Since Ray Shero has taken over as general manager of the New Jersey Devils, the team has emphasized speed and skating ability. Three words come to mind: Fast, attacking, supportive. As the team has improved by leaps and bounds from a miserable 2016-17 season to a successful (by making the playoffs) 2017-18, the Devils have become a faster team with many quick, agile, and strong skaters. Skating is an important skill for any player and I do not think it is a coincidence that plenty of the players that have been drafted under Shero are good at moving about. Or at least it is not an issue. To that end, if Devils the want to keep going in that direction at the 2018 NHL Entry Draft, then their ideal first round pick may be the center from Kärpät in the Finnish Liiga: Rasmus Kupari.
Who is Rasmus Kupari?
Kupari is a center who has played for Karpat in the Liiga, their under-20 team in the Junior A-SM Liiga, a few games with Hermes in Mestis, and the Finnish U-18 and U-20 teams. He was a busy young man in 2017-18. According to his profile at Elite Prospects, Kupari was born on March 15, 2000, he has a right-handed shot, and he is listed at 5’11” and 163 pounds. Being 5’11” is not that big of a deal. The 163 pounds means he needs to gain mass. However, it appears he has grown quite a bit last season. According to this post by Mark Schieg at The Hockey Writers, Kupari measured at 6.15” and 188.7 pounds at the NHL Combine. Size really should not be an issue now. His EP profile lists that his current contract ends after the 2018-19 season.
Kupari has rose up from the youth teams of Kärpät to make it to the senior team for the first time this season. He managed to stick around a good part of it. He played in 34 games and put up six goals and eight assists. For someone who turned 18 in the second half of their season, that’s pretty good in a men’s professional league. It did tail off in the playoffs where he made six appearance and produced no points. According to the Liiga website, Kupari’s 14 points in the 2017-18 season is tied for twelfth among rookies. There, we also can see he took 70 shots and played an average of 12:05 per game. Liiga actually tracks Corsi and PDO among other “advanced” stats for players. Unfortunately, those were not so hot for Kupari as he had a 46.3% in 5-on-5 play and 46.1% in close score 5-on-5 situations. He also had a fairly high PDO of 104.7. So it seems he was not particularly get in 5-on-5 play; but he was given limited minutes and it was his rookie season in the Liiga.
Kupari was more productive elsewhere. In eleven games with the Kärpät U-20 team, he put up seven points. With Hermes in Finland’s second division, Mestis, Kupari put up a goal and three assist in four games. Kupari stood out big-time with the U-18 team at the 2017 Ivan Hlinka Tournament. Kupari put up two goals and five assists in four games; only two players in the tourney had more points. Kupari got into four games with the Finnish U-18 squad at the World U-18 Championships and put up two goals and an assist. Kupari was good enough to play for Finland at the World Junior Championships and make six other appearances with the U-20 team. Alas, he was pointless at the WJCs and put up one assist with the U-20s in all of 2017-18. Still, Kupari thrived with competition with players his own age and players in a lower league.
Kupari was also a part of a lot of success last season. Kärpät came in first place in the regular season and won the championship. The Kärpät U-20 team fell short of the championship in their league. The Finnish U-18 team won the World U-18 Championships. That’s two titles and one finals loss where Kupari played some kind of role.
This is a fairly young player who needs to gain muscle and who has already done quite a bit in Finland. The future is the NHL. The question is: How does the NHL regard him?
Where is Rasmus Kupari Ranked?
Kupari received a lot of attention early from the Hlinka tournament. That has since cooled off, but many regard him as a first round talent. Check out these rankings:
- NHL Central Scouting Services: European Skaters - 11 (Final), 6 (Midterm)
- Steve Kournianos, The Draft Analyst - 18 (May, Final Top 500), 11 (April, Sporting News), 11 (January Top 500), 15 (September Preseason 500)
- Future Considerations - 16 (May, Final Top 100)
- McKeen’s Hockey - 21 (June Final, Top 31 only)
- Hockey Prospect - 19 (June Final, Top 31 only)
- International Scouting Services - 15 (June Final, Top 31 only)
- Craig Button - 27 (June)
- Ryan Kennedy, The Hockey News: 25 (June, Top 120)
Kupari is rated anywhere to go just outside of the top ten to being closer to the end of the first round. The rankings by Future Considations, ISS, and Steve Kournianos’ final ranking has Kupari going right around New Jersey’s 17th overall. Craig Button and Ryan Kennedy both do not rate him all that highly. McKeen’s also has Kupari outside of the top 20. The CSS ranking is interesting in that Kupari went from being one of the better European prospects to being bumped down with big gains for Vitali Krautsov, Martin Kaut, Adam Ginning, Jesperi Kotkaniemi, and Filip Johansson. In other words, it really would not be a surprise if he is available for the Devils at seventeenth overall.
