Ville Pokka breaks from the mold of Chicago's affinity for Swedish defenseman, but he's quickly going to become your favorite Finn this side of Stormtrooper FN-2187. The 22-year-old is coming off a very good AHL season, recently was described as having a "warrior-like mentality" by a Blackhawks official and earned a spot on Team Finland for the World Cup of Hockey.
He's never going to be the fastest or flashiest player on the ice, but Pokka has got the hockey IQ, work ethic and defensive capability to potentially fit into the top-four of an NHL defense soon. We'll see if he can crack a deep Chicago team in 2016-17 to get that opportunity.
Birth date: June 3, 1994
Acquired via: Trade with Islanders (Oct. 4, 2014 for Nick Leddy)
Most recent stop: Rockford IceHogs (AHL)
Size: 6'0, 214 pounds
Contract: ELC ($925K cap hit plus bonuses, expires in 2017)
Maybe the most remarkable part of Pokka's ranking here is that he's the first member of the Blackhawk's Top 25 Under 25 to be acquired by trade. Every other prospect on this before Pokka was either drafted or signed as an undrafted free agent. That's what happens when you're a win-now team that's typically trading out young talent for veterans instead of the other way around.
Pokka was acquired two years ago as part of the Nick Leddy trade, which came at a glorious time when the Hawks were so stacked they could trade Nick Leddy and still be amazing. The other two pieces from that trade didn't pan out, though, so Pokka is really the Hawks' only hope of getting some real value out of dealing one of the better young defensemen in the league.
The good news is that Pokka has steadily developed into a very good defenseman prospect. Last season with the Rockford IceHogs, he was arguably their best player as the team leader in assists, shots on goal and minutes played. Mark Bernard, the Hawks' director of hockey administration and GM of minor league affiliations, was effusive in talking about Pokka in a recent interview with the team's website.
"That's not looked upon enough. When a player is able to play in every one of the games, it shows they have that warrior-type mentality. They play through anything—little injuries, sickness. It's hard to go 76 games and not be banged up or not feel your best, and Ville brings it every night. He's got tremendous work ethic, is another player who played very well at the World Championship [with Finland], and he's going to the World Cup of Hockey, so he should be in a really good state of mind when he comes to Chicago for training camp and tries to make the team. He was great for us. He led all defensemen on our power play, so he was a big piece of our offense last year and a very consistent player."
Pokka may not have the look of a warrior considering he's usually got the gleeful smile of a child on his face in most of his pictures, but there's been steady praise for his hockey IQ and intangibles across the hockey world. When ESPN's Corey Pronman ranked Pokka No. 77 on his top-120 list, he noted that the Finn is "not the biggest or fastest player, but his great two-way hockey sense makes him a legit prospect. He moves the puck efficiently, he doesn't hurt his team, and he's capable defensively."
To be fair, that sounds like a player who Joel Quenneville could potentially love. Few things seem to make the coach angrier than a defenseman who makes mistakes in his own end and occasionally struggles to clear the zone. If Pokka's got a good head on his shoulders and can make those smart plays in Chicago's system, he could be able to quickly acclimate himself even if he's not quite the athlete that, say, Trevor Daley was.
Last season in the AHL, Pokka recorded 10 goals and 45 points in 76 games. He also had two assists in 10 games with Finland at the World Championships in Russia, where he won a silver medal to add to the gold medal he won at the 2014 World Junior Championships. This month, he'll look to add to his hardware collection at the World Cup of Hockey in Toronto.
Between the success in the AHL and on the international circuit and the praise from those both inside and outside the organization, Pokka's progress seems to be going well. He may not have the highest upside, but he should be ready for an NHL shot soon and it'll be exciting to see what he can do.
What's next in 2016-17
Pokka would be gearing up for an NHL role on a lot of teams, but in Chicago, he'll be battling for playing time on a deep roster. The World Cup and training camp should give him some chances to really impress the coaching staff. The Hawks already have their top four set with Duncan Keith, Niklas Hjalmarsson, Brent Seabrook and Brian Campbell, though, which leaves Pokka competing against Michal Kempny, Trevor van Riemsdyk, Michal Rozsival, Erik Gustafsson, Viktor Svedberg and fellow top prospect Gustav Forsling for the final three spots on the roster.
While there's a good chance he's one of the three best players on that list, it won't be surprising if Pokka finds himself in Rockford again to start this season. Still, Pokka is close to NHL-ready, so even if there's not an immediate opening, he should be near the front of the line in the result of an injury or some other problem.
Second City Hockey's Top 25 Under 25 rankings
No. 5: Ville Pokka
No. 6: Ryan Hartman
No. 7: Vincent Hinostroza
No. 8: Tyler Motte
No. 9: John Hayden
No. 10: Mark McNeill
No. 11: Fredrik Olofsson
No. 12: Chad Krys
No. 13: Erik Gustafsson
No. 14: Luke Johnson
No. 15: Tanner Kero
No. 16: Artur Kayumov
No. 17: Carl Dahlstrom
No. 18: Dennis Gilbert
No. 19: Luc Snuggerud
No. 20: Robin Norell
No. 21: Robin Press
No. 22: Dylan Sikura
No. 23: Graham Knott
No. 24: Anthony Louis
No. 25: Roy Radke
Honorable mentions: Radovan Bondra, Joni Tuulola, Mathias From, John Dahlstrom, Lucas Carlsson