Janne Kuokkanen’s decision to sign with the London Knights of the OHL has to be pleasing and reassuring for Carolina Hurricanes management.
Kuokkanen, the Canes’ second-round draft pick this year, said at the team’s prospects development camp this month that he was undecided about next season. The Finnish forward has played for the Karpat Oulu junior A team in the SM-liiga and indicated he might remain in Finland.
“Maybe another year and I’ll be ready,” he said.
But the announcement Monday that the Knights had signed Kuokkanen to an OHL agreement will bring him to North America this year. He can begin to adapt to the smaller North American rinks and style of play, and it could put him on a path similar to the one taken by the Canes’ Victor Rask.
A second-round pick by Carolina in 2011, Rask decided to leave Sweden that year and sign with the Calgary Hitmen of the Western Hockey League. After two seasons in Calgary, he spent his first full professional season in 2013-14 with the Charlotte Checkers of the American Hockey League. At 21, he was on the Canes’ roster.
Kuokkanen, 18, was impressive at the prospects camp, with Canes coach Bill Peters using the word “unreal” to describe his play. First impressions: he’s quick, he’s instinctive, has the good hands and sees the ice extremely well.
“I think I am a smart player and I try to make smart decisions on the ice,” Kuokkanen said. “I am a two-way center and play-maker.”
A year ago Finnish forward Sebastian Aho came to Canes rookie camp and displayed the kind of savvy and skills that could put him in the NHL this season. Kuokkanen said he has played with Aho in the past, calling him “the smartest player almost I have seen from home.”
Then again, many say the same about Kuokkanen. Canes general manager Ron Francis said he has “elite hockey sense” and Tony MacDonald, the Canes’ director of amateur scouting, said Kuokkanen thinks the game at a “little higher level” than most players his age.
“The decisions he makes, his vision of the ice, he’s always thinking ahead,” MacDonald said. “He’e one of those guys where people say, ‘The puck follows him around.’ That’s not by accident. That happens with that type of player. He just knows where it’s going to be.”
Kuokkanen, who can be used at center and left wing, had 22 goals and 31 assists in 47 games for the Karpat junior team last season. He made his debut and played one game with the Karpat elite men’s team — with Aho — late in the season, scoring twice.
“He can play off other people,” MacDonald said. “He can play with anybody and have some success because he’s got the ability to adjust his game and to play to his strengths and complement the people he’s playing with.”
Kuokkanen speaks passable English and sounds a little like former Canes defenseman Joni Pitkanen, now a scout for the Canes in Finland. Pitkanen’s NHL career ended with the shattered heel in April 2013, although he briefly attempted a comeback last year in a few games with Oulun Karpat.
Kuokkanen said he has had some conversations with Pitkanen “about hockey, about life.” He noted Pitkanen “gave me good advice on what to do and some things to practice” to prepare for moving up in the sport.
Kuokkanen, listed at 6 feet 1 and 175 pounds before development camp, now is listed at 188 pounds by the Canes. He called his “physical game” a weakness, adding he was working with trainer this summer in Finland to add more speed and power.
The London Knights, the 2016 Memorial Cup champions, made Kuokkanen their first-round pick in the 2016 CHL Import Draft, 52nd overall. They open their season Sept. 21. Kuokkanen will first play for the Canes in the Traverse City (Mich.) prospects tournament Sept. 16-20, then possibly be invited to Carolina’s training camp.
The Canes have had a run of good, promising second-round draft picks in recent years — Justin Faulk, Rask, Phil Di Giuseppe, Alex Nedeljkovic, Aho. Kuokkanen may be another.