Day: December 13, 2018

Kakko aims to win for Finns

Kaapo Kakko celebrates a goal with his Finnish teammates during the 2018 IIHF Ice Hockey U18 World Championship.

By Derek O’Brien – IIHF.com

For the past several years now, the Finnish rosters at the IIHF World Junior Championships have featured players projected to be among the top few picks at the upcoming NHL Entry Draft. In 2015 it was Mikko Rantanen, in 2016 it was Patrik Laine, in 2017 it was Miro Heiskanen and in 2018 it was Jesperi Kotkaniemi. Now, in 2019 it’s right winger Kaapo Kakko.

Kakko plays for TPS Turku in the Finnish Liiga, where he’s having a fine rookie season. He got his first taste of the pros last season with a six-game stint as a 16-year-old. This season, he has been more productive with 18 points (7+11) in 26 games, which puts him fourth in team scoring and third in the league among junior-aged players behind Aleksi Heponiemi and Rasmus Kupari.

“It’s a high-level league,” Kakko said of the Liiga. “I think this year I have more strength and power, so I can play my game a little bit better.”

Going into greater detail about his game, Kakko said: “I think my strengths are my offensive game and my hockey sense, finding players and making plays. I need to improve more on the defensive side of the puck.”

At 17 years of age, it’s hardly a surprise Kakko is the youngest player on his team by a couple of years. He considers himself fortunate to have received good guidance from some of the leaders on the team, particularly team scoring leader Ilari Filppula and captain Lauri Korpikoski. Unfortunately, Korpikoski has yet to play this season as, in September, he was diagnosed with myocarditis – an inflammation of the heart muscle caused by a virus, which can be fatal in serious cases. As scary as that sounds, Kakko is optimistic about the outlook.

“It will be a few more games,” he said about the timing of Korpikoski’s return. “Fortunately, the team has managed to play pretty well and we should be even better when he returns.”

Like the other Finnish prospects who came before him, he’s also had a fair bit of success on the international stage. Last season, he had 10 points in seven games at the U18 World Championship in Russia, helping Finland to the gold medal.

Kakko doesn’t find it much of an adjustment moving back and forth between the pro game and top-tier international junior hockey.

“Both are high-tempo,” he compared. “When you get these top teams from the world, top-level junior hockey is almost like professional-level hockey – it’s not that different. Both have a lot of good players.”

In his first taste of U20 international hockey this season, he doesn’t look out of place on a Finnish team that looks poised for more success. Bringing a young roster to a tournament in the Czech Republic in November, the Finns dominated Russia, Sweden and the Czech Republic, outscoring them 16-5, en route to a first-place finish. Kakko himself had three points in three games.

“Of course we’re happy, but we’re not very surprised,” Kakko said confidently. “We have a lot of good 2001-born players in our country, so I think we can play against anybody,” he said of a group that includes himself, Anton Lundell and defenceman Mikko Kokkonen, who could all play in the upcoming World Juniors and a second U18 World Championship in April.

Projected as one of the top picks for next summer’s NHL Entry Draft, Kakko is already been compared to Jack Hughes, the American whose name is at the top of many lists.

“I know who he is, obviously,” Kakko said of Hughes. “I know he’s a good player and he’s always been ranked No. 1 in the draft rankings, but that’s all I really know about him.”

Kakko and Hughes faced each other in the gold medal game of last year’s U18 World Championship and will likely meet again on New Year’s Eve in Victoria, when Finland and the USA play Group B’s final game. However, Kakko denied any personal rivalry.

“Maybe that’s how the media will build up the game, but we’re just going to look at it for what the game means to the team,” he dismissed. “They’ve got a lot of good players, we’ve got a lot of good players and we’ve played against a lot of those guys before. It won’t be about Hughes and it won’t be about me, it will be Finland and the USA, and it should be a good game.”

