Few players in the Toronto Maple Leafs system have a career progression as enigmatic as Mikko Kokkonen.
Kokkonen made his debut in the Finnish league at 15 years old and remains the youngest player in league history. By his draft year, he was a regular in the league, scoring the most points by a draft-eligible defenceman in Liiga in 17 years. When the Leafs drafted him in 2019 in the third round, it seemed like a no-brainer in terms of value at that selection.
However, his results have remained relatively stagnant in the three years since. As a result, Mikko Kokkonen falls down the TLN Top 20 Prospect Rankings for the second consecutive year, from #10 last summer to #13 in 2022.
LD | Pelicans (Liiga) | Age: 21 | 5-foot-11 | 194 lbs | Shoots: L
Acquired: 2019 Draft, 84th Overall | 2021 Ranking: #10
There was a sense of optimism surrounding Mikko Kokkonen heading into the 2021-22 season.
For starters, he was coming off of a strong showing at the end of the previous year, having joined the Toronto Marlies on an amateur try-out to finish the season. There, he produced seven points in 11 games, nearly matching the 10 points he scored in 39 more games during the Finnish league season.
Combined with his positive end to the 2020-21 campaign was a move to a new team in Finland for the first time in his career. Kokkonen came up through the Jukurit system and had played all three years of his professional career there, but was making the move to Lahti with the Pelicans for 2021-22.
Much of the belief in Kokkonen’s game was rooted in his relative stats prior to 2021-22. In his time with Jukurit, they were consistently one of the worst teams in Finland’s top flight. This meant he was given more responsibility and significant minutes from a young age, but also that his team was getting caved in on most nights.
He was a consistent positive influence on Jukurit’s on-ice impacts, so in moving to a team that had finished 43 points better than Jukurit in 2020-21, the expectation was that Kokkonen would finally have a chance to flourish in a preferable environment.
That isn’t quite how it played out.
In what is a cruel bit of luck (or lack thereof), Jukurit completely turned around their program this past season, finishing second in the regular season with Lahti down in ninth. As for Kokkonen, he had a strong start to the year, scoring four points in the first four games, before cratering offensively for most of the season.
Kokkonen finished the 2021-22 season with 15 points in 58 games, going 18 games without a point from October 8 through December 11. Beginning the year playing 19-22 minutes per night in the top four, he was shuffled down the lineup as the season progressed, finishing the campaign often in the 15-17 minute range. His average time on ice came out to 18:19 overall, down from 21:51 with Jukurit the prior season.
His advanced data isn’t great either. He ranked in the 22nd percentile among Liiga defencemen in relative goal share and had an abysmal 43.9 percent Corsi-for, though it should be noted that Pelicans as a team were down at 44.8 percent as well.
Despite the stagnating play in Finland, Kokkonen’s showing in a small sample with the Marlies in 2021 has made enough people believe in his game that he remains a top 15 prospect this year. And there’s reason to feel that a move to North America will be a positive one for his career.
Kokkonen isn’t especially quick. His mobility is average and he can use his skating to beat a player if he has the first step, but a lack of quickness will be a hurdle to overcome.
He isn’t lighting up highlight reels with massive open ice hits, but I would say Kokkonen is a physically effective player. He is stocky, listed at 5-foot-11 and nearly 200 pounds, and puts his frame to good use. He’s hard along the boards, engages physically to separate attackers from the puck, and isn’t afraid to get feisty in front of the net and hand out a few cross-checks.
Despite a lack of speed, Kokkonen is comfortable carrying the puck. He had multiple clean zone exits carrying the puck out of the zone in my viewing, generated zone entries as well, and in the offensive zone, was patient and confident while handling the puck.
Here, Kokkonen recovers a missed pass from one of his teammates. Most defencemen would simply dump the puck into the zone in this situation, but Kokkonen takes advantage of what is presented to him. Having already built up speed and open ice in front of him, he carries the puck and looks to attack. He makes a move on the defender, faking to the middle and cutting wide, giving him the extra half second to get a backhand shot on net.
In this next clip, Kokkonen jumps into space upon receiving a handoff from his teammate. He shows his patience and comfort handling the puck, circling behind the net when a preferred passing lane doesn’t open up. He draws two defenders, which creates space to cycle the puck down low and maintain possession.
Passing on the breakout, however, was much more of a rollercoaster. There were moments when Kokkonen would slip a nice pass through to a teammate, but too often an arrant pass would go all the way down for icing or result in a turnover.
Here, Kokkonen is set to lead the breakout with open ice in front of him after resetting behind his own net. KooKoo lays back in the neutral zone, giving him room to skate and find a passing option, but misses his target. What should have been at minimum a clean zone exit turns into a defensive zone draw.
Then there’s the good. In this next clip, two forecheckers converge on Kokkonen behind the net. He remains calm, making a nice play off of the net and subsequently jumps into space to lead the breakout. As a neutral zone defender begins to pressure him, he slips a pass through this defender to a teammate in the middle, leading to a rush opportunity.
Given Kokkonen’s comfort under pressure carrying the puck, improving the passing element of his game would really round out his skills in transition.
Kokkonen commonly plays a conservative style, regularly acting as the support defenceman and circling back into the neutral zone when his partner is activating in the play. These conservative tendencies also translated to his entry defence, as Kokkonen was often comfortable allowing the attacker to gain the zone. Rather than aggressively looking to stop his opponent at the line, Kokkonen was content to allow the play to come to him. This lack of entry defence may be one of the reasons why Kokkonen’s Corsi-for was so low, but could also be an issue stemming from his team’s systems given the low Corsi for the team overall.
The following is Kokkonen’s highlight of the year. After failing to hold the line, Kokkonen recognizes his opponent is looking to prevent the pass across the ice. He skates all the way back to his own blueline, creating space for himself to skate into after evades the defender by turning on his backhand. He carries the puck into the zone, draws the defenceman wide before cutting to the middle, and generates a dangerous slot chance that results in a goal on the ensuing rebound.
Mikko Kokkonen’s stagnant results in Finland have pushed him down the TLN Prospect Rankings again, but there’s still reason to believe in his game based on the tools he’s shown at a high level in Finland.
Kokkonen isn’t a flashy player and will never be an offensive dynamo. His upside is likely limited as a potential third-pairing blueliner who can chip in on the second penalty kill unit. Still, as an intelligent defensive defenceman who has the ability to play both sides of the ice (he played on the right side a ton with Jukurit), there aren’t many in the Leafs system that bring the same skills to the table that Kokkonen does.
A move to the Marlies full-time will surely have a positive impact on him as a player, with access to the Leafs development staff (specifically in regards to his skating) and a system that encourages involvement from the defencemen. It is expected that Kokkonen will join the Marlies full-time beginning this season, having signed his ELC in the spring.
I will note that Kokkonen’s contract in Liiga went through 2022-23, but as a 21-year-old that was drafted prior to the new transfer agreement, I believe he should be eligible to play in the AHL without needing to be offered back to his Finnish team.
2022-23 will be a fascinating season for Kokkonen. Expected to make the jump to full-time action in the AHL, we will determine whether his promising 2021 AHL results were a sign of his underlying upside or a fluke 11-game stretch. Ranked the #2 defenceman in the system, it would be a big boost to the Maple Leafs prospect pool if Kokkonen can find that form again in 2022-23.