Who is Mikko Kokkonen?
Mikko Kokkonen is a Finnish defenseman prospect out of the Finnish Liiga, where he played a full season for Jukurit in Finland’s highest league. Given his age as an 18-year old, just playing the season in Liiga would be impressive for Kokkonen, but he not only played, he was a significant contributor for Jukurit. Listed at 5’-11” and 198 points, Kokkonen is by no means slight, but he’s also not a big player. With a January 2001 birthday, the Mikkeli, Finland native slots somewhere in the middle of this draft class, age-wise. He isn’t regarded for any one standout skill in particular, but as a total package, he seems to be an effective defenseman.
The funny thing about Kokkonen is that while the scouting reports rarely rave about his abilities as a player, opting to use terms like “solid” and “steady,” his scoring numbers from Liiga this season are hugely impressive. He put up 19 points from the blueline in the top men’s league in Finland, which is somewhat unprecedented. For reference, Dallas Stars standout Miro Heiskanen had 10 points in Liiga in his draft season. In a league where it’s somewhat impressive for a first-year draft-eligible player to get significant minutes, Kokkonen was a major contributor and put up more points than any U18 defenseman in a long while (at least as far back as I was willing to shuffle through on Elite Prospects). A full rundown of his career stats to this point is shown in the screencap below from Elite Prospects.
The profiles and scouting reports on Kokkonen’s game are largely positive and praise his all-around abilities, but they don’t quite line up with the prolific output for a player of his age. This could be because of shifting trends in the league (fellow 2019 prospect Ville Heinola put up 14 points himself and did it at a higher per-game rate), or just because Kokkonen is one of those players who just isn’t striking in the way he plays the game. In reading up on him, multiple profiles described him as “not flashy” in some way. That’s not necessarily a problem for a defender, though. Reports praise Kokkonen’s skills as a passer, though, and his vision and timing as a defender, both going forward and defending, seem to be strong as well. The consistent knock on Kokkonen seems to be his skating, which lacks in speed to an extent, despite decent footwork. Overall, it paints a picture of a very intriguing prospect, and one that is maybe a little hard to figure how he might project at the next level.
Where is Kokkonen Ranked?
Kokkonen may not be the most eye-catching defender based on the descriptors used on him, but he has gotten himself enough attention to at least be ranked generally around the fringes of the first round (with some notable exceptions in Bob McKenzie’s list and Steve Kournianos at The Draft Analyst).
- NHL Central Scouting: #10 (EU Skaters)
- Future Considerations: #33
- Elite Prospects: #30
- The Draft Analyst: #69
- The Athletic (Wheeler): #23
- TSN (McKenzie): #55
What Others Have to Say About Mikko Kokkonen
Some form of consensus tends to coalesce around most prospects on certain aspects of their game and the one that everyone seems to agree on with Kokkonen is his lack of a standout attribute. He’s a guy who does a bunch of stuff well but doesn’t have that one skill like skating or a big shot that scouts will really be able to hone in on. This overview of him as a player from Dobber Prospects gets us started pretty well on that front.
Kokkonen is a reliable two-way defenseman who does everything well but doesn’t excel in any aspect of the game. He isn’t a flashy player by any means but he gets the job done both offensively and defensively. He’s very mature for his age both physically and mentally which has allowed him to play a significant role at the pro level.
That is a pretty good summation of where most seem to land on Kokkonen, though others will get more specific on what things he does/doesn’t do well. For instance, this profile from Ben Kerr at Last Word on Sports features a nice breakdown of different aspects of his game and is worth a full read. Some relevant excerpts on Kokkonen’s game:
His first few steps and his acceleration are a bit below average and will need to get better. His feet could be quicker and his startup less choppy. Once he gets moving his top-end speed allows him to keep up with the play. His edgework and agility are very good. This allows him to keep himself in front of attackers and maintain good gap control.
He uses his agility to walk the line and open up passing and shooting lanes. This helps him to get his shots through traffic and on the net. Kokkonen has a hard slap shot. He also has a very good wrist shot and a quick release.
