For several years now, the Toronto Maple Leafs have feasted on Swedish defense prospects. From first-rounders Timothy Liljegren and Rasmus Sandin to free agents Calle Rosen and Andreas Borgman, the franchise’s Toronto Marlies farm team has been distinctly Nordic. But at the 2019 draft, the Leafs went in another direction and took a couple of players from the other side of a great hockey rivalry. Blueliners Mikko Kokkonen and Kalle Loponen both hail from Finland, and they even have some early chemistry thanks to playing as partners with Finland’s national squad.
“His slapshot is really hard, so when I was his partner I would give him the puck,” Kokkonen said. “He’s a really good offensive player.”
Kokkonen is more of a steady defenseman than Loponen, though he would like to add more offense to his game. Scouts loved his character in his draft year, but would like to see him clean up his skating mechanics. Playing for Jukurit in Finland’s Liiga, Kokkonen posted an admirable 19 points in 56 games against men. His development was aided in the second half when Jukurit traded away two veteran defensemen.
“That gave me more power play time, which was good,” Kokkonen said. “Because I want to be that player who can be on in the last minute of games and get the winning goal.”
One of Kokkonen’s goals for the 2019-20 campaign is to be a top-two D-man on Jukurit. As a teenager on a pro team, he already negotiated the politics of the dressing room as ‘the kid’ among veterans.
“They were a bit tough on me,” he said. “I had to be a little quiet in the room, but on the ice I played my own game.”
And suiting up for Jukurit isn’t just about playing high-level hockey: Kokkonen is also getting to represent his hometown of Mikkeli, where Jukurit is based. Up until a few years ago, Jukurit played in the second-tier Mestis; now they’re competing with classic Liiga squads like HIFK and Karpat Oulu.
“It’s a big thing,” Kokkonen said. “I’ve lived there all my life, so it means a lot to me. For me, I started playing at 4, so I saw those Mestis seasons and then the first Liiga seasons, which were so much better.”
On top of taking on a bigger role with Jukurit, Kokkonen is also hoping to crack Finland’s World Junior Championship squad next season. He has already played extensively for the national squad at various age levels and won gold as an underager on the 2018 world under-18 squad. This past season, Finland bombed out of that tournament and Kokkonen knows that after world junior and World Championship titles, the Finns can’t claim to be underdogs at any level. There are expectations.
“Now it’s higher and higher every year,” he said. “At the under-18s we were very bad, we didn’t play to our level. But we do the right things in Finland now. And we have won so much that there is pressure, but now we can handle it.”
If he can continue to develop as a solid, all-around defenseman back home in Finland, then one day Kokkonen will have the opportunity to handle the pressure of an NHL market in Toronto.