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Photo Credit: KUVA © SAIMI AIRAKSINEN

2019 NHL Draft Recap: Kalle Loponen is a skilled right-handed defenceman worth taking a chance on

This is my fourth of six 2019 NHL Draft Recap articles, in which I do a deep dive into every Maple Leafs selection from the 2019 NHL Entry Draft.

In the 7th round with the 204th overall selection, the Maple Leafs took a flier on Finnish RHD Kalle Loponen, who split time between four Finnish leagues last season: Jr. B SM-Sarja (Finland’s 2nd tier junior league), Jr. A SM-Liiga (Finland’s top junior league), the Mestis (Finland’s 2nd tier pro league), and one game in the Liiga (Finland’s top pro league), where he was actually paired with new Leafs signing Teemu Kivihalme.

He’s quite an interesting prospect (who was honestly a little bit difficult for me to get a read on at first).

Let’s get into the scouting report:

Scouting Report

Puck Moving Ability

This was the part of Loponen’s game that was a bit tough for me to get a read on at first, which is a bit strange because moving the puck is usually something that you can either do, or you can’t do, and it’s obvious. With Loponen, the tools are there, for sure. He makes a good first pass up the ice, he’s a good skater, and he just *looks* like a puck-mover as a skilled, relatively undersized defenceman.

He has a good first pass and can move the puck up the ice:


And then, later on, you see him do this:

Or this:


And you’re left thinking: what?? Is this even the same player?

If you take a bit of a closer look, you’ll realize that Loponen typically seems to get a bit scared when he’s under pressure, and that’s why you’ll see him pull a “Nikita Zaitsev” with the puck sometimes in his own zone. He isn’t quite patient enough, and while sometimes it will result in a quick pass up the ice, it results in a frustrating icing in other instances.

Loponen has a lot of time to figure this out, though, and as he gets older (and better), maybe he’ll become more confident and you’ll see him become less and less intimidated under pressure. The Leafs seem to be taking a bet on a kid with tools and potential here, and that’s the type of bet you want to be making in the seventh round. 

Offensive Game

If I were to rank the three defencemen the Leafs took in the 2019 draft in terms of their offensive ability, Loponen would likely rank ahead of Koster, but behind Kokkonen (and closer to Kokkonen than Koster). He can run a power play right now because, as I mentioned, he is a pretty skilled kid.

Loponen is a good passer (although not an elite one), and while shooting ability is becoming less of a focus for defencemen in today’s game, Loponen can rip it. He isn’t a player that shoots too much from the blue line, but when he does he can really let it fly. Something that Loponen will tend to due is fake a slap shot, forcing the opposing forward to get down, and then instead of shooting the puck, Loponen will make a quick pass to a teammate.

It becomes pretty predictable over time, but when it works, it can be quite fun to watch:

Loponen also likes to join the rush and create odd-man opportunities for his teammates. This is where his shot is can come in handy – as a way to be goalies off the rush. He can use his one-timer effectively to beat a goaltender with ease:

Again, Loponen is not an elite offensive threat, but there are some tools and some deception there, and with that comes some potential. 

Defensive Game

Loponen is better defensively than I’ve seen people give him credit for, but he’ll never be a shutdown guy. He plays decently physical for his size, he’s pretty good at getting the puck back, and he knows what he’s doing out there. He also does not tend to make big mistakes.

That being said, as a 5’11 defenceman there are times where he is physically overmatched, and he can also get caught puck-watching at times. He isn’t as good at making quick reads and reacting as a guy like Mikko Kokkonen, but he can hold his own in the defensive zone. 

Conclusion

Overall, Loponen has a long ways to go with the holes present in his game, but you probably could’ve just guessed that by looking at where he was drafted. He’s got the tools, and he did play well in a men’s league (not a top-tier one, but still a good league) in his draft year, which is an obvious positive. He was a good pick where he was selected, although good picks in the seventh round are still nothing to brag about.

Loponen signed a 3-year extension to remain in the Karpat organization this summer and, preceding that, was selected in the CHL import draft by the Sudbury Wolves of the OHL, so he’s got some options. It looks like he plans on staying in Finland, but if he has a hard time getting minutes with what should be a strong team in Karpat, maybe he’ll come overseas.

It will be interesting if the Leafs and their development staff can turn what seems like a good bet in the 7th round into an NHL regular. I don’t think it’s out of the realm of possibility here. 

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