Mikael Hakkarainen knows he made an unpopular decision last October by leaving Providence College after just one game to rejoin the Muskegon Lumberjacks in the USHL.
But he stands by it and believes it was the best thing for him.
“It was everything based on hockey and how I can improve my game,” Hakkarainen said Saturday after the Lumberjacks were eliminated from the USHL’s Clark Cup playoffs with a 3-2 overtime loss to the Chicago Steel. “I felt like with the schedule I had at Providence that I really couldn’t develop my game to the level I wanted to.
I’ve gotten great results in the past six months with the Lumberjacks. For me, it was a great decision to focus just on hockey.”
Hakkarainen, a 2018 fifth-round pick by the Blackhawks, is known for his offensive play-making ability and high energy style of play. The 21-year-old from Helsinki, Finland, scored 19 goals and 47 points in 42 regular-season games while playing as Muskegon’s top-line center. His 1.12 points per game tied for 13th in the league, according to prospects-stats.com. He was tied for third during the playoffs in scoring with nine points (four goals, five assists).
Muskegon head coach Mike Hamilton credits Hakkarainen’s continued success to playing at both ends of the ice.
“He’s developed his game into a full 200-foot game,” Hamilton said. “He’s able to obviously bring offense, but he’s able to be out there against the other team’s top line and defensively be responsible as well. His game has really evolved.
“I think really where he’s evolved is faceoffs. He’s up in the 60-percent range, while last year was below 50 for sure. I thought he used to cheat the game a little bit last season and even when he came back (to Muskegon), but now he’s playing a full solid hockey game.”
Hakkarainen said he talked with Blackhawks development coach Derek Plante often this past season and worked on improving his quickness.
“The skating is so important,” Hakkarainen said. “I know I can dominant (in the USHL), but I’ve got to be at another level. That was the biggest thing was working on my first two steps and develop more power. I think I’ve done a great job on that.”
Hakkarainen, who grew up a Penguins fan, points to Nick Bonino as a late-round draft pick that’s found success in the NHL as someone he tries to play like because “(Bonino) plays the game the right way and has some scoring abilities.”
Hakkarainen, who will push for a roster spot with the Rockford IceHogs in the AHL next season, plans to return to Helsinki to visit friends and family before returning to Chicago to work with the Blackhawks throughout the summer.
“There’s a lot to like with him.” Hamilton said. “He just has to continue to improve getting stronger and faster because at that next level everyone is bigger and stronger, so this summer is going to be big for him.”