What Others Say About Rasmus Kupari
Super slick offensive-minded center with good size and a knack for making big plays. Kupari’s highlight-reel dominance in last August’s under-18 Ivan Hlinka tournament got his draft year off to an excellent start, and he hasn’t disappointed with his league play as a rookie in a men’s elite league. He’s a very strong skater with excellent balance and agility, and he uses an array of fakes, stutter steps and rapid directional changes to expand the open ice around him and finish close to the cage. Kupari’s stickhandling is among the best of any 2018 draft eligible, and he uses it to either dance through or around traffic. What sets him apart from the majority of his peers is the way he can spot and connect with the open man just seconds after dangling his way through a wall of opponents.
Kupari’s work in the facoff dot has improved over the course of his rookie season, and he’s shown versatility as a net-front presence on the power play. He’s one of a handful of draft-eligible forwards with legitimate upside for a top line, and his chances will improve once he irons out some fixable issues with coverage in his own end.
This description definitely fits for someone to be fast and attacking. The combination of his skating and handling is rather intriguing to read for any kind of forward. The line at the end about coverage in his own end suggests that the supportive part may need some work, but that is not a huge surprise given his age, experience, and where he played. For what it is worth, Kournainos has stated that this is a thin draft for centers and has ranked Kupari as the second best one available.
Moving on to Ben Kerr at the Last Word on Sports, Kerr had a lot of good things to write about Kupari in his profile. He highlights his skating as a strength, making specific note about how he can change speeds and that he has “good edgework and agility.” He also notes that Kupari does backcheck and some concepts about where he needs to be in his own end of the rink - which does require some improvement. I want to highlight what he wrote about his offensive skills:
Kupari is most dangerous with the puck on his stick. He is a tremendous stick handler and can beat defensemen one-on-one. Pairing this with his skating skills, and he is difficult to defend. Kupari also has very good passing skills and excellent vision. Once he opens up a passing lane, he quickly makes a tape-to-tape pass to a teammate. Kupari anticipates plays well, and knows where his teammates are going before they make their move. He almost always makes the smart play with the puck.
Kupari wrist shot has a good release, but he needs to work on both the accuracy and power. He needs to add mass to his frame though, as he can have issues being pushed off the puck right now. Kupari is getting better at scoring goals in tight. He gets to the front of the net without the puck, and is able to knock in rebounds and get deflections. He can be more effective as he grows into his frame.
I like these assessments as they pick apart some pluses and minuses. Again, the good is that he is apparently a great handler of the puck. But there’s more. He can make passes and read plays in addition to moving and controlling the puck rather well. That makes him an offensive asset. At the same time, there’s room for improvement. Kerr says his shot could be better and he really needs to get beefier. While Kupari was heavier at the combine, he probably wasn’t that heavy during most of the season. I think 2018-19 will show whether the extra mass will help as much as Kerr thinks it will. Still, it’s a solid description for an offensive player: some excellent skills but by no means perfect.
Moving on to a site called Finn Prospects, which covers Finnish prospects, there are some brief game reports about Kupari. The site does not appear to be updated all that often, but game reports are worth reading anyway. The most recent one - a March 2 game between Kärpät and HIFK - had this conclusion:
Kupari had a good performance on Kärpät third line in a 3-2 overtime loss to HIFK. He got 12 minutes and 54 seconds of ice-time and registered four shots on goal. He managed to display a lot of puck skill on a few occasions through impressive stickhandling. He forechecked really well in his first shift of the game to cause a dangerous turnover. He also showcased pretty good smarts, both with and without the puck.
What truly stood out most about Kupari was his skating ability. His acceleration, agility, edge work and transition skating all are at an elite level for a player of his age. His top speed is also remarkably good. Kupari has the potential to develop into an excellent skater at the NHL level, one who can make a great impact with his speed in all three zones. I think he’s a very safe bet to selected in the first round of the draft.
This is an example of Kupari having a good game in that he had multiple shots on net and stood out despite not scoring. It’s another person really praising his skating skills and I keep bringing that up because it’s probably Kupari’s best asset.
That game report came from Marco Bombino. He has own site, Finnish Junior Prospects, where he has these notes from January about Kupari:
Kupari has proved in his first Liiga season that he can play at a solid level night in and night out… a fast skater with speed to burn… good balance, mobility and edge work… powerful and quick first few strides allow to accelerate in a hurry and reach great top-end speed… has demonstrated the ability to handle the puck at varying speeds… wrist shot features a quick, tricky release… a confident attacker with good puck handling skills and some creativity… occasionally tries to create too much on his own… play under pressure and decision making in general require improvement.. reliable defensively, uses his stick well and can get into shooting and passing lanes… shows a high work rate, his quickness allows to get up and down the ice well… very strong in the face-off circle in the U20 league… a probable first round pick in the 2018 NHL Draft
Bombino praises his skating and handling again. But I did raise an eyebrow about needing improvement for decision making. It’s the first I’ve seen of it. Ditto that he’s “reliable” on defense. Maybe he saw a better game in January than what others saw? Still, this is consistent with what he wrote again in March and with what others saw.
