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Anttoni Honka: 2019 NHL Draft Prospect Profile; High Risk, High Reward Mobile Defenseman

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In every draft class, there is a prospect who has serious skills but saw his stock fall throughout the season for various reasons. The “high risk, high reward” player of the 2019 NHL Draft may be JYP defenseman Anttoni Honka. Learn more about him in this prospect profile.

One of the common statements to describe a prospect is that they are a “high risk, high reward” player. What this means is that the player has some issues that are a cause for serious concern. Perhaps they had a season that went completely awry. Perhaps they a great season prior to their draft year and then had a draft year of struggles. Perhaps they can demonstrate they are great in a number of things but they are prone to serious errors in others. Whatever it is, the intent is the same: if the prospect gets the right coaches, the right advice, the right adjustments, and the prospect is able to listen to put it all together, then that player could be excellent in the future. If not, then they may not hit their potential and maybe not even close. One of the players that typifies this thinking is the subject of today’s prospect profile: defenseman Anttoni Honka.

Who is Anttoni Honka?

According to Elite Prospects, Anttoni Honka is a Finnish defenseman. He plays for JYP in the Liiga and he grew up in their youth system. He is listed at 5’10” and 176 pounds, he has a right-handed shot, and he was born on October 5, 2000. Anttoni certainly is not big and his early October birthdate means he is one of the oldest draft-eligible players for 2019. Anttoni Honka is indeed the younger brother of Dallas defenseman, Julius Honka. He is also the younger brother of Aleksi and Valtteri, who both play professionally in France and Finland, respectively. Anttoni will become the second Honka to be drafted into the NHL. Where he will go is anyone’s guess.

It is also a question of where Anttoni will be next season. He is signed with JYP through 2019-20. However, he has not been with the club all of last season. It seems strange to me given how his 2017-18 season went. Two seasons ago, he was a standout at the junior level and named the best defenseman in the Junior A SM-Liiga. He also made 20 appearances for the main JYP team. He may have averaged only 11:32 per game according to the Liiga site, but it’s still a big deal for a then-17 year old Honka. So was putting up nine points and forty unblocked shots in those twenty games. He was loaned out to KeuPa HT in Mestis (Finland’s second division, below Liiga) for a few games then to keep him playing. All signs pointed to a young stud defenseman making a big step in 2018-19, which is perfect timing as it was his draft season.

However, Honka did not last at JYP. He spent a little time with the U-20 team; he made six appearances there. After 16 games with JYP, the club loaned him back to KeuPa HT in Mestis in November. He would not return to JYP; the organization loaned him out to Jukurit, another team in the Liiga. He played eleven games there to close out the Liiga season. I presume he went back to KeuPa HT for their playoffs, where they fell in the finals. His basic stats went mostly down with JYP in 2018-19 except for a little higher ATOI of 13:52 per the Liiga site. He received more minutes with Jukurit, but the production was still lacking. Between the two Liiga teams, he put up fewer points (8) than he did in 2017-18 (9) in more games and more ice time in 2018-19. For the kind of defenseman Honka is, that is concerning. He was much more productive in Mestis, but that is a lesser league than Liiga. One would have liked to have seen him stay in the Liiga all season or at least produce and contribute more.

This also applies to the international scene. Honka has been a part of successful Finnish teams. He was on the U-18 team that won the 2018 U-18 World Championship. He was on the U-20 team that won the 2019 World Junior Championships. He has represented the blue and white many times. Yet, at the World U-18s in 2018, he was productive (five assists in seven games) and a standout player for Finland. At the WJCs, he went pointless in six games and he was even benched at points. Even at the international level, Honka went from a great draft year-1 that made a lot of noise to to an underwhelming draft year.

I do not know the full story or even if there is a story. This could all just be a bad season, which is unfortunately timed for his career. Despite the loans, he did play the majority of his 2018-19 in professional leagues. He still represented his nation and earned gold medals in each of the last two years. Yet, his own results went down and it is clear to me he did not take that hoped-for next big step after a marvelous 2017-18 campaign. I see risk inherent in this situation.

