COLUMBUS, Ohio – Kaapo Kahkonen, the Finnish goaltender the Wild drafted in the fourth round in 2014, apparently can do more than just score goals.
Kahkonen, best known in these parts as the goalie who scored two goals last year, backstopped world junior championships host Finland into Tuesday’s gold-medal game against Russia by making 21 saves Monday in a 2-1 victory over rival Sweden. This came two days after Kahkonen came in relief with the Finns trailing against Canada in the quarterfinals. Kahkonen made 22 saves and the Finns rallied to win.
Kahkonen is one of five Wild prospects who have taken part in the tournament.
Sweden’s Joel Eriksson Ek is the highest-profile player because he was drafted in the first round last June. The most intriguing might be Kirill Kaprizov, because he was the first Russian selected in Chuck Fletcher’s seven drafts as Wild general manager. Kaprizov, a fifth-round pick in 2015, has had a solid start to his Kontinental Hockey League career, and Wild fans wonder if the Wild ultimately will be able to sign him.
Defenseman Louis Belpedio, a 2014 third-rounder, is playing for the United States. Ales Stezka, a 2015 fourth-rounder, was backup goalie for the Czech Republic.
Fletcher and Wild assistant GM Brent Flahr are in Helsinki scouting the tournament. Here is their report:
Kirill Kaprizov (one goal, two assists, 18 shots in six tournament games): At 18, the 5-9 Kaprizov is third with nine goals, second with 14 assists, tied for second with 23 points and first with four game-winning goals in 40 games for Novokuznetsk in the KHL. He has signed a three-year extension there, but Kaprizov’s agent has told the Wild his client wants to play in the NHL and he’s been working to learn English.
The Wild hopes to bring him to development camp in July.
“The KHL is a good league, and he’s playing a lot. For a young kid to get that type of ice time, he can easily develop over there,” Fletcher said. “He’s easily a second-round talent, but it’s just difficult to know whether you can get these kids. That’s what stopped us in the past from drafting them. This kid was just too tempting not to take.”
Added Flahr: “You can tell he plays pro hockey. He’s very responsible on both sides of the puck, but he’s very skilled, got good hands, just a really smart player. Not the biggest guy in height, but he’s fairly well put together, he’s strong. He can really make plays, so he’s an intriguing guy. He looks like he’ll fit in the North American game.”
Joel Eriksson Ek (one goal, 21 shots in five games): Playing with a broken nose from a head shot early in the tournament and having missed one game because of the flu, “Yule” has had a ton of scoring chances playing on a line with Boston University’s Jakob Forsbacka Karlsson and 2016 draft eligible Carl Grundstrom. Eriksson Ek has played left wing. The Wild pegs him as a center. With Farjestads in the Swedish Elite League, he has three goals and eight points in 23 games.
“He should have a bigger role next year, but his compete level, hockey sense and all-around game, why we drafted him, that’s exactly what he is,” Flahr said.
The Wild has signed Eriksson Ek and would like him to attend training camp next fall. That doesn’t mean he necessarily would jump to the AHL or NHL next season, but “it’d be good for him just to get a taste to see where he stacks up,” Flahr said. “Farjestads, we’re happy where he is, but we think it’d be good experience for him.”
Louis Belpedio (one goal, one assist in six games): Belpedio ranks fifth among NCHC defensemen in scoring with 10 points in 16 games for Miami (Ohio). He’s playing with a full cage because of a facial injury and is playing through another undisclosed injury.
Many believe he’s a Jared Spurgeon clone, only more physical.
“His mobility, intelligence, he’s really smart with the puck, and like Spurge, he does a great job of taking time and space away and closing in on people,” Flahr said. “Just a character kid and a gamer.”
Kaapo Kahkonen (3-0, 2.36 goals-against average, .919 save percentage): Playing for Blues in the Finnish Elite League, he ranks second among rookie goalies with a .921 save percentage and 2.26 goals-against average.
“A butterfly goalie and a structured goalie,” Flahr said. “He’s big, aggressive and when he’s on his game, he’s effective. He competes, has good legs and covers the bottom of the net well. Sometimes when he does struggle, it’s just playing deep. But he’s made huge saves in the tournament and has run with it. He doesn’t get rattled. He gives one up and stays in there and keeps going.”
Ales Stezka (five goals allowed on 20 shots): Playing for Sioux Falls in the USHL, where he is 6-5 with a 3.07 GAA and .897 save percentage. He should have a bigger role for the Czechs next year. He entered in mop-up duty against the United States and paid for it.
“The poor kid was overwhelmed, but he’s a big, athletic goalie and just needs to grow into his body,” Flahr said.