There’s something about the Toronto Maple Leafs appreciation for young Swedish defensemen. Perhaps there’s a good reason. Ask any long-time Maple Leafs hockey fan about Swedish defensemen and, certainly, Borje Salming’s name will pop up. He was simply known as “The King,” and was one of the Maple Leafs’ best players in team history.
That love affair with Swedish blueliners hasn’t stopped. For several years, the Maple Leafs drafted young Swedish defensemen as key prospects. In first rounds of the NHL Entry Draft, they picked Timothy Liljegren (17th overall in 2017) and a year later they chose Rasmus Sandin (29th overall in 2018).
In addition, they picked up free agent Calle Rosen, traded him with Nazem Kadri to the Colorado Avalanche for Tyson Barrie, and traded to bring him back again at this season’s trade deadline. By the way, Swede Jesper Lindgren plays with the Marlies and he’s on defense as well.
The Maple Leafs Look a Different Direction
But last summer at the 2019 NHL Entry Draft, the Leafs looked further east across the Gulf of Bothnia and picked up two young defensemen who played on the other side of that great Scandinavian rivalry. In Round 3, general manager Kyle Dubas chose defenseman Mikko Kokkonen; and, during round seven, he chose Kalle Loponen. Both come from Finland and have even played together on Team Finland’s youth teams.
Related: Top 10 Swedes in The NHL Today
In this post, I want to review the early hockey career one of those two young Finnish defensemen – Mikko Kokkonen. But first I want to share a bit of the backstory of the 2019 NHL Entry Draft for the Maple Leafs.
Kyle Dubas’ Solid Work at the 2019 NHL Entry Draft
The Toronto Maple Leafs didn’t have a first-round pick during the 2019 NHL Entry Draft in June. Still, general manager Kyle Dubas added six young prospects to the Maple Leafs’ talent pool. And, the early returns show that Dubas chose wisely.
If it wasn’t Dubas, the 2019 Entry Draft showed that someone in the Maple Leafs’ organization was a wise judge of talent. In the second round (53rd overall), the organization picked up 17-year-old Nicholas Robertson.
Robertson had an amazing 2019-20 season and scored 55 goals in 46 games in the OHL. Everything points to his becoming a fine player with the Maple Leafs – one day quite soon perhaps.
Choosing Mikko Kokkonen During Round 3
But Robertson wasn’t the only young prospect the team picked up in the draft. In the third round, they used their 84th-overall pick on Finnish defenseman Mikko Kokkonen. During the 2018-19 season, the then 18-year-old, left-handed defenseman scored 3 goals and 19 points in 56 games with Jukurit in Finland’s top league. He had also gained experience at the upper levels of youth international hockey as part of Team Finland when the Finnish U18 World Juniors won the championship in 2017-18.
This season, although Kokkonen didn’t score as much with Jukurit (3 goals and 7 assists in 39 games), he’s drawn rave reviews. The word is that he’s an all-around great young player who’s gaining experience playing in Finland.
At the beginning of the 2020 calendar year, he also played with Team Finland in the 2020 World Junior Ice Hockey Championships and scored two goals in seven games. He was named Player of the Game in Finland’s semi-final loss. Being so young, he didn’t dominate during the tournament, but he showed he was able to adapt to the speed of the games and held his own as a third-pairing defenseman. As Dobber Prospects noted, he’s still only 18 and will likely play an even bigger role with next year’s Finnish squad.
The young Kokkonen is noted for his hard shot from the point and, during the World Juniors, those shots found the net twice. He played just under 15 minutes per game, which was less than he usually played in the Liiga (in the Finnish league). However, because he didn’t turn 19 until the tournament was over, his performance indicated he would likely become a central part of a strong young Finnish team that could compete internationally.
What’s Next for Kokkonen?
Kokkonen’s reputation is that he’s a steady defenseman, who needs to add offense to his game. Scouts loved his “character,” but wanted him to work on his skating mechanics. Interestingly, when he was tested during the second half of the 2018-19 season when Jukurit traded two veteran defensemen that trade actually spurred Kokkonen’s growth. His scoring was exceptional for such a young person playing at such a high level.
Kokkonen attended the 2019 Entry Draft in Vancouver, and when he was interviewed he was asked about playing in Finland. He noted that, when he got to play a more prominent role on the team, the additional power-play time he gained was “good” because, as he noted: “I want to be that player who can be on in the last minute of games and get the winning goal.”
Judging from such comments, he’s exceedingly confident as a player. For two seasons, he’s been a teenager on a professional team and a youngster among veterans. He did note that the veterans “were a bit tough on me. I had to be a little quiet in the room, but on the ice, I played my own game.”
If there was pressure on him as a teenager playing on the highest division in Finland against much older men, he didn’t show it. He’s played high-level hockey in his hometown of Mikkeli where he’s been competing against the best teams of Liiga. For him, playing at home is “a big thing.”
As Kokkonen noted, “I’ve lived there (Mikkeli) all my life, so it means a lot to me. For me, I started playing at (age) four, so I saw those Mestis seasons (the second-highest league in Finland) and then the first Liiga seasons (the highest league in Finland), which were so much better.”
Throughout that time, Kokkonen has continued to develop as a solid, all-around defenseman. If he can develop further playing at home in Finland, perhaps one day in the next few seasons Kokkonen will have a chance to handle the pressure of playing in one of the toughest markets in the NHL – Toronto. From what I read about this young defenseman, he’s certain not to shy away from the pressure.