Where is Anttoni Honka Ranked?

Rankings are not everything and plenty can change between now and June. Still, they can provide a general idea as to whether a prospect is worth getting excited over. Several sites do not have their final rankings ready, so there some mid-season ones included for completion's sake.

In the case of this profile, these rankings show that his stock has been falling throughout the season. The strength of his 2017-18 season made several people think he was a first rounder. But as the 2018-19 went on, more rankings had Honka outside of the first round. This is best seen with Kourianos, Fisher, and Future Considerations. Although Fisher bumped him up eight spots in his recent May rankings. More on both from Fisher later in this post.

There were some exceptions - and not in Honka’s favor. Central Scouting Services did not think much of him to begin with; a rating around 20 among European skaters means they did not see him as a first rounder then. His play even caused Craig Button to not even put him in his top 93. I try to not list who does not rank a player but that one was a real stunner. Button aside, Honka’s fall is not too deep into the second round. Let’s learn more about Honka by seeing what others have said about him.

What Others Say About Anttoni Honka

I want to continue showing how people regarded Honka early in 2018-19 to more recent evaluations. One of the earliest profiles of Honka was written back on September 14, 2018 by Steve Kournianos at The Draft Analyst. It is a good summary of what he was able to do based on the 2017-18 season and early play in 2018-19. Here is a snippet from that profile:

He’s a gambler with or without the puck, and his ability to anticipate danger before utilizing his top-end skating helps tighten the gap between the opposing puck career and him. Honka’s positional play in his own end is above average, as he makes an effort to stay as close to the slot as possible until possession changes hands. He is far from physical, but he stands up at the blue line and isn’t rattled at the sight of a bigger, faster forward barreling his way. His puck management is relatively sound, although he can look a little nonchalant and be the culprit behind unforced turnovers and errant passes.

Kournianos also had plenty of praise for how well Honka passes the puck and notes that he could run a power play, particularly in an umbrella formation. I highlighted this part because it hints at the issues more and more have noted with Honka. The physical part should be no surprise given his measurables and being a high-end skater is a big plus. But Honka is not afraid to take risks, which adds to his appeal when it works and when it does not, well, it hurts it.

Adding to this would be this early game report at FinnProspects. Lassi Alanan had this report after a September 19, 2018 game against Jukurit. This was a positive report where Alanan stated that Honka “shines” at making zone exits and making plays on the puck. Here’s the meat of it:

Honka’s skill set was on full display in this game. He was great at transitions, making good passes and transporting the puck effectively. Honka is very mobile, which allows him to evade forecheckers with ease. He does not possess high-end top speed, but is overall a very good skater. Honka is very good at handling the puck. He processes the play constantly and has his head up at all times, even while handling the puck at high speeds. ... Honka’s problems are in his defensive game. He is quite good at controlling the gap with his stick, but at long defending sequences he often positioned himself poorly or missed his assignment. He is a very smart player in every other regard and has already improved defensively from last season, so I’m not exactly sure how concerned I should be with his mistakes.

This is in-line with what Kournianos wrote a few days earlier. This was clearly a good game for Honka (and JYP). It further supports that Honka is quite good at skating, although he is not blazing fast, he is more than capable than getting from Point A to Point B. He is also adept at handling the puck. If there was a flaw, it was on longer shifts on defense where he got lost a few times. This did not bother Alanan then and I would tend to agree if I saw this back in September like they did. For what it’s worth, Honka was listed as the second best Finnish prospect for the draft at about this time behind you know who.

Unfortunately, as the season went on for Honka, the criticisms grew. On December 29, 2019, Honka was a member of the Finnish World Junior Team. Miika Arponen had this in his game report at FinnProspects, noting that he was their seventh defenseman:

The 18-year-old is quite a riddle to solve when it comes to evaluating his talent. His skating is high-end if not elite, his hands are very smooth and he can casually deke a few opponents before finding an open lane to the opposite side of the rink with a crisp pass. On the other hand there is a constant threat of him losing the puck in a dangerous spot or giving a hazardous pass straight to an opponent.

