NICK’S NOTEBOOK: KOOKOO FOR KASPER PUCKS
Though the NHL and AHL both remain out of action for the time being, several prospects in the Penguins organization are currently playing either overseas or north of the border. Wilkes-Barre/Scranton broadcaster Nick Hart will occasionally check in on these Penguins prospects and highlight their respective performances.
WILKES-BARRE, Pa. – It’s a shame what happened to Kasper Björkqvist in his first season with the Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins. Just as it seemed the jovial rookie was taking a step forward in his development and acclimating to the pro game, a collision in practice resulted in a knee injury.
He suffered the injury in mid-October. He didn’t play another game for Wilkes-Barre/Scranton that season.
Now a year later, any concerns about Björkqvist’s health going forward have likely been quelled after his impressive start in the Finnish Liiga over the past few weeks.
Playing for KooKoo (the team’s full name is actually Kouvolan Kiekko-65, but everyone – including the team itself – simply and delightfully refers to it as KooKoo), the 23-year-old winger has erupted for four goals and five assists for nine points in the first eight games of the Liiga season.
As per Finnish hockey tradition, Björkqvist is sporting the golden helmet as KooKoo’s top scorer at the moment. Furthermore, nine points ranks first among all Liiga rookies, too.
According to the game lineups on the Liiga website, Björkqvist has carved out a spot on KooKoo’s top line. He’s also seeing power-play time as well, as evidenced by his team-leading two power-play goals.
KooKoo is a young team with an average age of roughly 24.5, and only two Liiga clubs have fewer games of professional experience on their rosters. Yet, KooKoo is thriving with a 5-3-0 record, placing them fourth overall on the league table as of Wednesday morning.
It’s a very promising sign to see Björkqvist step up and take the reigns on a young and largely inexperienced team, and the top line/power-play minutes can only further assist his development.
• Valtteri Puustinen is also off to a hot start in Finland’s top league, as well. The seventh-round pick of the Penguins impressed with 40 points (17G-23A) in 54 games in the Liiga last year as a 20-year-old forward. Now at 21, Puustinen already has two goals and three assists for five points through three contests this year with HPK.
Puustinen is not expected to join Wilkes-Barre/Scranton once hockey in the United States resumes, but his performance merits keeping a close eye on him throughout the season.
• Rookies with Wilkes-Barre/Scranton last year, good friends Emil Larmi and Niclas Almari, have returned to Finland for the start of this season. But now they find themselves of different teams.
Larmi has returned to HPK, where he will be a teammate of Puustinen’s. The young goaltender hasn’t seen the crease yet, as his loan came a mere six days ago.
Almari has manned the blue line in three games for the Lahti Pelicans, but is currently out of action with an injury.
• Given the state of the news back in April, Pittsburgh’s signing of Czech forward Radim Zohorna flew a little under the radar. Expected to compete for a spot in Pittsburgh’s lineup in training camp but with Wilkes-Barre/Scranton his expected landing spot, he has followed up his career-best season last year in the Czech Extraliga by producing five points (2G-3A) in his first four games with BK Mlada Boleslav to start this year.
• Jesper Lindgren, a defenseman the Penguins acquired from Toronto as part of the Kasperi Kapanen trade, is off to a fine start in Sweden. Lindgren has put up no goals, but five assists in his first seven games for the historic MODO Örnsköldsvik playing in Sweden’s second league, HockeyAllsvenskan.
• Other Penguins prospects who have been loaned to overseas clubs include forward Jan Drozg and defenseman Cam Lee, albeit in much more obscure leagues. Drozg, who suited up for 32 games with Wilkes-Barre/Scranton last season, is back in his home country of Slovenia playing for HK SŽ Olimpija in the Alps Hockey League. Drozg is off to a hot start in his homeland, procuring eight points (3G-5A) in four games.
Lee was signed to an entry-level contract by Pittsburgh this past spring after completing his senior season at Western Michigan University. He’s now taken a huge leap and flown to Slovakia to play for HC Slovan Bratislava. He’s yet to suit up for Bratislava since his assignment became official last week, as the team has postponed several games as a result of a coronavirus outbreak.