Is Kaapo Kakko the most hyped Finnish prospect since Teemu Selanne?
When the Rangers won the draft lottery and the chance to pick 2nd overall in early April, most Ranger fans had to check who this Finnish kid was mentioned during the live broadcast. Almost 5 months later, Kakko fever has taken over New York City and households that bleed blue around the world.
There’s no debating that this will be the most talented kid the Rangers ever picked on draft day. Not since Brad Park was selected in 1966 had the Rangers owned a draft selection this high and fans are excited for good reason. But how does Kakko compare to other Finnish prospects throughout the years?
For this article, I’ve decided to look at (in no particular order until later) players like Mikael Granlund, Sebastian Aho, Patrik Laine, Saku and Mikko Koivu, Sasha Barkov, Aki-Petteri Berg and Jesperi Kotkaniemi. Let’s start at the beginning. The first ever Finnish player to be drafted in the first round was Teemu Selänne in 1988. It’s difficult to compare modern day coverage to the 1980s and for that reason I will exclude Teemu Selänne from this list, but he’s arguably the best Finnish player in history.
When he was drafted in 1988 by the Winnipeg Jets, he came off a season in the Finnish Junior league where he averaged 2 points per game (66 in 33) and followed it up after the draft with a stellar season in I-divisoona (2nd professional level at the time below Liiga) just a point shy of finishing with a point-per-game-average of 2.00, getting 36 goals and 33 assists in 35 games. He is arguably the most popular Finnish player ever but with his draft being over 30 years ago, in an era where we still had the cold war, it’s impossible to make a valid comparison between the Finnish Flash and the other players mentioned earlier.
It’s difficult to lump these 5 players together but going into detail on 5 players already, I don’t want this article to be too long. The players mentioned above all were anticipated to have stellar careers as they were heading into the draft. Aki-Petteri Berg who was drafted 3rd overall by Los Angeles in 1995 is probably the unknown on this list but he certainly was a prospect with high expectations. His skill did not translate to the NHL the way some had hoped, but with 600+ games in the NHL he still had a respectable career. Nowadays he is the equipment manager for TPS after retiring with them in 2010-11.
Sebastian Aho is best known for centering Jesse Puljujärvi and Patrik Laine at the World Juniors in their draft year and while the other 2 were drafted in the first 30 minutes of the NHL Draft, it is Sebastian Aho who seems to come out on top. He was involved in the first offer sheet since 2013. The Carolina Hurricanes matched without hesitation and the playmaker will continue to play for the team that reached the Eastern Conference Finals this year.
A true leader, Saku Koivu’s younger brother Mikko came through the ranks in his hometown Turku and was captain of the national team at both the u18s and u20s before making the move to North America during the 2004-05 lockout season. After a year with the AHL affiliate Houston Aeros, Mikko started with the Minnesota Wild in 2005 and he has not represented any other team since. This will mark his 15th season with the team, and being a mentor to younger Finnish guys like Granlund and Haula, he has proven his value to the team. Being named captain in 2009, only 3 players currently have worn the C for their team longer: Zdeno Chara, Sidney Crosby and Jonathan Toews.
Playing for Porin-based team Ässät, son of first assistant and later head coach Mikael Kotkaniemi, some might say he got preferential treatment but the young center recorded 29 points in 57 games in his last season before the draft. While he was projected a bit lower, Montreal decided to grab the Finn 3rd overall at the draft where the Rangers picked Kravtsov at no 9. There was a lot of criticism but a year later, Kotkaniemi seems to hold his own in the NHL which is impressive. The hype around him was not as noticeable as the guys we discuss later, but the emergence of Kotkaniemi throughout his draft year was something I personally noticed and it wasn’t complete shock he went at 3.
Arguably the best Finnish defensive prospect in the last 25 years, Miro Heiskanen played for the u18s and u20s at the World Juniors, putting up an amazing 12 points in 7 games for the u18 team while at the same time playing significant minutes for HIFK, the team that finished in 4th place in the post-season. He was ranked 4th among EU skaters behind Klim Kostin, Elias Pettersson and Lias Andersson but jumped all 3 on draft day when the Dallas Stars picked him 3rd overall. In his rookie season in the NHL, he was a candidate for the Calder but had to leave that honor to Elias Pettersson. Heiskanen’s hype in Finland was noticeable, but in his NHL career so far he has exceeded expectations.
