The NHL is an ever-evolving landscape. For the Carolina Hurricanes, they’ve assembled a strong core foundation as well as a deep, diverse group of prospects, which has, in turn, allowed them to take an opportunity on drafting certain guys that other teams have red-flagged.
Today’s case is 5-foot-9, 170-pound defenseman Anttoni Honka, who was regarded as one of the most divisive prospects in the 2019 draft. Obviously, at that size, scouts had real concerns about his ability to defend and match-up physically at the NHL level, and the Canes eagerly pounced on him in the third round (83rd overall) after inexplicably watching him slide down the draft board.
His Skill Gives Him a Chance
With a guy like Honka, there’s always going to be flaws that you have to accept with the player. The Canes’ task will be to mask those flaws, and deploy him in situations to get the best use of his dynamic skill set. And make no question about it – he’s truly a dynamic talent, and if he were about three inches taller, in my opinion, he surely would’ve been a first-round talent in that 2019 draft.
Honka is the type of player that instantly grabs your attention when watching a hockey game. He’s just an exceptional skater. His two-step acceleration can propel him past forecheckers and create the necessary separation for him to make a breakout pass, or just burst away on a solo rush. He’s super agile, and his confidence in his footwork allows him to take on anybody 1-on-1 with a plethora of different attacking moves. He’s also got a great release:
Luckily, his hands, vision and hockey sense are just as good as his skating, which makes him a potent offensive threat from the back-end. He routinely makes seam passes look effortless, he gets himself to the dangerous areas in the offensive zone, and, while not a great shooter, he takes “smart” shots to create rebound and tip-in opportunities. He’s a kid that can run a power-play unit to perfection and can be a nightmare to contain when he’s on his game.
Producing in Finland
As of this writing, Honka currently sits fourth on his team – JYP Jyväskylä – in scoring, with three goals and 27 points in 48 games thus far. While that production may not “wow” you on the surface, it’s important to note that no other defenseman on Honka’s team has even surpassed 10 points this season – and his 27 total points sit sixth-best amongst all defensemen in Liiga.
His JYP team is also really bad, so the fact that he’s producing at such a high rate while surrounded by marginal talent is noteworthy. Even more impressive is that Honka is still only 20 years old, and Liiga isn’t historically a league that’s been easy to break into for youngsters – especially young defenders. So the fact that he’s earned the trust of his coach and played a big role for his club over the past two years speaks to his overall growth as a player.
A crazy stat? The rest of the defensemen on his team have just 38 points combined. They rely solely on Honka to create offense from their back-end, and he’s emerged as a player who dictates possession and controls play while he’s on the ice. Strictly from an offensive standpoint, this kid is one of the most purely talented prospects in the world at his position, and if he can clean up some of his deficiencies, has a chance to be special. He admittedly styles his play after Erik Karlsson.
Rounding Out His Game
The concerns scouts had with Honka during the draft process were mainly with his defensive game, and that’s really soured people on his potential NHL future.
While I haven’t had the opportunity to watch Honka nearly as much as I would’ve liked, The Athletic’s prospect guru Scott Wheeler has praised his overall progression on the defensive side of the game, and ranked him as Carolina’s best D prospect outside of the NHL:
Because of he’s short (he’s 5-foot-10) for the position and he plays a risk-taking style, Honka has always had to prove himself defensively and earn minutes his talent probably should have afforded him anyways.
Defensively, he still needs to refine his positioning and decision-making but he has made real progress in both areas and he’s sturdier than he looks. There’s still a bit of a boom or bust element to his projection but he’ll always have clear power-play utility and I think he’s closer to where he needs to get (given his age) in the other areas than he gets credit for.
source – ‘Wheeler’s 2021 Prospect Pool Rankings: No.5 Carolina Hurricanes.’ Scott Wheeler, The Athletic 2/6/2021
As I mentioned, a prospect Honka’s size will always have limitations physically and defensively in the NHL, but with continued progression improving his angles and gap control, there’s reason to believe he could be serviceable enough to not be a liability in his own end. Having a stable partner beside him – maybe a Brett Pesce or Haydn Fleury type – would allow Honka to freely roam and be his creative offense-self, while not worrying too much about being caught out of position, would probably be the best-case scenario for the Canes.
While there’s no denying that Honka has made significant strides since being drafted in 2019, I think he’s still got a reasonable amount of work to do before being NHL ready. The bright side is that he’s only 20, which is super young for a defenseman and still has ample time to work out the kinks in his game.
My guess is that the sooner the Canes can bring him over to North America, the better. Honka has never played on North American ice, so there’ll be a significant adjustment period with him trying to transition his play onto a smaller ice surface. He has to learn what he can and can’t do (in regards to his offensive game) because it’s likely some of the things that work so well for him on larger ice aren’t going to hold up over here.
Beyond that, adjusting to the physicality of AHL (and then NHL) hockey will be a key factor in his success. At 5-foot-9, he needs to develop elite leveraging techniques and his gap control will need to steadily improve. There’s no doubt that a lot of NHL forwards can overpower him physically, so he’ll need to sharpen his defensive IQ and work at his anticipation and positioning, which has made smaller defenders like Jared Spurgeon and Torey Krug successful (who are both excellent comparables for Honka!). He’s also not shy to throw his body around:
As far as getting to the NHL, I think he’s a couple of years away still. As I said, I really think that regardless of how much he progresses in Finland, he’ll still need some time in the AHL to adjust to the pace and strength difference in NA hockey. As far as his skill goes, he could probably help an NHL blueline today. He’s an effortless puck-mover from his own zone and undoubtedly could add a dynamic, creative element to any power-play unit.
Down the road, I don’t think he’ll ever play “big” minutes or be a shut-down guy, but his skill gives him a legit chance to help an NHL team – assuming he can make the positives outweigh the negatives. The Hurricanes’ depth allows them to be patient with this kid, and because of that, he could eventually emerge as one of the biggest steals of the 2019 Draft.
Carolina Hurricanes writer. 23 years old. Ottawa, Canada. Prospect geek, hockey nerd.