Kokkonen plays a smart defensive game. He has good gap control against the rush and keeps his man to the outside. He also does a good job of cutting down passing lanes and using his stick to break up plays. Kokkonen is willing to battle in front of the net and play a physical game along the boards.
As you’ll see, skating (and speed in particular) is really the main knock on Kokkonen’s game and probably explains why he gets the “not flashy” label a lot of the time. He seems to be able to move well enough to get things done, though, and his agility is praised as a positive by Kerr. The picture that starts to form is of a player who can anticipate things well and compensate for the lack of speed at both ends of the ice.
This profile from SBN’s Habs blog Eyes on the Prize, where David St-Louis spent some time nicely breaking down Kokkonen’s play, builds on some of those themes. Kokkonen seems to be a player who thinks the game well enough to make the right decisions with the puck.
This season, Kokkonen wasn’t moving the puck up the ice in a flashy way, but he showed a desire to find good outlets for his passes and have the puck exit the zone in a controlled manner first and foremost. That could mean taking a hit to slow down and neutralize a forechecker and let a teammate in a better position take the puck and make a play, or turning back with possession, holding on to the puck just a little while longer, and regrouping rather than simply dumping the puck to the other team.
The main roadblock in the defenceman’s path to the NHL is his skating ability. His form is relatively good, which suggest it could improve with time, but Kokkonen rarely shows an acceleration or speed that lets him separate from opponents and enables him to make easier plays with the puck.
A full read of that Eyes on the Prize profile is also recommended, as they do a good job of breaking down some specific aspects of his game with video. Kokkonen seems to be a guy who is effective because he picks the right spots to engage on offense and makes solid decisions with the puck.
Finally, from FinnProspects, the aptly-named blog covering Finnish prospects, they had a few periodic updates on Kokkonen throughout the year. This, from February, provides a good overview of his game:
Kokkonen is a reliable two-way defenceman. He is solid all-round, but none of his qualities really stands out. He is a decent skater with pretty good defensive game for a player of his age. For sure, his positioning is sometimes off and he could have even more intensity in his game, but these aspects should improve when he matures. His offensive game has translated pretty well to the pro game and while he isn’t flashy, he plays smart and solid passing game.
They also had a review of his WJC-18 performance over at FinnProspects (same link as above), which was apparently a bit disappointing for the Finnish defender.
A Little Video
There isn’t a ton of video on Kokkonen readily available out there but a couple of videos are embedded here below. First is a highlight of his two-point performance in a game at the Hlinka-Gretzky U-18 Tournament last summer. It showcases a nice dish for an assist on the power play as well as a top-shelf snipe for a goal from the left circle.
Then there is this shift-by-shift look at his game from his 2017-18 stint in Liiga from January 2018 if you’re feeling frisky.
An Opinion of Sorts
Mikko Kokkonen is an intriguing prospect, particularly given the way that he was able to produce in a top mens’ league this year. The thing about defensemen is its not necessarily important for them to be flashy, and while Kokkonen’s game doesn’t feature any big time standout abilities, the total package seems to be an effective one. One is forced to take some pause based on some of the knocks on his skating, though. While players can compensate for a shortcoming like that, as Kokkonen seems to do, it does mean they have less ability to bail themselves out of trouble when it arises. Being the best skater in the world won’t make you a good defenseman, though, if you don’t make the right decisions on the ice, something that Kokkonen does seem to do.
Kokkonen comes across as effective on the breakout and an effective transition defender as well as a player with enough offensive instincts to run a power play and contribute when the opportunity is there. He lacks flashy speed and isn’t the most intimidating physical presence in the world, but he seems to get the job done from the blue line. The picture of his game that starts to form is a player in the mold of Will Butcher, someone who doesn’t always look the part, but makes smart decisions to ultimately be very effective. I don’t know if he’d be my first choice at, say, 34 overall, but I would certainly put him in the pool of defensemen the Devils should be looking at sometime in the second round.
What are your thoughts on Mikko Kokkonen? Are you impressed by his numbers he put up as an 18-year old defenseman in Liiga? Do the knocks on his skating worry you? How would you feel about the Devils selecting him in the second round? Share your thoughts below and thanks for reading.