On the draft, Kakko said: “Of course, I want to get picked as high as possible, but I don’t want to think too much about it because it’s a long way from now. It doesn’t really make any difference in how I play this season. Every year, I just want to be the best hockey player I can be, draft or no draft.”

Bringing focus back to his teams, Kakko said: “On the international stage, winning the World Junior Championship is my main goal. At the club level, I want to play as well as I can and help TPS win.”

While some young Finns, such as former TPS teammate Olli Juolevi and a few of the hopefuls for this year’s junior national team, opted to go overseas at a young age, Kakko has opted to stay the course at home.

Lafreniere looks to join Crosby, McDavid in exclusive World Junior group

Forward can become sixth 17-year-old to play for Canada in tournament

By Kevin Woodley – NHL.com

Alexis Lafreniere is looking to join Pittsburgh Penguins center Sidney Crosby and Edmonton Oilers center Connor McDavid in some exclusive company.

Lafreniere seeks to become only the sixth 17-year-old to play for Canada in the IIHF World Junior Championship. Crosby and McDavid are on that list, along with Jason Spezza, Eric Lindros and Jay Bouwmeester.

Being mentioned in the same breath as these players does not phase Lafreniere.

“It’s nice, they are big names,” Lafreniere said. “But I try to make my own road.”

Lafreniere, who turned 17 on Oct. 11 and isn’t eligible for the NHL Draft until 2020, is taking part in Canada’s selection camp for the 2019 World Junior Championship this week. Canada coach Tim Hunter doesn’t view age as an impediment to making the team, and already had Lafreniere lead the team stretch after the first practice Monday.

“He is capable of playing on this team because he is good enough,” Hunter said. “We like what he brings as a player. He doesn’t play like a young player. He’s real smart, plays heavy, plays hard and doesn’t have those young player moments where ‘oh this is hard’ or he forgets his assignments and what have you. We like him. He’s capable of making this team.”

The 6-foot-1, 192-pound forward had 80 points (42 goals, 38 assists) in 60 games in his first year with Rimouski of the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League last season, becoming the first 16-year-old since Crosby to score more than 40 goals. Lafreniere was named rookie of the year for both the QMJHL and the Canadian Hockey League.

He followed that up by captaining Canada to gold at the Hlinka Gretzky Cup in August, scoring 11 points (five goals, six assists) in five games for a share of the tournament lead, and has 54 points (17 goals, 37 assists) in 31 QMJHL games this season.

“He’s an amazing player. He’s not here for no reason,” said forward Max Comtois, the Anaheim Ducks prospect who’s played against Lafreniere in the QMJHL this season and was a member of Canada’s gold-medal winning team at the 2018 World Junior Championship. “He’s the youngest here and I think he can help this team a lot.”

Playing against older players in the QMJHL like Comtois, who had seven points (two goals, five assists) in 10 games with the Ducks before being sent back to Drummondville, should help Lafreniere in a tournament traditionally dominated by 19-year-olds. And he is already comfortable playing for Canada, having represented his country at the Hlinka Gretzky Cup and IIHF under-18 World Championship last summer, and the World Under-17 Hockey Challenge in 2017.

“The challenge is bigger, so you have to raise your game and I was able to do it, but I’ll have to do it again in this camp,” Lafreniere said. “There is always a little pressure, but I don’t try to think about it. I just try to focus on playing my game and work as hard as I can and try to help my teammates.

“I am confident. I know I can do great things on the ice, but I just have to work hard and do it in practice and in games.”

As for being the youngest player, the only obvious sign is metal cage Lafreniere has to wear on his helmet.

“I don’t feel younger,” Lafreniere said.

Comtois, who with Ottawa Senators forward Alex Formenton are the two returning players from last year’s team, said he doesn’t think age will be a problem when the tournament starts Dec. 26.

“No, he’s a big boy, he can skate, he can hit,” Comtois said. “He’s got his place here and I think he is going to show everyone he has his place here.”