Rookie Watch: Kahkonen, Tolvanen, Valimaki among best from Finland


The impact several rookies are making on the NHL is one of the major storylines of the 2020-21 season. Every two weeks, will examine topics related to this season’s class in the Rookie Watch.

This week, the top five Finland-born NHL rookies (listed alphabetically):

Kaapo Kahkonen, G, Minnesota Wild: Kahkonen has become a pivotal piece in the Wild’s run to the Stanley Cup Playoffs. The 24-year-old leads all Finland-born rookie goalies with a 2.69 goals-against average and a .909 save percentage. He is 15-7-0 with two shutouts in 22 games (21 starts). Kahkonen, a fourth-round pick (No. 109) in the 2014 NHL Draft, has built on the success he had last season when he was named the American Hockey League Goaltender of the Year after going 25-6-3 with a 2.07 GAA, a .927 save percentage and seven shutouts in 34 games with Iowa.

“To be completely honest, we were lucky because we didn’t plan on it, but he made the most of his opportunity,” Wild general manager Bill Guerin told Sirius XM NHL Radio. “Alex Stalock had some complications from COVID-19 and it put him out for a while and then [Cam Talbot] got hurt and got COVID not too long after that, so we needed to play Kaapo.

“We’re in the world of taking other people’s jobs and you have to compete to take a spot on the roster; we’re not just going to give it to you. Kaapo came in and took a job and that’s what you’re looking for.”

Janne Kuokkanen, F, New Jersey Devils: Kuokkanen is sixth among NHL rookies, and first among Finland-born rookies, with 24 points (seven goals, 17 assists) in 46 games. The 22-year-old also has 20 even-strength points (six goals, 14 assists) while averaging 14:42 of ice time. Kuokkanen was acquired in a trade with the Carolina Hurricanes on Feb. 24, 2020.

“When you’re under pressure and some players might just throw the puck away, I think Janne has been able to hang on to it and make the right decision,” Devils coach Lindy Ruff said. “He’s got a great sense for the people that are around him and where to put the puck and how to hit them.”

Kevin Lankinen, G, Chicago Blackhawks: Lankinen leads Finland-born rookie goalies in wins (16-14-5) in 36 games. His two shutouts are tied for the lead with Kahkonen and his .908 save percentage ranks second (Kahkohnen, .909). The 26-year-old signed as an undrafted free agent May 21, 2018. He entered training camp as the third goalie on the depth chart behind Malcolm Subban and Collin Delia but earned the No. 1 role.

“It’s never easy to win in this League,” Lankinen said. “So I’m really grateful for every chance I get to start, and even more grateful for every win we’re able to get.”

Eeli Tolvanen, F, Nashville Predators: Tolvanen is second among Finland-born NHL rookies with 22 points (11 goals, 11 assists) in 37 games. Among all NHL rookies, his four game-winning goals are tied for first with Alexis Lafreniere of the New York Rangers and Ross Colton of the Tampa Bay Lightning, and his 11 goals are tied for sixth. His average of 0.59 points per game is fourth among rookies to play at least 35 games.

The 21-year-old was chosen with the No. 30 pick in the 2017 NHL Draft, but he had played seven NHL games prior to this season.

“When he came in, everyone was, ‘It’s going to be offense, offense, offense,'” Predators coach John Hynes said. “But for a young player to come into the League … the reason he got into the lineup originally was because of his play without the puck and his competitiveness. Then he gets in and he starts to find his way. But he continues to get opportunities to play because he’s responsible without the puck and he knows where to be.”

Juuso Valimaki, D, Calgary Flames: Valimaki is first among Finland-born rookie defensemen with nine points (two goals, seven assists) and he leads all Finland-born rookie skaters with 56 blocked shots and 69 shots on goal in 46 games. His 15:15 average ice time per game leads all Finland-born rookie skaters to play at least 10 games.

Valimaki was scratched four times in five games from March 27-April 5 but the 22-year-old, chosen with the No. 16 pick in the 2017 draft, feels he has elevated his game since returning to the lineup, playing in a defense pair mostly with Michael Stone.

“[Coach Darryl Sutter] pushes me hard; he wants the best out of me every day,” Valimaki said. “He wants me to play at my best. He wants me to get better every day. He wants me to practice hard, and obviously as a young guy that’s a good thing because then you get better and you have a long career ahead of you.

“I think those things, (playing) quick and hard, I think I’ve done a better job, and I’ve been working on those things, and it’s starting to come from my individual game too, and then it comes into my confidence.”

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