5. Aleksander Barkov, 2nd overall (2013) by Florida
As the son of a hockey player, also named Aleksander Barkov, who represented Russia in the World Championships on several occasions, Sasha (as he is called by teammates) was born in Tampere in 1995 a year after his parents moved there from Italy. His father played for the local team for 10 years before retiring in 2004 and afterwards joined the organization as a youth coach. Sasha started at the u16 level at the age of 14 and as the other top prospects on this list, dominated early on and was ahead of his peers every time when it comes to promotion to a higher age group.
Barkov’s amazing talent helped Tappara win the Liiga championship in his final season in Europe, as he destroyed the previous record for points (Granlund) and goals (Armia) by a 17-year old. That goal record would be broken by Kaapo Kakko in 2018-19, but Barkov still holds the record for points and with a point share of over 30% he had the 2nd highest contribution to his team’s goals that season despite playing 4 fewer games than Ville Niemienen who had 2 more points. He was picked 2nd right behind Nathan MacKinnon, and while MacKinnon has turned into a star in the NHL, some fans might say they still prefer Barkov due to his better overall play.
Barkov is an elite 2-way center and in my opinion on the same level as Bergeron and Kopitar. Barkov turned 24 this week and he still has a long career ahead of him. Expect him to win the Selke trophy several times.
4. Kaapo Kakko, 2nd overall (2019) by the Rangers
Coming in at number 4 is our guy. What do we have to say about Kaapo Kakko that hasn’t been said already? He is the first player in history to win gold at the u18, u20 and men’s level before being eligible for the NHL draft, broke Barkov’s record for goals by a 17-year old in the Finnish Liiga and he solidified his spot behind Jack Hughes early. His final season before the draft was so impressive, that some experts and GMs even considered ranking him ahead of Jack Hughes.
When the Rangers won the draft lottery, fans immediately grabbed their smartphone/tablet/laptop and looked up on Google who this Finnish kid was. Search results for the kid’s name spiked that day and Ranger fans slowly familiarized themselves with their future star. But in Finland, the hype was already ongoing. Kakko started out in his hometown with TPS and was an integral part to his national team winning gold at 3 levels, while also playing on the top line for the large majority of the season in Liiga.
Kakko’s stock rose even higher after he was first called up to the men’s national team in April and played against Denmark and Norway in the Euro Hockey Challenge. His finest hour came at the Worlds in Slovakia in May when he scored 6 goals in the group stage, including an amazing goal against the Canadians and after winning gold, he skipped the NHL Combine to celebrate that feat with his team by traveling all over Finland.
Kakko appeared on several TV shows and TPS organized a farewell party before the 18-year old winger flew to Vancouver for the draft. In Turku, he’s probably the most popular prospect since Saku Koivu. The only mystery is which number the kid will wear. He was assigned number 45 in prospect development camp but once pre-season is over, we know for sure if he sticks with that, or picks a different number. Over the last 2 years, he has played with 7, 8, 9, 11, 12, 13, 19, 24, 33, 34 and 54.
3. Mikael Granlund, 9th overall (2010) by Minnesota
A name most may not have expected on this list, Mikael Granland was a phenomenon as a prospect. He is also the only one on this list who played some of his hockey away from the city where he grew up. Born in Oulu, one of the most Northern cities in Finland, Granlund played for the local team Laser and at the age of just 13 he was dominating games in the Junior C (u16) level.
It did not take long for teams to notice and the city’s biggest team Kärpät approached the teenager for a move to their team. The following season he finished with a point-per-game average of over 3.00 while still being a full year younger than most of his teammates and opponents. From there, his career took off. Always being a step ahead of everyone else when moving up an age group, he dominated the u20 level at the age of 16 with 57 points in 35 games, and playing 6 games in Mestis, the 2nd professional level in Finland where he recorded 7 points.
