The entire Hurricanes organization has the nation of Finland to thank for much of the offensive production over the last few weeks.
Up top, the duo of Sebastian Aho and Tuevo Teravainen has caught fire, catapulting them both to the top of the Canes’ scoring leaders and garnering national attention. But it doesn’t stop there, as the Finns have taken over the Checkers’ offense as well.
In nine games since Nov. 10, nobody on the Checkers has racked up more points than Janne Kuokkanen’s 10. In fact, only three players league wide have eclipsed that mark during that stretch of time.
Impressive as those numbers are on their own, they’re only amplified by the fact that the teenager is just 16 games into his pro career.
Kuokkanen made waves during NHL training camp, impressing enough to earn himself a spot on Carolina’s opening night roster. The forward stuck up top for a bit but eventually became the odd-man out and was assigned to Charlotte to properly grow his game.
“They wanted me to get lots of ice time and especially play on the power play,” said Kuokkanen. “That was the word from the GM and the coaches.”
Kuokkanen has had to make several adjustments this season, and perhaps the first and foremost was jumping from a regular healthy scratch to an everyday player.
“He hadn’t played a lot up there,” said Checkers head coach Mike Vellucci. “So it takes a while to get back into game shape.”
Aside from an increase in ice time, Kuokkanen also faces the hurdle of being a 19-year-old finding his game in a foreign country. To that point, the coaching staff utilizied one of Kuokkanen’s countrymen in Aleksi Saarela.
“It’s the reason I paired them,” said Vellucci. “Hopefully it’s helpful. I like to put pairs together with the lines and then switch some guys around. Those two have worked well together just like Tolchy and Z play pretty well together. It’s familiarity, it’s the same kind of style, and they like playing with each other.”
The duo’s chemistry has been inarguable up to this point. While Kuokkanen has been leading the charge point-wise, Saarela has scored the most goals on the team since that Nov. 10 date, roaring up to third on the team in goals this season.
“Kuooks is more like a playmaker so I just try to get open for him and shoot the puck more,” said Saarela. “I think the last four or five games we’ve been doing real well and it’s getting better and better.”
Despite being close in age, the two never played together in their native country, but that hasn’t stopped them from forming a Finnish bond.
“It helps a lot,” said Saarela. “We didn’t play together in Finland at all but I feel like we have a good chemistry between us. It helps when we can talk on the ice in Finnish with each other.”
“We can speak lots of Finnish on the ice,” said Kuokkanen. “It’s always easier to play with another Finn. Saarela is such a great player that it’s easy to play with him.”
But while pairing the two Finns together has yielded positive results so far, it’s not necessarily a magic formula to garnering production.
“Hopefully when you are from the same country you know the style over there and you can find the chemistry between you easier than maybe with a Canadian or American guy,” said assistant coach Peter Andersson. “But still, it’s good in the beginning at least, but in the long run it doesn’t matter that much.”
Andersson, a Swede who spent four seasons in the NHL during the 80s, notes that while the jump from overseas to North America is a big one, it may not be as jarring as the jump simply from juniors.
“From juniors to professional is more tactical and you need to have much more precision,” said Andersson. “I haven’t seen too many junior games but I can see with the guys coming up that that’s what they have problems with. I think it’s quite a big difference from juniors to this league. You’re playing against men, they are strong. In juniors you play sometimes against 16-year-old guys and they’re not as strong. It’s a development.”
That’s not to say the trip across the pond is without difficulties.
“You could see it with [Lucas] Wallmark last year,” said Andersson. “In the beginning he wasn’t having too tough of a time but as the season went he got better and better. And he had played senior hockey for two or three years back in Sweden. It’s not easy.”
Kuokkanen got a bit of a jump start on the North American style of play last season when he starred for the OHL’s London Knights, a year that helped ease his transition.
“It helped me a lot to play in a small rink and get to know the hockey culture and the language here,” said Kuokkanen. “It’s a big process to come here and play hockey so it helped me a lot.”
The forward rode that momentum from his big OHL season – and quick cameo with the Checkers – into an NHL job right out of the gates. And while starting there before joining the AHL can be disappointing to young prospects, Kuokkanen has avoided getting trapped in those pitfalls.
“The league makes sure you don’t take it lightly,” Vellucci said. “He came down and he didn’t have success early on. I think once they come down and start playing they realize that it’s a really good league and the players keep them accountable. It’s a tough league and when you haven’t played in a while it’s tough to come down here and get going.”
With several high-end scorers out of the lineup, the duo of Kuokkanen and Saarela’s palpable chemistry has worked to pick up some of the slack, with the former notching the primary assist on each of the latter’s last five goals.
“We’ve been skating well and in the offensive zone we have the puck and are making lots of smart plays,” said Kuokkanen. “That how we’ve had so many scoring chances.”
“After the first two games I thought he’s played really well,” said Vellucci specifically of Kuokkanen. “He’s managed the puck good and he’s put up some points, especially on the power play.”
Now that Kuokkanen has shown he’s not in over his head, the next step is showing he can be the dominant player the organization believes he can be.
“I want him to be consistent,” said Vellucci, who also serves as the Hurricanes’ assistant GM. “Manage the puck and make smart plays with it and don’t turn it over. I want him to be consistent every game. I don’t want him just to fit in, I want him to stand out.”
“I just want to play my simple game,” said Kuokkanen. “Smart plays in the O zone and the D zone. That’s my type of hockey and I try to do my best every day to show the GMs and the coaches that I’m the guy who should be playing up there.”
If he can keep his trajectory up, it’s not hard to imagine Kuokkanen working his way back into the NHL sooner rather than later.
“He’s a skilled, smart hockey player,” said Vellucci. “He’s a point producer when he’s playing the game right and putting the puck in the right spots. I definitely see his game translating to the NHL.”