Prospects News & Rumors: Lafreniere, Kokkonen & Niemelä

The likely first overall pick of the 2020 NHL Entry Draft spoke about his future home. Also, a young defensive prospect received a big honor for the upcoming 2020-21 season and we profile one of the top European defensemen of this year’s draft class.

Lafreniere Looks Forward to Opening on Broadway

In a normal season, the NHL Entry Draft would have happened about six weeks ago and teams around the league would be about a month away from the start of the training camp. Normal is the last word you can use to describe this season as we didn’t even find out which team has the first pick of the draft until earlier this week.

On Monday, the New York Rangers won Phase 2 of the NHL Draft Lottery and they will be the team who gets to select top prospect, Alexis Lafreniere.

“A relief for me for sure,” Lafreniere said about finally learning where his professional career will begin. “New York is a really good team. They have so much good players like (Artemi) Panarin, (Mika) Zibanejad, guys like that, so for sure it’s really exciting and it was really good news for me.”

Team Canada's Alexis Lafreniere
Lafreniere will fit in well with the Rangers.

Lafreniere served as captain for the Rimouski Oceanic during the 2019-20 Quebec Major Junior Hockey League (QMJHL) season. He scored 35 goals and a career-high 112 points, in 52 games, before the season was canceled due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

“I’m really excited to get the chance to go there and spend some time in the Big Apple,” he added. “My offensive ability, the way I can create some offense and try to be dangerous on the ice. My leadership for sure and try to win as much games as we can and maybe win a championship one day.”

Kokkonen Earns a Letter

Toronto Maple Leafs prospect, Mikko Kokkonen, received an honor on Thursday. He was named an assistant captain for the upcoming 2020-21 season by Jukurit in Finland’s top professional league, Liiga. According to head coach Marko Kauppinen, Kokkonen was chosen because of his work ethic and willingness to give his all to the team.

Kokkonen was drafted by the Maple Leafs in the third round (84th overall) of the 2019 NHL Entry Draft. The 19-year-old defenseman played in 39 games for Jukurit this past season, scoring three goals and 10 points.

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He plays a very solid defensive game, making few mistakes in his own zone. He moves the puck well with his feet and his passing, but he is not a major driver of the offensive. He does have a very effective wrist shot with a quick release. Kokkonen might be a bit underrated in the Toronto prospect pool because plays in Europe, but he could be a name to keep an eye on.

Prospect of the Day – Topi Niemela

We will stick with Finnish defenders for our Prospect of the Day. Niemela is a 6-foot, 163-pound right-handed defenseman. Heading into the draft, he is the eighth-ranked European, and second among blueliners, by NHL Central Scouting. In his final rankings, THW’s Larry Fisher has Niemela ranked 52nd overall.

Related – THW’S 2020 Draft Guide

Niemela surprised a lot of people when he jumped to Liiga after just one game at the Junior A level. Not only did he stick with Karpat, but he held his own as a 17-year-old playing against top professionals in his native Finland.

His mobility and smooth skating are what jump out at you on a first glance. He is far from a dynamic offensive player, but he uses his speed and high hockey IQ to get to the right areas of the ice in a hurry. He is positionally sound in his own and despite being a bit undersized, Niemela does shy away from physical contact.

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Our own Matt Cosman feels that he can make a rather easy transition into the North American pro game.

With boatloads of evidence to back up his ability to play in leagues above his age, Niemelä’s journey to the NHL should be smoother than almost any other international defenseman in this draft. He still needs to add muscle and gain more experience before he’s ready to debut in the NHL, but don’t be surprised if he makes the NHL earlier than his peers. In the long run, Niemelä projects to be a two-way, middle-pairing defenseman who can chip in on special teams.

Niemela will likely get selected somewhere in the second round. He plays a style that fits well in the modern game. Skating, speed and smarts are going to get him plenty of opportunities to eventually earn a spot at the NHL level. At just 18-years-old, he will have plenty of time to work on his game and add some size.