Ikonen Returns to Action
January 25, 2021
By Grant McCagg
Ikonen is dekeinin’ again!
Joni Ikonen, Montreal’s second-round pick from the 2017 NHL draft played almost 13 minutes for Ilves on Saturday in Finland’s SM-liiga.
Montreal’s director of player development Rob Ramage had told Recrutes last Thursday that he was expecting Ikonen to be in the lineup in ten days, but then there he was in the lineup on the weekend as Ilves was missing some players, and needed him to play.
It’s been a long wait. Ikonen’s last game was a friendly match with KalPa in April of 2019, more than 21 months ago. It was his first league match in more than 100 weeks, and he undoubtedly still has a bit of rust to shake off. Ikonen first injured his right knee in the spring of 2018 and had surgery that June. He reinjured the knee in 2019, and once again had surgery.
Ikonen took a shot off of the knee midway through the first period and hobbled for the rest of that shift. Obviously, that was concerning, but players don’t tear ligaments from getting hit with pucks. He was back out there on his next allotted shift.
Ikonen had a solid first period. He worked hard on every shift, looked after his own zone, and made several smart passes, including two on this shift (Ikonen is number 11 in yellow). The first pass bounced over his linemate’s stick but it was right on the tape otherwise, and the second one created a golden scoring chance:
Late in the period he showed off his eye-hand coordination in knocking down a point shot in front of the Sport net, then demonstrated that he still has some shiftiness and puck skills in his game. A good job protecting the puck, and then a smart back pass to his defenceman.
All in all he had a solid first period, especially considering that he hadn’t played in almost two years.
Perhaps the adrenaline was wearing off in the second period but he had a couple of less effective shifts as his line spent more time in its own zone.
He kept working hard on the forecheck throughout the game, however. I don’t know if it’s drilled into Finnish centerman but Saku Koivu…who just happened to wear number 11 as well, was a persistent forechecker, and so is Jesperi Kotkaniemi.
That dogged competitiveness paid off early in the third when he created a turnover and then displayed his dexterity in tight quarters by getting off an effective backhand close to the net that almost beat the goalie.
His hard work was rewarded with a shift on the first power-play unit manning the left point. A good indication that Ilves plans on giving him a significant role down the stretch despite his two-year layoff, and Ilves being one of the better teams in the liiga, sitting in third place overall.
Check out the crisp, accurate pass he makes to initiate a great scoring chance on the PP:
At the end of that shift an inaccurate pass back to his defence partner almost resulted in a shorthanded breakaway going the other way. As noted; there is going to be plenty of rust to shake off.
The big thing to watch for in this game was his skating. He kept up with the pace pretty well. Whether that was due mainly to his effort remains to be seen, but it looks like his speed won’t be an issue in liiga, and that was not always the case in previous years. He obviously trained hard to improve his leg strength during his rehabilitation period.
He is certainly still cognizant of his right knee, and there is a bit of a hitch in his giddyup right now, which is to be expected.
Look at how he limped a little after jumping to avoid being hit by the puck on this play:
Ikonen played 12:40, won four of seven faceoffs and had two shots on net in a 2-0 loss. Considering he was called into action a week early, and he had such a long layoff, it was an impressive debut for the 21-year-old. Yes folks; he is still only 21. Plenty of time yet to develop and and rise back up Montreal’s rather impressive prospect depth chart.
It is very easy to write off Ikonen due to such a long layoff and the loss of critical development years for a young player. His skating and strength seemed to have improved before his latest long absence from the game, so that seems to indicate that he has been using his long layoffs rehabbing from injury and building up strength. That bodes well for his ability to resurrect a hockey career. He needed to get bigger, stronger and a bit quicker. It will be very interesting to see what the Habs do with him if he has a good half year. Unlike when he was drafted, there is a ton more competition for ELCs and one of those 50 NHL contracts these days. More and better quality draft picks over the last few years will do that. Still, I am quietly cheering on this underdog. Go Joni!