The list of defencemen that have suited up in 20+ games in the Liiga in their draft-minus-one season is a short one— intact it is only four players long. One half of that group are/were 40 point NHL defencemen; the other half is made up of Anttoni Honka and Urho Vaakanainen, a top prospect for the Boston Bruins.
Undoubtedly, this is a pretty exclusive group, and Anttoni Honka is right in the thick of it.
The Finnish defenceman is ahead of most defencemen from his home-country at the same age including his brother, Julius Honka a defenceman and analytics darling that plays for the Dallas Stars. At this point, comparing the two at Anttoni’s age, I think it’s entirely possible that Anttoni could outperform Julius at the NHL level sometime in the near future.
The younger Honka is an offensive defenceman that excels in the transition game. He can move the puck up ice quickly and effectively, through both carries and passes.
Let’s take a deeper look at that transitional prowess.
There are two big things I look for in good transitional defencemen– the ability to evade pressure, and the ability to find + create lanes through the neutral zone.
Honka does both here. First off, he shakes the oncoming forechecker with a quick fake to the left, shaking the player entirely and giving him tons of time to evaluate his options with the puck. This doesn’t seem like much, but the amount of time and space it creates for Honka is tremendous.
Next, he begins to move up ice, using the time he created to get up to full speed before he has to deal with any pressure from the opposition. His juke continues to pay off for him in the neutral zone; it’s much easier to beat defenders at top speed versus ~75% throttle. Another thing to notice is how Honka isn’t skating in a straight line; after starting his rush from his left corner, he gradually moves laterally towards the right side of the ice, exploring the defence to find a path of attack. Around his own blueline, Honka recognizes the open right-most lane as the best chance of a successful controlled entry and commits, taking the zone with relative ease and feathering a pass to the less dense left side.
Let’s look at another example of Honka escaping pressure.
Honka moves behind the net from left to right, using it to shield himself and the puck as the forechecker moves in. As the oncoming player attacks around the right side of the net, Honka quickly escapes out the now open other side, and is able to make a good pass that starts the breakout.
This ability to escape forecheckers may be the most crucial part of Honka’s rush game, and is something that few defencemen can do at as high of a level as he.
It’s his skating that makes this possible, and once again, we’re starting to see why skating is so important for defencemen. We’ve already addressed Honka’s excellent top-speed and edge-work, but in these situations, it’s his acceleration that’s getting the job done. Honka’s starting from a stationary position behind the net, whereas the forechecker already has some speed to his name as he approaches the Finnish defenceman. Obviously, Honka’s at the momentum deficit here, and is disadvantaged, but he has the acceleration to create enough separation from the forward to assess his surroundings and make a good pass.
This next play is a fantastic example of Honka’s overall transitional game, not just the offensive portion. Honka breaks up an opposition rush, ends up getting the puck back behind the net, and takes it deep into the offensive zone himself.
Let’s break this down in more detail, as this clip right here is one of the best indicators of just how talented Honka is in all aspects of transitional play.
Honka begins on defence, as Luuko is bringing the puck past their blueline. He begins the play positioned well; as the puck is near the opposition’s blue-line, he’s right on top of the red-line, and his body is positioned to the inside of the puck-carrier.
As the puck crosses the blue-line, he steps up as the forward begins to move back to the middle. Honka’s hockey IQ is starting to come into play here; he attempts the pokecheck as the puck-carrier is holding the puck near the end of his reach, when he has less control and it’s more difficult for him to pull the puck away from Honka’s stick. Honka selected the ideal time to try to knock the puck away, and succeeded, forcing the opposition to relinquish possession.
Fast forward to Honka receiving the puck behind the goal line. The forechecker chases him, and once again, we see Honka in a situation where he’s outmatched momentum-wise. But again, he’s able to get up to speed quickly enough to escape the forechecker as he comes around his own net. Then, he takes the open space in front of him, is able to identify a new lane once he reaches a defender in his way, and just like that, yet another controlled entry for Honka.
As we can see, Honka excels in the offensive transition game, and is a controlled entry and exit machine. Why is that kind of thing important?
First of all, controlled entries lead to roughly twice as many shots as the uncontrolled (i.e. dump and chase) variety, as proved by Eric Tulsky was back in 2011 and 2012.
Second, micro-stats, which include, but are not limited to, zone entries and exits, are better predictors of future on-ice metrics like Corsi, Expected Goals, and Goal Share than those on-ice metrics are themselves. Essentially, what this means is that you can better predict a player’s future CF%, xGF%, and GF% using these micro-stats than you can by using the past CF%, xGF%, and GF% of that player. So, if Honka’s transition ability can carry over to the NHL, it’s likely that he looks very good by those on-ice statistics.
So far, Honka already looks like a possession beast. He led the entire Liiga with a Corsi-For% of 62.5% last season, despite being one of the youngest players to have a regular role in the circuit.
In the offensive zone, Honka continues to be a threat. He’s not afraid to activate deep into the offensive zone, as displayed here.
Once there, his playmaking ability can come in handy. He’s adept at sliding the puck into the slot from below the goal line, and disguises that play very well.
I always like these sneaky little net front passes. pic.twitter.com/cTCnasKZbc
— berggren, jonatan (@DraftLook) August 29, 2018
Honka’s shot probably isn’t something that he’ll be known for, but it’s an effective weapon nonetheless. It doesn’t look good enough to produce a lot of goals for him, but he’s able to get it through to the net, and that alone should pay dividends through rebounds and deflections.
In the right situation, it can be worth a goal.
One way for defencemen to compensate for shot without major velocity on it is by releasing it closer to the net. Honka is a cognizant of this, and routinely takes all the open space in front of him before letting it go.
Defensively, Honka is often fit with the stereotype that offensively talented defencemen are poor defensively, but that’s not the case. Some of the skills that help him be so offensively dominant carry over to the defensive side of the game, particularly his intelligence and skating.
We already saw his defensive intelligence at play with the fantastically timed poke check that we examined earlier. This is also displayed by Honka through good gap control, as well as stick and body positioning.
Statistically, Honka continues to excel. As already mentioned, he’s in fantastic company as a D-1 defencemen in the Liiga, but looking at his production in that season, he comes out even better. Honka ranks as the second best skater in the 2019 class by Adjusted Points-Per-Game, a statistic that adjusts production for league and age to allow for comparison of prospects across different leagues and birthdates. This should garner plenty of exclamation points, given that it’s more difficult to produce as a defenceman versus a forward. His nine points in 20 Liiga games was good for 0.45 points-per-game, a mark that is equal to 0.33 SHL PPG. For reference, Rasmus Dahlin had just 0.12 PPG in his D-1 season. Now, Honka is older than Dahlin was at the time, but it’s still a positive arrow.
Honka is a modern defenceman built for today’s NHL. In a league where strong transitional play has become essential, Honka appears poised to dominate in that area once he reaches the NHL. The upside accompanying Honka is tremendous, and he has the toolbox of a future top-pairing defender.