Kuokkanen was key piece for Devils

American Hockey League

NEWARK, NJ – The New Jersey Devils approached the NHL’s Trade Deadline in the seller seat and from it, they moved out three of their current players in exchange for draft assets and a handful of players. Perhaps the most notable of the living, breathing acquisitions was Janne Kuokkanen.

Video: ONE-ON-ONE | Tom Fitzgerald with Chris Wescott

The 21-year-old Finnish forward was one part of a package received for defenseman Sami Vatanen. The Carolina Hurricanes parted with Kuokkanen, a conditional fourth-round pick and Fredrik Claesson. The Devils gave up their pending Unrestricted Free Agent defender.

While the fourth-round pick coming back can become a third – based on the number of games Vatanen plays for the Hurricanes this season or in the playoffs – it’s the young talent that New Jersey is most excited about.

“We wouldn’t have done it if he wasn’t included,” said Devils Interim General Manager Tom Fitzgerald.

“[Kuokkanen is] that second-round value we felt we needed to come back in this trade, with experience though, it’s not like it’s a pick.”

In Ftizgerald’s mind, getting Kuokkanen back is like adding a second-round prospect. But the Devils are lucky enough to get one with a few years of professional seasoning on his resume.

The forward has suited up in 11 NHL games thus far in his young career.

“Well, you know the deal for Janne, we know exactly what he is and we believe he’s an undervalued player, who was playing in a really good organization and hasn’t been given an opportunity,” said Fitzgerald. “We feel that in this organization, with us, he’ll be able to have that opportunity. Whether it’s sooner rather or it’s later [remains to be seen] but we feel with a true opportunity, he’ll be able to become a top-three line player for us.”

There’s potential that Kuokkanen could be in the Devils top-nine as soon as next season, if not for a short stint at the end of this year. But for the meantime, he’ll try and earn his way up through Binghamton of the AHL, where he has been assigned.

Taken 43rd overall by Carolina in 2016, Kuokkanen has followed a familiar development path during his first few professional seasons. He’s working his way up through the minors. He has played in 160 American Hockey League games, scoring 35 goals and adding 85 assists. He’s also been lucky enough to get nine post-season appearances under his belt in the AHL, recording three goals and an assist.

The AHL is a good league to develop in and Kuokkanen has already proven himself against that level of competition. He won the Calder Cup last season with Charlotte and is currently the Checkers leading scorer with 42 points (12-30-42) in 52 games. 

“We thought he was their top prospect in the American League,” said Fitzgerald. “He’s been doing it at a high level in the American League and we believe that translates to the NHL…

“He’s got skill, he’s smart, he’s got a good size, he’s won a Calder Cup, so he’s got some pedigree there and he’s going into a situation in Binghamton where we’re pushing for a playoff spot right now and our guys are on a roll.”

Fitzgerald calls the addition of Kuokkanen to Binghamton “very valuable” and he sees him quickly getting an opportunity in New Jersey. The Devils newest young prospect “thrives on the power play” and has good hockey IQ. He’ll get the chance to show his game off right away.

“We have the player who has got the experience and now he just needs an opportunity,” Fitzgerald said. “He was a big part of the trade.”

Like Fitzgerald said before, he wouldn’t have pulled the trigger on the trade had Kuokkanen not been a part of it.

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