Very early in the 2018-19 season, Kaapo Kakko made it very clear that he wouldn’t be going any lower than second overall in the 2019 NHL Draft. He then set about campaigning against the presumed first overall prospect, Jack Hughes, and has made a heck of a case for himself.
Kakko has impressed at every juncture this season, from his dynamite numbers in Finland’s top professional league to earning gold medals at three different international events spanning U18, U20 and men’s levels.
I still have Kakko pegged as the second best prospect this year, but the New Jersey Devils have a difficult decision ahead of them when they step up to the mic to announce the first overall pick next week. Kakko is world class player and future NHL star.
- Age/Birthdate: 17 / February 13, 2001
- Birthplace: Turki, FIN
- Frame: 6-foot-2 / 190 lbs
- Position: Right Wing
- Handedness: Left
- Draft Year Team: TPS (Liiga)
- Jr. B SM-sarja Rookie of the Year (Heino Pulli Award)
- Jr. C SM-sarja Bronze Medal (TPS)
- Jr. A SM-liiga Rookie of the Month (October)
- Jr. A SM-liiga Rookie of the Year (Yrjö Hakala Award)
- U18 WJC Gold Medal
- U18 WJC Top 3 Player on Team
- SM-liiga Most Goals by Rookie (22)
- SM-liiga Rookie of the Year
- U20 WJC Gold Medal
- World Championship Gold Medal
- World Championship Top 3 Player on Team
2018-19 Stat Rundown
|GP||G||A||P||INV%||5v5 Pr INV%||5v5 ePr60||SEAL||Sh/GP||Sh%||5v5 eTOI||GF%||GF%rel||GD60 rel||XLS%||Top XLS%||XPR|
There’s not much that Kaapo Kakko can’t do at an extremely high level, and given the level of coverage on him this season, there is little point in breaking down the facets of his game in fine detail. So, as a result, this scouting report will be more of a celebration of his ability than a critique.
Kakko’s bread and butter is his ability to control the puck in the offensive and fend off defenders in half-court-style game play. Multiple facets of his skill set come together here, including strong edgework and balance, the agility of a much slighter player couple with the strength of a grown man, the intelligence to know where to weave and how to position his stick and body to keep sticks away, and of course a marvelous set of hands.
There are no shortage of clips of Kakko’s puck control prowess available. If I clipped ever instance of him playing keepaway in the offensive zone, this profile would be nothing but videos of the same (although perhaps you’d enjoy that). Here are just a few examples.
Kaapo Kakko's strength and puck protection is just disgusting. pic.twitter.com/XakM5dNC2O
— Alex Nunn (@aj_ranger) May 26, 2019
Kaapo Kakko is a force in the cycle. Watch him here: #24 shrugs off a defender to create space for himself in the corner, moves the puck down low, and goes to the net. On the other side of the ice, he cuts off the breakout attempt, loses his defender, and sets up a teammate. pic.twitter.com/GrAA2r5bEH
— RAPTORS FAN SINCE BIRTH (@DraftLook) December 27, 2018
This overtime shift against the United States in last month’s World Championship is particularly mesmerizing, as Kakko is rolling off the likes of Ryan Suter, one of the NHL’s more heralded minute-munching defencemen.
Kakko’s speed is an interesting asset – he’s not a burner by any means, and rarely beats professional defencemen in flat out footraces, instead excelling in most other associated areas, however, being particularly agile and strong on his skates. Every once in a while, he can get a step on a defender and pull a power move – at which points it’s curtains for the opposition.
— Steven Ellis (@StevenEllisTHN) May 16, 2019
More than that, it’s what he can do at speed that impresses. Kakko’s hands are easily faster than his feet, so they have no issue at all keeping up when he’s in full flight. He can make moves on defenders at speed, turn them inside-out or find a teammate across the zone and hit them with a tape-to-tape pass without slowing down.
That’s not to say he doesn’t ever slow down though – in fact, changing speeds effectively is another asset in his bag of tricks. It comes in very handy when it becomes clear he won’t beat a defenceman wide – here again he stops up on Ryan Suter and gets a shot off before the defender can fix the gap.
Speaking of shooting, that’s another one of Kakko’s prime assets. Kakko is a consistent shooting threat, having put about five shots per game on net in Liiga this season – an impressive total in any league, but for a teenager in a pro league, it’s absurd.
Part of what allows Kakko to put so many shots on net is how quickly he gets them off. The fact that he was in the right place at the right time is not to be ignored here (and make no mistake, that’s a skill, not luck), but his lightning quick release rules the day.
Conversely, in this next clip Kakko shows great patience, adjusting his angle, utilizing the defender’s legs, and waiting for the perfect moment to rip the puck through the goalie’s legs.
Beyond that, Kakko’s possesses a powerful slapshot and is perfectly capable of directing well-placed one-timers passed goaltenders (he likes to set up at the top of the right circle on the powerplay), or if need be he can deke a goalie out of his skates in tight to the net.
Kakko’s passing skill set is also high end, with soft hands, vision, poise and creativity all being strengths. His setups are frequently preceded by a mesmerizing display of puck protection, before he pops a soft pass onto an open stick gliding into the slot.
Defensively is the one area where I’d suggest Kakko needs to improve, and even there I’m going to have to be specific. As a forechecker and neutral zone defender, Kakko is actually very strong. He applies continuous pressure to puck carriers, and he hustles on loose pucks, even after long shifts in the attacking zone. He is frequently his line’s first forward back, and can often recover pucks blue between the blue lines before a threat even materializes in his own end.
