Monday wrapped up my series of articles on the Hurricanes prospect pool. There is much to be optimistic and excited about, but perhaps the player rising most rapidly right now is Janne Kuokkanen. At the risk of overhyping Kuokkanen, today’s Daily Cup of Joe takes a look at the parallels between Kuokkanen’s development thus far and the path taken by fellow Fin Sebastian Aho.
With the 35th draft pick in the 2015 NHL draft, the Carolina Hurricanes selected Sebastian Aho. He was a bit off the board in terms of the mean draft rankings and also a bit of an unknown being a European prospect. In fact, the first step in the process of welcoming Aho into the Hurricanes prospect pool was clarifying that the Sebastian Aho in question was the forward from Finland and not the defenseman from Sweden. When the Hurricanes passed on a handful of bigger names, bigger players in terms of size and more well-known players from North America, there was a mini-uproar on Twitter from many of the June draft experts who had Aho nowhere to be found at least this early in the mock drafts.
Aho first arrived in Raleigh for the 2015 Carolina Hurricanes prospect camp. He had a strong week but not really anything that screamed “super star…and very soon.” While some were still transitioning from whoever it was they thought Francis should have selected instead of Aho at #35, I rated his play at prospect camp top of the class in this article that was one of Canes and Coffee’s first on our July 29, 2015 official launch day.
Aho exited the prospect camp with a higher standing and opinion than he entered it, but his rapid ascension actually started thereafter. The perfect storm of a good Finnish U18 team and high-end line mates in Patrik Laine and Jesse Puljujarvi who were in the spotlight as 2016 draft-eligible players created the perfect stage for Aho to demonstrate that he was WAY underrated even at the #35 slot that Hurricanes used to select him. His 14 points in only seven games in the 2016 World Junior Championships dramatically boosted his prospect rankings both inside and outside the Hurricanes organization, earned him a spot on Finland’s World Championship team as an 18-year old with no NHL experience and penciled him into the Hurricanes 2016-17 lineup without a stop in the AHL.
Entering only his second year in the NHL, Aho still has room to grow and a way to go to become an elite NHL player, but his rookie season in 2016-17 was a promising start. (See Aho’s 2016-17 ‘report card’ HERE.) He collected 49 points in 82 games and showed a combination of skill, creativity and maturity that suggest more is yet to come.
Janne Kuokkanen 2016-17
Almost exactly one year after making a moderately surprising draft pick to take Sebastian Aho near the beginning of the second round of the 2015 NHL Draft, Ron Francis and his scouting team went back to the well, so to speak, when they again selected a Finnish center early in the second round. Somewhat like Aho actually, Kuokkanen was on the draft boards but maybe selected a bit early relative to the consensus rankings. Like Aho, Kuokkanen offered offensive ability in the form of a heady, playmmaking center.
After my first time watching Kuokkanen at prospect camp last summer, I compared him to Aho in terms of being capable of playing the game with pace not necessarily from raw straight line speed. Kuokkanen exited the prospect camp immediately following his draft year somewhat similar to Aho in that he had a solid camp and played well but did not so much dominate to the point where his expectations changed dramatically.
In comparing Janne Kuokkanen to rapid riser Sebastian Aho, the paths for each do diverge at this point. Whereas Aho went on to shine under the bright spotlight of the World Junior Championship, Kuokkanen had a good 2016-17 season in Canadian juniors but did not gain nearly the same level of exposure as Aho did in international play. Finland was a disappointment in the WJC tourney, and Kuokkanen’s junior play was good but not spectacular. He collected 62 points in 60 games for the London Knights and finished fairly strong with 16 points in 14 playoff games. Kuokkanen received high marks for his all-around from Brendan Ross from TheScout.ca in our ‘Midterms’ check in on Kuokkanen on Febuary 2, 2017. So entering the offseason, I would describe Kuokkanen’s 2016-17 season as positive but not nearly on the same ‘wow’ level as Aho the previous year.
