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Smaller rink and all, Kahkonen ready for pro hockey in North America

Fourth-round pick of the Wild in 2014 expected to debut in Iowa this fall

by Jessi Pierce / Special to Wild.com

ST. PAUL -- There's a natural transition to go through when it comes to playing hockey in Europe and playing in North America. Going from larger, the IIHF standard-sized rinks that measure 197-feet by 98.5-feet across the pond, to the smaller NHL-sized rinks (200-feet by 85-feet) ups the pace of the game.

"The ice is different, the size of the ice is different, the dots are different, it's a totally different view of the ice," explained Wild director of player development Brad Bombardir. "Things are coming at you a little quicker and the angles are totally different.

"It's almost a new game totally when you make that leap."

For a goaltender, the quickness that tends to allow for easier zone breakouts can be an especially large changeover. But Kaapo Kahkonen, who was drafted by the Wild in the fourth round (109th overall) of the 2014 NHL Entry Draft, is ready for the challenge. The goaltender out of Helsinki, Finland is set to make his North American debut this season.

"There's gonna be some adjustments obviously," said the 21-year-old. "The rink is smaller than back home, so I need to get to know the things here. and the [Wild] coaches are doing a good job with that.

"It's quicker. [It's a] faster game and the shots come from everywhere because the players don't have time to pass the puck laterally and dangle that much, but I'll get used to that."

After spending the past three years in Finland's top league, Kahkonen is ready for his shot in North America. He signed a two-year entry level deal with the Wild on May 16. He will likely compete for a starting spot in Iowa this season against either free agent addition Andrew Hammond or last year's Minnesota backup Alex Stalock.

"You have to fight for your spot and do your best every day to get noticed and earn your spot," said Kahkonen, who comes in at 6-foot-2 and 222-pounds. "But that's what I want to do here and in the NHL and in the future as well."

With three years of pro experience, Kahkonen has compiled some impressive stats.

Last season marked personal bests with the Finnish Elite League's Lukko Rauma. Kahkonen had a 2.20 goals-against average and a .915 save percentage en route to a 20-23-12 record, including six shutouts. He led goaltenders in the league in games played (56), minutes (3,275), and shutouts.

Kahkonen also has a gold medal to his name, helping Finland take top honors at the 2016 IIHF World Junior Championships, going 4-0-0 with a 2.52 goals-against average and a .909 save percentage.

"I don't take too much pressure in playing hockey because that's the thing I love to do," he said. "I just try doing my best every day and be successful."

Kahkonen adds that he will not only lean on his Finnish pro experience, but experience from his junior playing days-which will be especially helpful when it comes to rink size.

"[Where] I played junior back home, we had probably the smallest rink in the world," Kahkonen said with a laugh. "It was so small, they even measured the zones and one of them was smaller than the other…It was weird for us, for our team because everyone else played in a huge rink, so it was an asset for us. So I think I'll get used to [the rinks here] pretty quick because I played a lot of games on the small rink as a junior.

"Never being here [in North America], it will be different. But I think I should be pretty good because I played three years as a pro back home [and] that gave me a lot of experience, a lot of good games just to get to know the little details that are important here."

But the most important detail to Bombardir will simply be making sure Kahkonen is getting his games in.

"The thing with him is he needs his reps and he needs to play some games," he stressed. "If he's gonna play some games in Iowa, great. If he has to go play some in the East Coast Hockey League to get our games in you gotta do it. For a goalie, that's fine. We'll see where he's at when he gets back in camp. We just need to make sure he's getting his games in. You gotta get used to the ice. It's different.

"He knows about the (pro) mentality, the pressure; world juniors he was successful there. He's been in these situations, he's scored goals, the guy can do everything. For goalies it just takes some time. But we're comfortable with where he's at, and we will see."


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