...

Honka’s upside is sky-high as a very poised offensive defenceman with the ability to create scoring chances from nothing. The downside is that there are a lot of question marks whether he can reach that upside.

That is definitely not a positive assessment. What good is being adept at skating if you’re chasing down pucks you turned over? What good is having hands if you’re sending the puck to the opposition? While one must be careful to not put a lot of stock into a WJC performance, that Honka was the seventh defenseman on his team was not an encouraging sign. Neither was his very limited usage in the Gold medal game.

After the World Junior Championships, Jokke Nevalainen went all in on Honka at Dobber Prospects on January 7, 2019. It is a full look at the player - warts and all. I highly recommend reading the whole thing. Nevalainen highlights the same things that Kournianos, Alanen, and Arponen among others have noted: very good skater, very good on the puck, and he can create offense. He notes those good things before going into the bad things. Things like:

The bad things are that he takes too many risks to create offense, loses too many puck-battles, and his defensive ability is questionable at best. He’s not just thinking offense first, he’s only thinking about offense in every situation. Often times those risks pay off but many times they also end up being costly mistakes. And when he turns the puck over, he’s not really capable of making big defensive plays to cover his own mistakes.

And

Even after Team Finland lost defenseman Ville Heinola (2019) to injury, they were often playing with five defensemen instead of using Honka. Finland won gold in the tournament but Honka wasn’t really a part of it because he was unable to earn the trust of his coaching staff. He didn’t follow the team’s system, so he was benched for the entire third period in the gold medal game.

And

Honka has had more time to improve his decision-making and defensive game but he hasn’t used that time properly. That raises big red flags about his willingness and ability to fix those shortcomings. Sometimes it’s just a mental thing, a player not realizing something has to change.

Nevalainen throws up comparisons to Ryan Merkley and Anthony DeAngelo, offensive-minded defensemen who had serious concerns with their attitude on top of their defensive game. While Nevalainen does not bring up whether Honka has “character issues” or any incidents, he notes that the reason why he is seen as high risk like those players because of his style of play. The big issue is how he has not improved much in the season. He is aware of Honka’s great 2017-18 and that Honka did not meet those expectations during the season. He is aware that while he made it to the WJC roster, it is telling that coaches decided to effectively shorten their defense than give Honka regular minutes. While he has skills on the puck, he pointed out that Honka has been straight up careless. He may have the skills, but again, what good are they if they make the game harder for him and his teams?

Nevalainen’s article came at a time as others have started dropping them in their rankings. Remember Larry Fisher’s rankings at The Hockey Writers? In addition to those, he has separate posts for his top ten risers and fallers where he explains his thinking. Honka made his fallers list twice in a row. On January 16, 2019, he had this as part of his explanation for his listing when Fisher dropped him from 17 to 23:

Honka was relatively unproductive there — finishing the [World Junior Championships] tournament without a point and with a minus-1 rating over the six games that he suited up for (averaging 9:06 in ice-time prior to the final) — but when he’s doing his thing, when he’s at his best, it seems the team that drafts Honka will always have to take the good with the bad and just hope the good outweighs the bad on most nights.

And on February 13, 2019, Fisher had this as part of his explanation for his listing when Fisher dropped Honka from 23 to 32.

Honka isn’t producing much in Finland’s top professional league and although stats aren’t everything and never tell the whole story, it does appear he’s being surpassed by some of his younger peers. Honka hasn’t been progressing as much as others over the course of their draft year to date and thus he’s no longer in that top-10 discussion. And he’s not even in the next tier for me, which spans from 12 to 26 in my February rankings — all prospects that I consider locks for the first round as of today.

I think in both cases, Fisher was concilatory in his explanations as he did state he is a fan of Honka. I get it. Honka’s skills are desirable. When it works, it really works. But as Fisher concedes, it does not always happen and other prospects have been able to put it all together more often.

