Manor 2024 NHL Draft Preview: Defenseman Aron Kiviharju, Finland

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Aron Kiviharju


Later this month, the 2024 NHL Entry Draft will commence in Las Vegas, where both the live and television viewing audience will see plenty of risers and fallers. Fluidity in rankings doesn’t just occur on Draft Day, though. For example, former Kings prospect Nick Ebert, who was taken in the seventh round, was a top-rated prospect before the 2011-12 season started. Ultimately, he almost didn’t get drafted.

Changes in rankings have many factors. Some are simply because other players grew faster, injuries, poor interviews, or even just an overall decline in performance. Things as simple as this week’s Scouting Combine can influence perception, as can tournaments like the World Junior Championships.

Through it all, how scouts rank a player leading into the league’s big event in late June can be seen as more ‘ever-changing’ than ‘set in stone.’ Scouting is an ongoing process, and for most players, it starts years before they’re drafted and even continues long after a team initially claims their rights.

Let’s dive into looking at one of this year’s defensemen coming out of Europe…

Aron Kiviharju

Vitals


Date of Birth: January 25, 2006
Height: 5-foot-10
Weight: 172 lbs
Shoots: Left
Position: Defense

2023-24 Season

Kiviharju spent the entirety of the season playing in Finland’s top league, Liiga. In 7 games, he had 2 points (1 G, 1 A).

Sweet Sixteen

The smaller defenseman was seen on many scouts’ radar long before this season. He started playing against men in Liiga action at just 16 years old. Consequently, before puck drop on the 2023-24 season, Kiviharju was potentially a contender for first overall. Now, he’s more likely a late first round selection, at best.

Pain

The native of Denmark saw him out for most of this season after playing only seven games. ACL surgery sidelined him for about six months. He then took a skate blade to the face in his first game back. Thankfully, he was eventually able to continue playing.

Moving Forward

Kiviharju will have multiple options after being drafted. Should he choose to come to North America, he could play for the OHL’s Kitchener Rangers or USHL’s Dubuque Fighting Saints; this would be aside from the NHL, AHL (or even ECHL) for the team who drafts him.

Rankings by Independent Scouting Services

Ranked No 29 by Dobber Prospects. “Kiviharju is an intelligent puck-moving defenseman who anticipates play ahead of professional competition on a regular basis, but still has physical habits to learn and muscle to put on before making an NHL lineup.”

Ranked No 22 by Sportsnet. “Kiviharju is a power play quarterback who leans distributor more than shooter. He’s a stocky and strong defender who relies on small area quickness to win pucks. Kiviharju is the kind of undersized defenceman who can launch the attack and join the rush as an extra layer, or escape his zone and lead the play up ice on his own.”

Ranked No. 19 by Last Word on Sports. “However, when healthy Kiviharju is a player with an emasculate hockey sense and offensive awareness. He is a near-perfect powerplay quarterback, with great patience and IQ. On top of that, he is a brilliant skater, who moves well both with and without the puck on his stick. This also allows Kiviharju to be effective on both ends despite an extremely offensive and aggressive style where he will jump into the open space and look to get the puck. When he is on top of his game he is among the most impactful players of this draft class.”

See For Yourself

Here is a video of Aron Kiviharju playing against Sweden in the 2024 U18 WJC:

Final Comments

Though born in Denmark, Kiviharju has honed his skills playing in Finland. Even when against traditionally tougher competition, the skilled defenseman always rose to the occasion. He played in the U-16 league as a 12-year-old, U-18 at 14, and made his professional Liiga debut at 16. Because of this adaptability, particularly against older players, the scouting community already started talks about challenging for first overall.

However, Los Angeles is slated to pick 21st overall. So, what happened?

While injuries have certainly taken a factor this season, it’s an oversimplification of Kiviharju’s play. The adaptation to tougher competition was certainly admirable, the growth in his game simply hasn’t been there. For an offensive defenseman, his point-per-game rate at the U-20 level went from 0.87 to 0.90. The Liiga level is a smaller sample size, as he only played seven games this season, he has five points (1 G, 4 A) in 29 appearances. The scoring just hasn’t been there.

To continue the previous point about growth, Kiviharju has a smaller stature. Standing at 5-foot-10 and weighing 172 lbs, he can’t physically impose on opponents. In order to defend effectively, body and stick positioning will need to be developed. Moreover, his size doesn’t lend to a lot of strength, which factors into his shot power. For a prospect who tries to be a two-way defenseman, limiting offensive tools will diminish the overall upside. Technique plays a factor for sure, but bigger players can still get velocity behind a shot to mask deficiencies.

With these criticisms, the next logical question is, why pick him? Why is he rated so highly?

To begin with, he is an exceptional skater. Smaller players with limited reach can still make up for it by being able to get from point A to B quickly and effortlessly. Kiviharju moves in all directions very well and can hit top speed with fewer strides. Along with being able to move around the defensive zone and covering a lot of ice, this also lends to opportunity for joining in on the attack. The aforementioned shot power issue suddenly becomes non-existent when he can back off defenders or make them respect his realm of influence. Again, leg strength is also an issue, as he can be pushed down more than the average professional player.

Notably, the defenseman has very good passing ability, especially on the breakout. There’s minimal forcing of the play. Because of the mobility and puck distribution skills, there are few times Kiviharju will find himself in trouble with the puck.

Of all his skills, the Finnish defender’s strongest is his hockey intelligence. Sometimes, hockey IQ gets thrown about nebulously the same way people struggle to define “art.” Kiviharju has a very good sense of the game, whether it’s anticipating a loss of possession in the offensive zone or a change in attack from the opposition, he’s already processing ways to solve or mitigate the ongoing problem. Tying in this ability to think the game, it would be wise to take a look at a completely player like Gabe Vilardi. Though a substantially bigger player and slower skater, he compensated his weaknesses by an ability to know where to go before he had to be there, which can turn a less mobile player into a dangerous one. A fast skater who can think through the situation quicker than others can become lethal.

In summary, Kiviharju is part of the new wave of defenders who can supplement their questions of size with other tools to make a quality player. That’s not to say there’s a guarantee to succeed. Strength needs to be as well as general technique in some aspects, like separating the opposition from the puck and shooting. There’s already a maturity to his game, though some stagnation in level of play over the past couple years is a valid concern. At 21, it may feel like a swing for the fences, but it’s important to remember he was contesting to be a top pick not too long ago for a reason.

Chat with David: You can find him on Twitter @Davidenkness to talk more hockey.




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