When Finland won the world juniors in 2016, the team was led by the dynamic kid line of Jesse Puljujarvi, Sebastian Aho and Patrik Laine, with Mikko Rantanen and Kasperi Kapanen providing veteran heroics. Laine used the tournament to start a debate over whether Auston Matthews was in fact the top prospect for the draft that summer and, ultimately, the Toronto Maple Leafs decided the American center would be their foundational piece.
Which brings us to 2019, where another U.S. pivot – Jack Hughes – sits atop the draft board. Meanwhile, another big Finnish winger tails him. This time, that player is right winger Kaapo Kakko, and he too has a world-junior gold medal to his credit. The difference? While Laine is already a 40-goal scorer in the NHL, Kakko may actually become an even more effective player at the next level. “Laine has his one specialty, his finishing touch,” said one NHL scout. “Kaapo has an overall two-way game. He’s the better player. Whoever picks first overall will have to consider him.”
Even if Kakko ends up going second overall, he’ll be a magnificent prize, just as Laine was when the Winnipeg Jets nabbed him with the No. 2 pick.
A product of Turku, Kakko burst onto the scene last year when he rode shotgun for future Montreal Canadiens center Jesperi Kotkaniemi at the world under-18s. Kakko rang up 10 points in seven games as the Finns shocked the powerhouse Americans for gold.
But this year’s WJC in Vancouver truly elevated Kakko to a different plane. The Finns had an uneven round-robin, but they put together a solid effort to upset Canada in the quarterfinal before knocking off an excellent Russian squad and then Team USA for gold. A big part of Finland’s success in the medal round was a new line featuring Kakko, underage center Anton Lundell (a 2020 draft prospect) and Nashville Predators prospect Eeli Tolvanen, who didn’t hit his stride until he joined the two kids.
In the end, Kakko scored the golden goal with less than two minutes to go in the championship game, using hard work and size at the side of the net. “He’s an unbelievable guy and a good teammate,” said Chicago Blackhawks prospect and Team Finland defenseman Henri Jokiharju. “I think he’ll be the No. 1 pick. He’s a big guy, he’s playing with men and he’s ready.”
Back in Finland, Kakko has been just as impressive. Like Laine, he took the Liiga by storm and was averaging 0.84 points per game for TPS. (Laine, who was a revelation for Tappara in his draft year, put up 0.72 points per game.) “Of course it’s a good thing,” said Kakko through a translator. “Points don’t mean everything, and there’s still a long way to go, but I’m proud of myself. I’ve been playing well and got (acclimated) into the team pretty quickly. I’m familiar with the guys and how they play, so it’s been good so far.”
And while Kakko is right about individual points not meaning everything, TPS has also been one of Liiga’s top teams – so his contributions had positive consequences. As a local, Kakko grew up watching TPS, and some of the future NHLers he got to see early included Colorado’s Rantanen and Buffalo Sabres defenseman Rasmus Ristolainen. But it’s Toronto’s Matthews who really catches Kakko’s attention. “He’s a good stickhandler, good with the puck, a great offensive player and especially a smart player with the puck,” he said. “That’s what I like about him.”
Looking at Kakko’s solid two-way game, it’s hard not to wonder if he’d be better utilized as a center, and the fact Kotkaniemi made the switch from wing to NHL pivot in about a year certainly shows it’s possible. But for now, Kakko is happy playing on the flank. “I feel more comfortable on the wing, but I can play center,” he said. “I think I get more offensive opportunities as a winger.”
Back on this side of the pond, Hughes has been ripping it up for the U.S. National Team Development Program while battling through injuries at the world juniors as well as after the tourney. Hughes is a pure center, and though he doesn’t have Kakko’s 6-foot-2, 190-pound frame, Hughes does have blazing speed. As with Matthews and Laine, there really is no disadvantage in picking second this summer. Whichever team “loses” the lottery will still get a tremendous player. And Kakko has well-placed confidence in his own abilities and upside, despite his respect for Hughes. “I don’t make the choices,” Kakko said. “He’s an awesome player, but I’m confident that I’m a great player, too.”