On February 22, Asko Huuki of FinnProspects had a game report for Honka when he was with Jukurit on loan. In a game against HIFK, this part of Huuki’s report stood out to me:

Honka has struggled this season, but the loan has clearly been the right decision for him. He occasionally still gives weird passes and holds the puck for too long, but he clearly tried to play more simple game and to me, this is promising. Honka has above average hands, but that has sometimes resulted him trying to be flashy instead of productive. Improving his decision-making at the pro level is crucial, but this seems to be improving.

Huuki also noted how Honka’s defensive game needs more experience and work. This part of the report makes me think his whole game needs refinement. For all of the praise of Honka’s skating and how he handles the puck, the more critical reports and observations note that he has made poor decisions with the puck and in his general play. Huuki’s report is evidence of this occurring. It also points to what could be done about it. Simple as it may seem, simple may be Honka’s best way forward until he is consistent enough to take bigger risks.

For what it is worth, by this point, FinnProspects dropped Honka down to sixth on their Finnish prospect list in February. And he remained there in their last ranking on April 10. The most recent game report on FinnProspects about Honka was for an April 4, 2019 game when Honka was with KeuPa HT in Mestis (Finland’s second league, a level below Liiga) in a playoff game. It was written by Lassi Alanen and it was a positive report. In part because he had a good performance and in part because Alanen recognizes his skills - noting that he has a lot of potential if he can improve how he uses those skills. Even so, Alanen saw him a second round prospect instead of the first rounder he saw earlier in the season.

Some opinions have shifted on Honka after the season. Fisher bumped up Honka back into his top 31 in his May rankings and included him in his Top 10 risers for his May rankings at The Hockey Writers. He had this to say in his explanation.

Honka isn’t mistake-free by any means, quite the contrast to [Tobias] Björnfot, but Honka often attempts plays that wouldn’t even cross the minds of other prospects. Honka thinks the game on a very creative level and with some refining or reining in, he could emerge as a steal if selected outside the top 20.

Fisher has been a fan of Honka’s and he is not wrong. Someone with those talents and the confidence to use them is quite valuable. The concern is whether he can do so effectively. On the flip side, some opinions have not changed. I reached out to Jokke Nevalainen (@JokkeNevalainen) of Dobber Prospects about whether his opinion of Honka has changed since his January article. This is what he told me (Quick aside: Thanks to Jokke Nevalainen for the answer and agreeing to let me include this):

Not much. He had a strong season to his season offensively in Mestis, which was definitely a positive sign, but even then the same issues he’s had were visible. But at least that stopped the sliding on the draft board for me. I have him as a mid to late second round pick now.

I will give the last word for this section to Ben Kerr of Last Word on Hockey, which is a part of Last Word on Sports. Kerr’s profiles are always a must-read for this time of the year. He recently put his profile of Honka together well after the 2018-19 season ended for the defenseman. These parts of Honka’s profile stood out to me:

Honka h[a]s some issues with bad decisions with the puck though. He must learn to pick his spots and not be as risky. He can sometimes make giveaways in bad situations.

..

Honka does a decent enough job in the defensive end of the ice but most continue to improve moving forward. He needs to work on his positioning without the puck. Honka can sometimes watch the puck a bit too much and stops moving his feet.

It is a further confirmation of Honka’s issues with the puck. That despite how creative he can be, he is prone to make mistakes. On and off the puck and after all of these words about Honka, I get the impression that his decision making in general needs plenty of work. Experience will help, but so will coaching and, as Nevalainen alluded to, his own desire to improve.

Kerr states that strength in general could help Honka’s game out in all facets and I would have to agree. Kerr concludes that Honka needs time to develop and I also agree. So it goes with pretty much most “high risk, high reward” prospects. You pick him and hope it works out with the right instruction, work ethic, and situation. And even then it is up to chance.

A Little Video

Usually, I am able to find a recent clip or a highlight video or something for a player. But unless this profile is just too early, most videos of Anttoni Honka are from his 2017-18 season. Such as this extended video by NHL Prospects and this 2018 World U-18 Championship-focused video by bigwhite06. They are good videos in that it shows why people were initially excited for Honka entering 2018-19. But they are from a season ago and I would rather have something from his draft year.