Granlund’s popularity hit a high when he made the switch to HIFK in the nation’s capital, Helsinki. In his first full season at the highest level in Finland, the 17-year old registered 40 points in 43 games for his team and even got to wear the Kultakypärä (“the Golden Helmet”) as pictured in the photo above. When entered the draft in 2010 he was ranked as the best EU skater but his size proved to be an issue for some teams.
Aside from Jeff Skinner every player drafted ahead of Granlund was 6’1″ or taller. The Minnesota Wild eventually called his name at 9th overall, just 1 spot ahead of Dylan McIlrath whose selection proved teams were looking at size over skill early on. Granlund ranks 8th in points in his draft class, playing at least 50 fewer games than 5 of the players ahead of him. Granlund turned out to be a very good player for his draft position and I doubt you can find any fans in Minnesota who aren’t happy to have the Finn on their team. While his lacrosse-style goal in the World Juniors added to his popularity post-draft, it cannot be denied Granlund was among the most popular people in Finland heading into the draft, even with girls painting “<3 64” on their faces.
2. Patrik Laine, 2nd overall (2016) by Winnipeg
We all remember the Matthews vs Laine debates 3 years ago. Who is better? Who is going 1st overall? Patrik Laine, like many Finnish players, played his hockey in his hometown. For Laine that’s Tampere. From Junior C to Junior B to Junior A to the men’s level where he is still celebrated as the guy who won them the championship. Scoring 10 goals in 18 play off games, while adding 5 assists, is almost unheard of from a 17 year old. Laine did it, and it earned him a call up to the national team for the men’s World Championship where he scored 7 goals in 10 games.
All this guy does is score, and in Finland they were well aware what a talent he is. His most recent year in the NHL may have been a bit disappointing, but that doesn’t erase the hype surrounding the young winger.
The hype in 2015-16 was real though. While there were others like Mikael Granlund and Aleksander Barkov coming through in previous years, Laine took the Liiga by storm and his amazing post-season helped solidify him as one of the most anticipated Finnish prospects in the last 3 decades.
Expectations in 2016 were higher for Laine than they are for Kakko in 2019 but part of that is also because it has been a while since Finland produced a world-class sniper. In Granlund and Barkov, the Finns had exciting prospects who are more well-rounded compared to Laine but the Tampere kid showed something Finnish fans had been waiting for for a long time.
1. Saku Koivu, 21st overall (1993) by Montreal
Ending with Saku Koivu, we have the oldest guy on our list. Koivu has the most in common with Kaapo Kakko. Born and raised in Turku, making his way through the junior teams. From Junior B to Junior A and playing a full season in Liiga in his draft year. Impressed the national team coaches enough to be selected for the men’s World Championship (sound familiar?) and was overall a really solid prospect. This was 1993 though, and the NHL wasn’t as diverse as it is today. Only 6 years earlier, in 1987, the first round of the draft was solely Canadian players. Followed by 1988 where Teemu Selänne was the only European in the first round. Koivu’s draft position alone doesn’t tell the story.
In the early 90s there was a fierce rivalry between Turku and the teams from Helsinki, IFK and Jokerit. As the former capital of Finland, Turku has always fascinated me as a city and when I visited Finland in 2017, I was able to explore both Turku and Helsinki. There’s a lot of history and for New Yorkers the rivalry is comparable to Boston vs New York. That rivalry may have helped build the hype around Saku Koivu who was part of his team winning the Liiga championship in 1993. He finished the World Juniors 3rd in points among draft-eligible players and, as mentioned before, earned a call-up to the men’s World Championships. It’s difficult to say if Koivu was more popular than Selänne at the same stage of their careers but in my opinion, Koivu is definitely number 1 on this list.
Disclaimer: I want to reiterate that this is an opinion piece and I wrote this in collaboration with several Finnish fans and friends including Twitter user @villenaattori. The ranking is based on how popular these players were in Finland at the time of their draft and is by no means a projection of how good Kakko will be.