Move to North America Suited Honka's Style of Play
All European-born players treat the decision differently on when and why to move to North America to continue their hockey career. Some opt to stay home until they're NHL-ready, while others wait until after they've gone through their draft year.
But for Finnish defenseman Julius Honka, a top prospect for the 2014 NHL Draft, he knew exactly where he wanted to be in his draft year.
Taken by the Swift Current Broncos of the Western Hockey League with the 34th pick of the 2013 Canadian Hockey League Import Draft, Honka wasted little time booking a plane ticket for Saskatchewan.
"That is the best choice for me," Honka told NHL.com of going to Swift Current. "[This season] I have the draft and that is the best choice for me. … It wasn't that hard of a choice."
So far it's been a great choice. The 5-foot-10.5, 178-pounder had a goal and two assists in the Broncos' season-opening 7-2 win at the Regina Pats on Sept. 19, and two nights later he made his home debut with a pair of assists in Swift Current's 3-2 defeat of Regina. He had two more assists in a 3-2 shootout loss to the Moose Jaw Warriors on Sept. 27, and also was picked to go first in the shootout by coach Mark Lamb.
"He's got the most skill on our team," Lamb told NHL.com. "You watch him in practice, his 1-on-1 moves, how he scores in practice on breakaways. We do the shootout, we practice the shootout, and he was our go-to guy. He didn't score on it, but he's our most skilled guy."
His strong start earned him the first WHL Player of the Week award of the season, and with a goal, six assists and a plus-4 rating in his first five games, Lamb believes it's just the start for Honka.
"He's been as good as advertised," Lamb said. "He was just so good in training camp. His skating and his puck handling and his shot, he was way ahead of everybody. … You wonder, can he take it into the regular season and do it, but the biggest thing is how he practices and what he can do in practice, that's where you really get a good look at this kid. He's got some God-given talent that a lot of kids don't have. He's very high end.
"What he's done offensively, the points are one thing, but he creates so many chances. He's got that amount of points, he could have had a heck of a lot more."
Honka also received an "A" rating from NHL Central Scouting in its preliminary players to watch list for players from the WHL.
"Julius Honka is smallish but an excellent skater with great balance," NHL Director of European Scouting Goran Stubb told NHL.com. "He's an offensive-minded defenseman with good vision and a high skill level. Quick moves, reads the game very well and loves to join the offensive rush. Used in all game situations."
The offense is no surprise for a player who at 17 had 15 points in 42 games for JYP's team in Finland's under-20 league. He also had four points in seven games to help Finland win the bronze medal at the 2013 IIHF World Under-18 Championship.
"He's amazing with the puck," Kasperi Kapanen, a teammate on the World U-18 team, told NHL.com. "When he gets the puck he's so calm. He knows how to get that first good pass and score the goal too, from the point. He's dangerous with the puck and he's also a good defender. He got some size over the summer and he's a pretty good skater and sees the ice well."
Honka and Kapanen could be teammates again for Finland at the 2014 IIHF World Junior Championship. Honka had one assist in five games at a junior evaluation camp in Lake Placid, N.Y. in August, and earned positive reviews for his play in exhibition games against the United States, Canada and Sweden.
"He's good offensively but he has to learn and concentrate more on defense," Finland WJC coach Karri Kivi told NHL.com. "That's the biggest thing for him."
Lamb agreed that Honka needs to improve his defensive-zone play, but said he's confident it will happen as the season progresses.
"He's a very high offensive player and he's weighted toward the offensive side, but he's very gritty," Lamb said. "He's like a North American. He's not a one-way player. He has an edge to his game which I think has really helped him on the small ice and North American game.
"You catch yourself watching this kid because he can do so many things with the puck. He really wants to be a player and that's why he's over here. The details of the game and playing defense is where he really has to concentrate on, and that's why he's come over."
Honka said rounding out his game was a big reason he opted to come to Swift Current. Playing on the smaller, NHL-size ice, where he'll have to make quicker decisions and play more physically than he would have had he stayed in Finland, was another part of his decision to come to North America.
"Two years ago the [World Under-17 Hockey Challenge] was in Calgary and I played on [the smaller ice]," Honka said. "I like it. I like the game. The game is very quick and you have to make quick moves and I like that."
But what he really wants to do this season is show NHL scouts that he's worthy of being drafted.
"I think that the biggest thing was that the draft is next spring," he said. "Last season I thought I wanted to play [in North America] and now I have a chance to play there and I used the choice to play there."