In the two clips below, we’ll see Kakko jump on a loose puck and get it to a friendly defenceman with an opponent bearing down; and an excellent job backchecking and hounding a puck carrier breaking out of his zone, which results in a forced turnover and a scoring chance back the other direction.
It’s during end zone play specifically that Kakko begins to struggle. As a winger in the defensive end, his role is limited, but important. He has a tendency to get caught watching the play, and in the small bursts where he can make a difference, he has been guilty of some soft pressure and lackadaisical defence.
Kakko can sometimes cease to be involved in the play for long stretches of time, and is often edging towards breaking out of the zone at the slightest hint of possession – which has sometimes lead to him blowing the zone on 50-50 exit opportunities.
Other times, he has a habit of backing up the wall as opposing puck carriers come towards him, giving them more space as opposed to cutting it off. As a result, Kakko doesn’t turn many pucks over in the defensive zone on his own accord, and needs help to start break outs.
Then there are times when all of the problems crop up at once – here Kakko retreats from a loose puck, starts hedging towards a breakout before possession is even won, and then to top it off provides the puck carrier with plenty of space before offering the softest of checks as his opponent goes by him at the blue line. The end result in this case: a goal against.
Let’s be real though, if you’re drafting Kaapo Kakko, you’re not expecting to get a two-way stud in his first year in the NHL. This is an area in which I see Kakko improving in leaps and bounds (he’s already made strides over the course of his draft season), and honestly it’s an area where 95% of teenage prospects struggle anyway.
The videos above match up nicely I think with the following sample of microstats tracked by J.D. Burke and Mitch Brown of EP Rinkside. Kakko has a decent rate of both scoring chances and scoring chance assists (made more impressive by the fact that they aren’t league adjusted and Kakko has among the toughest competition in all the draft class).
Entering the opposing zone, Kakko has been utilizing a lot of chip and chase moves, a safe strategy considered that he was a 17-year old playing against men, as well as the fact that forechecking and recovering pucks is a strength of his, as is protecting pucks once they’re turned over, creating space and buying time until teammates arrive, all of which make that strategy a good fit at his young age.
We also see how a decent amount of neutral zone breakups, contrasted against a pretty high volume of opposing entries conceded. Finally, assessing the exit numbers indicates high volumes of both possession exits and failed exits, painting a similar picture of defensive struggles as the video.
I would typically start the statistical analysis by looking at Kakko’s pGPS projection, but alas, much like Jack Hughes, Kakko has no matches. Such is the cost of being so brilliant at the age of 17. In his Jack Hughes profile earlier today, Jackson McDonald posted a table of U18 Liiga stats to provide some potential comparables – I’ll take that in a different direction.
While pGPS may be hampered by elite prospects, the same cannot be said of the SEAL adjusted scoring model – accounting for situational scoring, era, age and league, Kaapo Kakko paced all draft eligible players this season, with an adjusted scoring rate of 2.05 points per game (made to imitate and 17-year old CHL player). Unsurprisingly, the league adjustment was a massive boon, but his situational scoring was a factor as well – Kakko’s 5-on-5 scoring rate was excellent, and primary points (goals and first assists) accounted for nearly 90% of his total output, a fantastic proportion in any league, let alone top tier professional hockey.
To get a better picture of who Kakko compares to production-wise over the past several years, I’ve charted the top draft eligible seasons from my sample. Unsurprisingly, Connor McDavid sits atop the chart, but Kakko isn’t far behind. A note on this chart though – it’s for comparison’s sake only, and shouldn’t be viewed as the “best” seasons over a period of time, as the sample is incomplete – while the CHL leagues go back to 2013, Liiga only goes back to 2017, Allsvenskan to 2018, etc. Still, it’s intriguing to see where Kakko sits versus some top prospects from recent year, including a number of players that have since been lighting it up in the NHL.
Kakko’s statistical prowess goes well beyond production however. Liiga publishes Corsi stats on its websites, so we can see that Kakko’s team controlled shot attempts at a ratio of 54.5% while he was on the ice. TPS as a team was average in terms of shot share, posting a 50.6% mark over the course of the season, making Kakko’s number all the more impressive.
That trend continued in on-ice goals, where TPS’ goal share was 10% better with Kakko on the ice than off of it, as the team struggled to stay at or near 50% when their teenage prodigy wasn’t on the ice.
On the whole, Kaapo Kakko is a stunning prospect, and fully worthy of all of the praise he’s gotten this season. He’s also deserving of the present conversation as to whether he should overtake Jack Hughes for the first overall selection.
That said, I concur with what Jackson wrote earlier. While Kakko has had a great year, it hasn’t been so great as to definitely put him above Hughes. When you consider the positional importance, a centre like Hughes is going to get the edge in a race that is otherwise pretty close to even.
Given their differences in size and the competition they played against in their respective draft seasons, I can foresee a future in which Kakko gets off to a hotter start than Jack Hughes, if only briefly. In the long run, however, I do think that Hughes is going to add more value.
But let’s be clear: Kakko is a phenomenal consolation prize, and should be a star on Broadway for the next decade or more.
Raw data for the charts used in this article came from eliteprospects.com and liiga.fi.
Some clips were pulled from videos from prospectshifts.com. Check out Kaapo Kakko’s page here (paywall). Other clips were pulled from original broadcasts, with all rights reserved for the original broadcast companies.
Dad, husband, hockey fan. Founder/analyst/editor/admin of NextGenHockey.ca. Contributor at CanucksArmy and the Nation Network. Blending video analysis and statistical modeling. pGPS, SEAL, etc. The Minnesota Twins are finally good again!