For a more negative take, Jeremy Davis wrote back in December 16, 2017 at Canucks Army that Kupari was overrated as a prospect. Most of that is due to how Kupari was considered to be ahead of Jesperi Kotkaniemi and how Kupari racked up points over the Slovaks at the Hlinka. Given the rankings from various people and services, I think most would agree that Kotkaniemi is the better prospect and is ranked accordingly. And that Kupari is not a lock for the top ten. While Davis and CanucksArmy has not (yet?) profiled Kupari in any more detail, Davis did rank him 23rd on his list earlier in the spring, so he still thinks he’s worthy of the first-round. I would not be surprised if the skating and stickhandling are pluses because those really are Kupari’s main strengths.
A Little Video
Video is great to see if a player really is good at skating and handling the puck among other skills. Everyone’s got to skate and players doing things with the puck is what they do to standout. From Prospect Film Room, here’s a 6:20 video that opens with Kupari skating and handling the puck out of the corner away from goal and then into the slot into traffic for a scoring chance. He turns the rebound into a pass that became a secondary for an OT winning goal at the World U-18s. Poor #5 on Russia. Look for #34 on Finland and #19 in the ad-filled Liiga games:
What impressed me is how Kupari kept going and making plays amid pressure. At 2:19, he shrugs off a potential foul by a defender to still keep the puck and make a pass for a score. At 2:38, he takes a pass into the offensive zone and goes through a defender to gain control of the puck that he eventually scores with. At 3:53, he takes a pass after a zone entry by a teammate and keeps control in the face of two defenders while taking it to the high slot. His wrist shot looks good in these highlights; the toe-drag at 3:15 is absolutely slick for an example. For another example, his finish on a rush up-ice that began at 5:18 is also sweet-looking. Throughout the whole video, it is clear that Kupari is an excellent skater. His strides are smooth, he moves as fast he needs to be and control it, and he is not wasting a lot of movement. I know these are highlights where he succeeded but to do so often and in various situations in various different games, I’m inclined to think the skating is legit.
If you’re looking for other videos, SEER VIDEO has a similar highlight video with more music and clips from his 2016-17 campaign and here’s the video of Kupari’s five-point game against Slovakia at the 2018 Hlinka.
An Opinion of Sorts
I marveled out how good Kupari moved on the ice in the clips of him that is out there. He really can handle the puck well. I do not know how much he weighed in some of them since jumping from 163 pounds to 188 is a big gain, but he did fight through pressure for some of those plays. Combined with what others say about Kupari, it is really easy to get excited about this kind of player. What team could not benefit from a fast and smooth skating forward who has a wrist shot, who can make plays, and has already played well enough to play at the U-20 level and with men at age 17? Surely, this is a prospect who is going to do great things.
However, I do not think it is an coincidence that other services and people have such a player ranked more in the middle to deeper in the second half of the first round. Yes, the positives are tantalizing. But one wonders where the production is. Even his big totals at the Hlinka were boosted by one game. Despite limited usage, opponents tended to have Kupari and his team play more defense than in 5-on-5 play due to a CF% around 46. Opinions vary on what Kupari needs to work on, but it is agreed that he does have room for improvement in his game in addition to room for growth. When he is not able to be flashy or not have the puck on his stick, what can he do? With all that in mind, Kupari seems less tantalizing.
This is not to say that Kupari is a boom or bust prospect or someone the Devils should pass on. It is really to say that, like a lot of prospects that could be available at 17th overall, every prospect is going to have some issues to work on. Should the Devils take Kupari if he is available? All things being equal, it would be a good, sensible pick. No, he is not a defenseman. He does carry plenty of the tools of a fast, attacking, and potentially supportive player. As I understand it, there are not many (any?) prospects in this draft class who are better skaters or stick-handlers than Kupari. Those skills at a high-level make him stand out among other attacking players. Honestly, from what I saw and read, the shot is workable, he can move the puck, and he can play in pace. I’d like think that at age 18 and in a second season in the Liiga, he could really grow and turn out to be a fine pro. Again, if Shero wants to continue the profile of his team, then Kupari could be a fine fit. I would be fine with it as I would be for several prospects at 17th this year.
This may be the last prospect profile for this year. In this coming week, we will focus on the draft - and the NHL Awards Show - itself. Thank you for following along for the past month. In the meantime, what do you think of Rasmus Kupari as a prospect? Are you thrilled with his skating and stickhandling? Do you think the other aspects of his game are good enough to make him a viable NHL player one day? Would he be a good pick for the Devils at 17th overall, assuming he makes it here? If you saw Kupari play, then what did you think of him? Please leave your answers and other thoughts about Kupari in the comments. Thank you for reading.