Exclusive: prospect Leevi Aaltonen on the Rangers and his future
The New York Rangers drafted not one but two Finnish wingers in 2019. Kaapo Kakko and Leevi Aaltonen. We all know who Kakko is, but not much has been said about Leevi Aaltonen, the speedy winger playing for KalPa in the Finnish Liiga. Where is he from? And most important: What can Rangers fans expect? These are what you will learn when you’re done reading this article.
Aaltonen grew up in Mikkeli, a city about 2-3 hours North East from Helsinki by car. He started playing hockey at a young age like most kids in Finland, and joined Jukurit, the team with in my opinion the best logo in hockey. Not to be confused with Helsinki-based KHL team Jokerit, Aaltonen’s hometown team gave him the chance to play hockey. At age 14 he was playing at Junior B level, which is the u18 age group. That year, he was approached by KalPa and Aaltonen made the switch to the team playing 2 hours from his hometown. it was with KalPa where he made serious strides in his development and it even led to a call up to the u16 national team and the following season an invitation to play in the u17 World Hockey Challenge. He would play in the WHC the following season, scoring 1 goal and adding 2 assists. But his finest moment for the Finnish Lions was yet to come. He was called up for the u18 World Junior Championship and on a team with good friend Mikko Kokkonen and fellow Rangers draft pick Kaapo Kakko, the young speedy winger was part of a team that went all the way in 2018.
Aaltonen has good memories of that tournament. “Winning the u18 World Championship was a dream come true“, Aaltonen said. It was the perfect ending to a season that meant a lot to the speedy winger. he played against his peers in the u20 Liiga, and against the best the world has to offer.
In his draft year, 2018-19, Aaltonen made his Liiga debut, playing a total of 7 games, while dominating the Junior A level (u20) with 36 points in 29 games, finishing top-10 in points per game (min 20 GP) that season. It earned him a call up for the u18 WJC for the 2nd time in his career, and a year after winning the tournament playing with Kaapo Kakko, this time Aatlonen was one of the more experienced guys on the team. The Finns couldn’t replicate the success of the previous year, but it was a good experience for Aaltonen, who was an alternate captain in the tournament for his country.
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NHL Draft and prospect development camp
At the end of the 2018-19 season, Aaltonen made the trip to Vancouver together with his best friend Mikko Kokkonen who he played with ever since they were 4 years old. They grew up together in Mikkeli and both played for Jukurit. I had the pleasure to meet both the day they were drafted. Kokkonen by the Maple Leafs in the 3rd round, and Aaltonen in the 5th. When Aaltonen walked through the doors on his way to the interview room, Kokkonen was waiting for him. “It was a great experience and we were super happy to both see our names on screen and realize we were both drafted by Original Six teams”, Aaltonen said. Afterwards, Aaltonen took his time to take in the experience and the arena in Vancouver.
On the concourse, you can walk around and meet all kinds of people. I was there as well, and spoke to several of our draft picks and it’s a great way to get to know players, coaches, prospects, media people such as Dan Rosen and Elliotte Friedman. And there I was, talking to Hunter Skinner, Zac Jones, Matthew Robertson and Leevi Aaltonen. You can tell they enjoy every second of it. Aaltonen, who struggled a bit with the questions thrown in his direction in English, was a bit shy. But he took his time to take photos with every Rangers fan there.
Prospect development camp and beyond
Aaltonen, like everyone else drafted, then traveled to New York to attend the prospect development camp in Westchester. “I learned a lot during those weeks, and I still talk to the other Finnish players who were there“. New York is a place Aaltonen had not visited yet. He didn’t say it with that many words, but he thinks it’s a nice city.
The comradery is something I noticed as a recurring theme every time I speak to a prospect about the development camp in Westchester. Being able to connect with not only the players from your draft year, but also the ones from previous drafts really helps. Aaltonen, who played with Kakko at the u18 and u20 level for the national team, found a familiar face in Westchester, but also 2 other Finns in Tarmo Reunanen and Lauri Pajuniemi. “Having others to talk to in your own language is comforting“, several Swedish prospects said in the past. The Swedish contingent is a lot bigger than the Finnish one of course, but there’s some truth to it.
Aaltonen returned to KalPa in Kuopio and started his first full season in Liiga. The young winger started off well, but at that age, you need playing time and the team decided to send Aaltonen to IPK in the Finnish 2nd tier league Mestis. Aaltonen responded positively to the change, saying it helped him develop further as he was given the chance at playing more meaningful minutes “I was able to make an impact on games, and I built off that. After returning from IPK, I had a lot more confidence and it showed in my performance“, Aaltonen said. There’s a lot to build on here.
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Getting Ready for Next Season
Aaltonen is healthy and has already started practicing for the new season. The pandemic has hit Finland as we discussed in the Tarmo Reunanen article earlier this month. “Shops are closed and it has affected people everywhere. We are slowly getting back to normal now though. It was something I never expected to live through“, he said. Aaltonen has not started his military service yet, but it came up in our conversation when I mentioned Lauri Pajuniemi. Like Reunanen and Kakko, Aaltonen has until he turns 28 to start his military service, but for now he wants to focus on getting ready for the new season.
In that new season he will be focused on staying healthy. Last November, Rangers scouts were present at the u20 Four Nations tournament in Helsinki, and Aaltonen was scheduled to play against Nils Lundkvist and Karl Henriksson but he suffered a shoulder injury and was traveling back home before he had a chance to talk to me. It is one of the reasons he eventually missed out on a chance to play in the u20 WJC in the Czech Republic the following month. Aaltonen’s goal for next season is clear. Aside from earning a bigger with KalPa, he wants to play in at the World Juniors in Edmonton and Red Deer this winter. He won gold at the u18 level, and he is hungry for more. For most of these kids the junior tournaments are the highlight of their careers, but Aaltonen wants it to be a stepping stone to more.
Aaltonen’s biggest strength is his speed. He has been focusing on his skating ever since he was a kid. “I have always been the fastest skater on my teams and it is the result of hours and hours of work as a kid, focusing on my technique“. Ranger fans have often compared him to Carl Hagelin, but Aaltonen doesn’t want to compare him to other players. He wants to be Leevi Aaltonen, and his goal is of course to make it to the NHL one day.
I feel he is more a Nathan Gerbe type player with the speed of Benoit Pouliot. He is undersized, but his skill level is very high. The question is whether or not he can make that next step or two to reach his goal. But if the last 18 months have taught me anything, it is to never count out Finnish prospects. Tarmo Reunanen’s 2018-19 season was his breakout year nobody saw coming, and Lauri Pajuniemi in 2019-20 surprised everyone with his scoring touch finally making him a treat. Both earned their call ups for the senior national team with those performances. Time will tell if Leevi Aaltonen can do the same but time is what the Rangers have. Drafted in 2019, they own his exclusive NHL rights until June 2023. There is no rush.
PS: I want to thank Leevi Aaltonen for sitting down with me and giving me the opportunity to share this story with our fanbase. I met him at the 2019 NHL Draft and I can tell you one thing: Posing for a photo with someone wearing a TPS jersey must not have been easy