A seven-game stretch wherein the Carolina Hurricanes scored just ten goals coupled with injuries to two of the club’s most important forwards finally forced the hand of general manager Don Waddell.
The Hurricanes announced on Wednesday that the club had recalled forward Janne Kuokkanen from the Checkers. It was a long time coming for a Canes team that desperately needs the offense that a player like Kuokkanen can provide.
The now 20-year-old Finn was drafted in the second round of the 2016 NHL Draft just one year after the Hurricanes selected Sebastian Aho in the second round in 2015. Unlike Aho, Kuokkanen decided to go the junior hocker route after getting drafted as opposed to the Finnish pro circuit.
A strong rookie year in the OHL, capped off by an excellent playoff run with the London Knights, gave the Hurricanes confidence that he was ready to turn pro. Since he was a Finnish import player, he was eligible to play in the AHL at age 19, and that’s exactly what he did.
After making the NHL club out of training camp, he was reassigned to the Checkers after four games wherein he looked capable but maybe not 100% ready to be an impact player at the big-league level.
His rookie season was, largely, a success.
With 40 points in 60 games, Kuokkanen established himself as one of the best rookies in the AHL. Taking into account the fact that he was younger than virtually every player in the league made that feat even more impressive and suggested that he could end up being a real piece of the organization’s future.
His outstanding start to the 2018-19 season has further legitimized that.
He leads the Checkers with 27 points in 26 games. In game 25, he scored his 11th goal of the season - the same number he scored in 60 games the season before.
His offense isn’t what has kept him out of the NHL to this point, though. Kuokkanen can flat-out make plays. He sees the ice incredibly well and has gotten better and better at reading defenses. Charlotte’s top power play unit practically runs through Kuokkanen. He mans the half-wall with poise, making smart decisions with the puck and executing clean shots and passes through tight windows.
With experience has come more confidence. At times last season, he certainly looked like a rookie. He’d get taken care of with relative ease in board battles and found himself wandering around in the defensive zone.
This year is different.
“I think I’m more ready, overall,” Kuokkanen said about his second NHL call-up. “My defensive game is much better than last year and I feel like I have some power. I’m stronger in the corners. There are a lot of things that I have improved since last year.”
That’s not just lip service. He has put on roughly ten pounds since his stint with the Canes in October of 2017. He now measures in at 6’1”, 195 pounds - a frame that can certainly get him by in the NHL. That additional strength has been on display in Charlotte, as he is now more willing and able to get involved physically.
That said, it’s important to know who he is and who he isn’t. He has bulked up, but don’t let that fool you into thinking that he isn’t a finesse-first offensive weapon. The difference now is that he looks far less out of place in his own end and along the boards.
The ensuing balancing act will be a “damned if you do, damned if you don’t” situation for the Hurricanes’ coaching staff. They are bringing along a young player with high upside, and while you don’t want to overexpose him early on, you have to put him in a role that emphasizes the strengths in his game.
“You gotta know what you’re getting when you bring up a kid,” head coach Rod Brind’Amour said after practice on Wednesday. “I don’t think he’s a fourth-line player who plays five or six minutes and bangs guys around. That’s not what he does, so that’s not what we’re going to do with him.”
“We gotta make sure that he gets the ice time, put him with good players, and put him in offensive situations”
In his first practice with the team, Kuokkanen was lined up with Brock McGinn and Victor Rask - two players who have combined for all of nine points and 38 games played this season.
That’s the balancing act.
Given the current construction of this team and the injuries that are holding Michael Ferland and Jordan Staal out of the lineup, the Hurricanes aren’t blessed with oodles of highly-skilled offensive players.
I don’t think it’s necessarily fair to use a young player like Kuokkanen as a focal point in your top-six - at least not yet. There’s merit to putting him on a line with two experienced NHL players who are, at the bare minimum, capable of not being a liability. And if pairing a dynamic offensive player like that with Rask can get the Swede going a little bit, then that’s great.
For me, what’s more important than his 5-on-5 usage is his usage on the power play. In other words, use him on the power play. The team didn’t do any power play work on Wednesday, so we don’t know how it will shake out, but Carolina’s extended run of horrid power play efficiency (two goals on their last 22 attempts) could - and should - lead to Kuokkanen getting a chance there. He has been one of the best power play producers in the AHL, ranking among the top-five players in power play goals and assists.
I don’t think I’m being unreasonable in saying that Kuokkanen would likely add more to Carolina’s power play than Phil Di Giuseppe, who has been featured on the top power play unit over the last two games.
It looks like the club is willing to be patient with Kuokkanen, and they will need to be. This is an exciting young forward who has been developing at an accelerated rate over the last year and a half. He isn’t a finished (or “Finnished”, am I right?) product, though. It will take time for it all to come together, but it’s important that they let him play and play in the right situations. He has all the tools to become an important part of this team’s offense moving forward, and he has been on a mission to prove it. He can’t prove it if he’s getting two shifts in the third period of a close game, though.
“It’s my dream to play in this league, “ Kuokkanen said on Wednesday. Now, he’s getting an opportunity to make a statement on a big stage.