2017 offseason for Janne Kuokkanen
But was he maybe just a later bloomer? Since wrapping up the 2016-17 season, Kuokkanen has not had two incredibly strong showings that at least offer the possibility that he could follow in Aho’s shoes and make the jump to the NHL only one year after being drafted. First, Kuokkanen was one of the two or three best players in his second prospect camp. I wrote about Kuokkanen in some detail in this prospect camp article. He followed that up with a strong and also consistent week that put him a notch above most of the group.
And more recently, he followed that up with a strong performance in the World Junior Summer Showcase (WJSS) against players U20 and lower players largely of NHL draft pedigree. Kuokkanen finished with three goals and two assists in five games and won rave reviews for his play.
Corey Pronman who covers NHL prospects for ESPN said this:
Janne Kuokkanen (CAR) led the WJSS in shots on goal and was solid every game. Intriguing to CAR fans, was how well he played center.
— Corey Pronman (@coreypronman) August 7, 2017
Finnish scout Marco Bombino FinnProspects also noted Kuokkanen’s strong WJSS play:
— Marco Bombino (@marco_bombino) August 5, 2017
Is it fair to make a Sebastian Aho comparison?
At a basic level, no. Aho went from recent draftee to good NHL player seemingly instantly. Kuokkanen could well develop much slower and still be successful in the long run.
That said, what jumps out at me is that while it took longer to emerge in Kuokkanen, he is showing a similar level of just being top of class against similar age, elite competition. That at least has the potential to generate the same ahead of schedule jump that Aho made.
Where might Janne Kuokkanen fit in the 2017-18 Hurricanes lineup?
With the additions of Marcus Kruger and Josh Jooris following headliner Justin Williams, the depth 2017-18 depth chart for the Hurricanes became much more crowded. With the additions, I think the starting point entering training camp has all of the Hurricanes forward prospects on the outside looking in. That makes a player like Kuokkanen a dark horse to make the team.
But in addition to simply playing well right now, I think three things line up in Kuokkanen’s favor.
First and at a basic level, the Hurricanes need to score more than their 20th place total of 2016-17. That leaves the door cracked open for any forward who can demonstrate in preseason that they can boost the offense. Going a step further, the biggest gap in terms of skill set in my opinion is the kind of playmaking that creates chances for others and boosts a whole line. That need matches Kuokkanen’s projected NHL skill set.
Second, the player currently slotted for the third center slot behind Jordan Staal and Victor Rask is not cemented into the lineup. With no center additions, Derek Ryan seems to be the incumbent for the open center slot. Kruger is a center too, but he leans defense, so there is clearly room for Ryan to be more of an offensive center. Ryan performed fairly well in this role in 2017-18 with 29 points in 67 games, but he has only one year of NHL experience, did not light the world on fire in 2016-17 and therefore could be vulnerable if a rookie forward rises up offensively.
Finally, the Hurricanes have an interesting history of young centers rising up in prospect camp and/or the Traverse City prospect tourney and then riding that momentum to an NHL roster spot ahead of schedule and projections. Long ago, Josef Vasicek was the first to accomplish this feat when he rose from off the depth chart to make the 2000-01 team in a third line role. As a second overall draft pick, Eric Staal was expected to make the NHL, but when he arrived at training camp before the 2003-04 season, the odds were that he would return to juniors to add size and strength. He rose up in preseason leading the NHL in preseason scoring and made the team in the process. Most recently, Victor Rask had a strong summer followed by a preseason and benefited a bit from the roster space made when Jordan Staal was injured in preseason. The result was a surge up the depth chart and into the opening day lineup. He has not played in the AHL since.
So despite the crowded forward ranks, I think Janne Kuokkanen enters the Carolina Hurricanes training camp as a dark horse worth watching. If can do what he is projected to do (be a heady playmaking center with solid defensive acumen) ahead of schedule, I think he could jump the expected schedule and steal a roster spot for October.
What say you Caniacs?
Is it just completely wrong to compare Janne Kuokkanen to Sebastian Aho in any way despite their similarities in terms of skill set and also their common Finnish heritage?
What are the chances that he demonsrates offensive upside in training camp and preseason and wins a roster spot?