Kaapo Kakko is proving he's the real deal for the 2019 draft

The Finnish right winger has a ton of potential and the versatility to become an NHL star. Is he the next Jesperi Kotkaniemi, or should we be looking at the Patrik Laine category?
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VANCOUVER - While the Finns are focused on the present at the world juniors, the play of right winger Kaapo Kakko has also offered a tantalizing view of the future. Of course, based on his trajectory, the 2019 draft prospect may not be available for the next world juniors - his NHL team may want him their lineup instead.

This has always been the Jack Hughes draft, but Kakko, who first came onto the radar at last year’s world under-18s, is looking like a very strong No. 2.

“Kaapo is a skilled player,” said Finland coach Jussi Ahokas. “Really good in the corners, sees the game really well, passes well and he’s got really good character. He’s going to be a great NHL player, he has all the capacity.”

In the win over Canada in the quarterfinal, Kakko’s line with Eeli Tolvanen (Nashville) and center Anton Lundell (a 2020 draft prospect due to a late birthday) was very effective and had some dominant possession shifts. It will be fun to see what that trio can produce in the semifinal against Switzerland, as the spotlight will undoubtedly get brighter.

The question now becomes one of potential. Because of his smarts and size, Kakko could easily be a center in the NHL and he has begun to play down the middle with TPS Turku in the Liiga. At the world juniors, he’s been back on right wing and that’s fine by him for now.

“I feel more comfortable on the wing but I can play center,” Kakko said through translator and teammate Aarne Talvitie. “I think I get more offensive opportunities as a winger, so in this tournament I like it more on the wing.”

But a big winger that can play center? It sounds like the Jesperi Kotkaniemi story from 2018, when Montreal grabbed that Finnish kid third overall. On the other hand, Kakko - who played on Kotkaniemi’s wing at the world under-18s last year - has even more offensive potential than his buddy. Consider this: at the same age, Kakko is putting up better offensive numbers in Finland’s top league than Patrik Laine did in his draft year. Now, is that a lot to put on a kid? Perhaps, but let’s not forget that Laine was once an unknown as well. Kakko himself is looking at the big picture.

“Of course it’s a good thing,” he said. “Points don’t mean everything and there’s still a long way to go, but I’m proud of myself. I’ve been playing well and got into the team pretty quickly. I’m familiar with the guys and how they play, so it’s been good so far.”

Growing up in Turku, Kakko would go to TPS games and watch players like future Buffalo Sabres defenseman Rasmus Ristolainen and Colorado star Mikko Rantanen, the latter of whom has been a model for Kakko thanks to the way the Avs right winger protects the puck. But Kakko’s No. 1 fave right now is Toronto’s Auston Matthews.

“He’s a good stickhandler, good with the puck, a great offensive player and especially a smart player with the puck,” Kakko said. “That’s what I like about him.”

Matthews of course, went first overall the year Laine went second and it’s kinda fun that another Finn could go right after another American center this year. If Kakko continues to play as well as he has this season, inevitably there will be some folks wondering if he should go ahead of Hughes (personally, I don’t think a team can pass on Hughes, but much like Laine, Kakko is a helluva consolation prize).

“I don’t make the choices,” Kakko said. “He’s an awesome player, but I’m confident that I’m a great player too and I have a great opportunity here.”

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