The exceptions I have so far are these short highlights of a three-point effort in a JYP game against Ilves back on September 15, 2018 (he’s wearing #3 here) by NHL Prospects:

These collected highlights from the 2018 World Junior Summer Showcase - which is pre-preseason hockey - by Hockey Prospect Center (he’s wearing #36 here):

And this short .GIF from Lassi Alanen on Twitter of Honka scoring a goal from distance in March. I think this is when he was on loan with Jukurit.

The video from the World Junior Summer Showcase shows the most but this was before 2018-19 properly began. Still, you can see how mobile and agile he can be. Even in the short three-point clip, he was moving very smoothly on offense. I wish there was something more recent. Then again, given his struggles at times, his minimal use at the WJCs, and his lack of production, I can understand that there may not be a lot of material to work with.

An Opinion of Sorts

The references to DeAngelo and Merkley by Nevalainen reminded me that I profiled both players back when they were draft eligible. Honka thankfully does not have the non-hockey issues they had back then. However, all three were offensive-minded defensemen who were seen as great skaters, talent on the puck, and had significant issues elsewhere in their game. In 2014 and 2018, I expressed doubt about the Devils taking DeAngelo and Merkley then due to their lack of defensive ability. I feel mostly the same about Honka - emphasis on Honka.

I’m not as down on Honka because I can believe that 2018-19 was just a bad season for him. As near as I can tell, there was no massive scandal that caused things to go awry. As others have noted, he did not appear to progress as much as other players. He did not take advantage of his opportunties. His production was unimpressive for an offensive-minded defenseman. However, even a few of those later game reports at FinnProspects noted how he seemingly played better by playing with less risk. Despite his issues, observers have consistently praised his skating and his skills on the puck when he does make good decisions. Those are two assets that will become even more pronounced with better coaching. That Honka is talented was not in doubt; just whether he was using it correctly. My impression is that plenty of the issues he has shown can be fixed. No, he cannot become bigger; but he can be better with his decision making and that will make him more capable of a defenseman. And, as with DeAngelo and Merkley, I wonder whether Honka would be willing to play wing where some of these issues would be mitigated.

That written, I am not so sure the Devils should be the one to help fix them or convert him. He may fit the profile of many of the team’s draft picks since 2016, but I would prefer someone who has shown signs of growth in 2018-19 as opposed to being stagnant or revealing issues. I would prefer someone who took and kept a spot as opposed to being loaned out to multiple teams in the hopes of “figuring it out.” I think the Devils’ prospect pool is deeper than it was three years ago. They may be able to afford to take on a “project” or two. But I am not sure taking Honka and hoping he gets to the levels scouts and observers thought he would be at last season is the right project to take on.

This brings to mind where he is available. Should the rankings turn out to be somewhat accurate, Honka may be around at 34th overall - the Devils’ first second round pick. I have to emphasize “may” because a team in front of them may think Honka’s talent is worth taking late in the first round. Should Honka make it that far, the question becomes whether he is better than most of the other options available. I am not so certain. If he ends up falling further into the second round, then I would feel a lot more comfortable with Honka being the selection. Then, it would be a great value pick. But I doubt he will that far unless teams find something to really not like about him. But I think the Devils may be able to do better than a “high risk, high reward” defenseman at #34. I could be talked into it, but as with DeAngelo and Merkley, I have my doubts even if they are not as strong as they were with those two.

Your Take

That’s my take on Anttoni Honka. You may have a different opinion. What do you think of what you have learned about Anttoni Honka? What do you think of his play as a defenseman this season? Does his skating and apparent puck skills outweigh the miscues and mistakes? Given that he is an older prospect, does his 2018-19 season concern you? Is this a player you think the Devils should draft? If so, would you take him with the 34th overall pick or hope he falls? If you have seen him play, what did you think of his play? Please leave your answers and other thoughts about Anttoni Honka in the comments. Thank you for reading.