understanding of the game, is an excellent puck-handler, wins 1-on-1 battles, is strong along the boards and has a fine selection of shots. He plays a mature game."

Kakko had 55 points (25 goals, 30 assists) in 38 games in Finland's junior league last season before being promoted to TPS for six late-season games. He also had 10 points (four goals, six assists) in seven games playing alongside Rasmus Kupari(Los Angeles Kings) and Jesperi Kotkaniemi (Montreal Canadiens) to help Finland win the 2018 IIHF World Under-18 Championship in April.

"I like to play in the offensive zone and play and handle the puck, creating plays and scoring situations for teammates," he said.

Kakko started this season with a goal and an assist in four games for Finland at the 2018 World Junior Summer Showcase in Kamloops, British Columbia, in August.

The WJSS is the first step for players to earn spots with their national teams for the 2019 IIHF World Junior Championship, to be held Dec. 26 to Jan. 5, 2019, in Vancouver and Victoria, British Columbia. Jussi Ahokas, who will coach Finland at the WJC, said what impressed him about Kakko was his ability to succeed with any type of player on his line.

"He can hold onto the puck, make plays and, overall, he has a great personality," Ahokas said.

Next for Kakko is playing for Finland at the Under-20 Four Nations Tournament in Hodonin, Czech Republic, which begins Friday and goes through Sunday.

"He's a very good talent, one of the best players at his age," Kupari said of Kakko. "Sometimes I watch him and say, 'Wow, how did he do that?' I think his puck-handling is tops for his age and he's also a big guy, can stay with the puck and challenge well."

Kakko considers himself more of a playmaker than a scorer, and said he enjoys watching and emulating Chicago Blackhawks forward Patrick Kane and Toronto Maple Leafs forward Auston Matthews.

To join Kane and Matthews in the NHL, Kakko knows he'll need to improve his upper-body strength and leg strength. He'll also get plenty of experience as a key player against older, more development competition with TPS.

"He's a very mature young man, plays a mature game," Stubb said. "He has speed, skills, size and hockey sense, and is a very good playmaker and passer who also knows how to score. He's a very impressive player.

"What's difficult to understand is that he is up to 5-10 years younger than most teammates and opponents. He can still improve his acceleration, but he has all the tools needed to become a star."

Kakko is projected to play the wing at the NHL level but said he did play center as a youngster.

"I played the middle a few years ago but I like wing better because I feel there's more offense," he said. "I still have to get better on the defensive side of the puck, need to be a little more alert and tougher, but I think that'll come."

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