PLYMOUTH, Michigan – It might just be meaningless summer hockey for most, but the Hlinka Gretzky Cup can be huge for draft prospects looking to impress NHL scouts.
And Aatos Koviu was forced to sit and watch from home.
But things can change in an instant. Fast forward six months later and Koivu is centering Finland’s top line at the Five Nations tournament in Michigan, with the potential to become one of the first Finnish players taken in the 2024 NHL Draft.
Koivu wasn’t high on any draft boards heading into the season. An injury limited him to just 18 games last year, and none internationally. He had some catching up to do, but he’s feeling good about his progress.
“I think my last season went downhill (after the injury) because when I got back, it was hard getting the touch again,” Koivu said. “In the playoffs, I got my touch better and I started to fell betting on the ice. I knew that the next season was going to be big.”
And it has been. The son of Saku Koivu – a fan favorite in Montreal – has reached big heights in his draft year. He expected to spend the season with TPS’ U-18 team, and he’s been productive with 17 points in 16 games. But he’s been even better with the U-20 team, registering 15 goals and 29 points through 23 games.
Koivu has bounced between the two levels to maximize playing time, but it’s like he takes his game to a whole other level against U-20 competition. He has registered at least seven shots on eight occasions, including 10 shots twice. He’s been one of Finland’s top play drivers in U-18 competition as well, and with top 2024 prospects Konsta Helenius and Emil Hemming not taking part in events like this, it has allowed Koivu to stand out.
“I started to get comfortable (with the U-18 team) and then I became a better player throughout the season,” Koivu said. Then I started to train with the U-20 team and then play with them, and I felt comfortable there as well.”
With injuries to some of TPS’ forwards, Koivu made his Liiga debut against Kukurit on Jan. 3. It’s not common for call-ups to get much ice time, but Koivu played 13:37 while showing good speed and skill against older competition. He’s still searching for his first point, but there’s a reason so few players thrive in men’s competition at 17 years old – it’s a whole other beast, especially when you never expected to leave your own age group.
Koivu represented Finland internationally for the first time at a Five Nations tournament in November, scoring both goals – including on a beautiful shootout move – against Czechia in his debut. He then had a nice two-point effort against Sweden to open up action this week and was generally one of Finland’s best players each game.
In a way, watching him now, you can see someone who benefited from training and playing against pros – even just in a four-game stint.
“The biggest takeaway for me was how he handled the pressure (against men),” a European scout said. “You can tell he’s got his dad’s genes. Just smart, calm, and skilled. The spotlight doesn’t bother him.”
Saku is still involved in the game today. He serves as a senior advisor for the club, and is a co-owner alongside his brother Mikko, former NHL goaltender Mikka Kiprusoff and a few other groups. Saku had the difficult job of donning the captain’s C in Montreal for nine years, becoming a cult hero in the city – especially after coming back from cancer to have some of the best seasons of his NHL career. So scouts have noticed Aatos’ maturity and leadership on the ice, and how nothing seems to faze him.
Style-wise, they’re not too similar. Aatos is bigger at 6-foot-1 and is built more around using his skill to beat defenders. Saku was more of an all-around center that would lose physical battles, but would make up for it as a playmaker. Koivu has the same playmaking qualities, but he also has a hard wrister that can devastate goaltenders in open ice – especially on the power play.
Aatos doesn’t remember much about watching his dad play – he was too preoccupied.
“I was just playing in the halls with my friends,” he said, with a smile. “I should have watched the games more.”
Koivu said he’s not thinking too much about the NHL Draft, but he knows scouts are looking closer now. NHL Central Scouting has him as the 30th European-based forward, but the chat around Plymouth this week is that many scouts see him going as high as the third round. The mix of speed, good hands and compete level is keeping scouts interested. He works hard and plays with pace, and now scouts are wondering how much more he can unlock out of his game. Right now, he can play any role, with that type of versatility coming in handy.
“I don’t think anyone was paying much attention to him heading into the season,” a scout said. “Now he’s looking like he’ll be one of the best players out of Finland. And there’s still room to improve, so it’s exciting.”
The ceiling is high here, something scouts didn’t see coming this year. And neither did Aatos Koivu himself.
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