One month into his first complete season in Finland’s top professional league, Joakim Kemell appeared to have everything the Kraken now badly need in a forward.

Primarily, he put the puck in the net — erupting for 12 goals and 18 points last October in his first 16 games with his JYP team in the Liiga. Then came a shoulder injury, which, though not requiring surgery, sidelined him until December and caused a noticeable production drop-off when Kemell tried to return at something admittedly less than 100% health.

The question now facing NHL teams, including a Kraken squad that should have first crack at Kemell with their No. 4 overall pick in Thursday’s NHL entry draft in Montreal: Would they be getting the dynamic 5-foot-10, 185-pound right wing with a heavy shot that so dominated grown men early on as just a 17-year-old? Or the teenager who appeared somewhat exposed in going pointless his first 14 games back and notching just three additional goals and two assists in nine more games the rest of the way?

“The expectation was that a breakthrough season would be 10 goals or more, and he did that right at the start,” JYP sports manager Mikko Viitanen told The Hockey News in May. “That’s how he is, Joakim has good character and likes to compete. It doesn’t matter how big the defenseman he faces in a one-on-one battle is, he always tries to win the situation. The Joakim we saw at the start of the season is the kid we thought he would be.”

Shane Wright speaks during a news conference after being selected as the fourth overall pick by the Seattle Kraken during the first round of the NHL hockey draft in Montreal on Thursday, July 7, 2022. (Graham Hughes/The Canadian Press via AP) GMH123


Trying to project who the Kraken use their No. 4 pick on relies heavily on the assumption that some combination of Shane Wright, Juraj Slafkovski and Logan Cooley will be taken in the top-three. If any of that trio slides lower, the Kraken would likely grab that player given most scouts see a clear demarcation between those three and the rest of the draft field. 

But assuming the first three picks go according to plan, the Kraken will likely opt either for a right-handed shot defenseman or a forward to provide some offense clearly missing on the current roster.


The defensive choices likely come down to Czech blueliner David Jiricek or Slovakian counterpart Simon Nemec. On the offensive side, U.S. National Team Development program forward Cutter Gauthier is often mentioned as the best bet out there while Kemell used to be until his second-half performance threw his top-5 potential into doubt. 

Much of the debate surrounding Kemell mirrors that typically found with any 17- or 18-year-old prospect: Figuring out whether perceived deficiencies can be improved upon with age versus red flags about a teenager hitting a proverbial ceiling when playing against men.

For years, at every level he’s advanced, Kemell has gone up against players two and even three years older without missing a beat. He made his pro debut for a lone game with JYP in 2020-21 and then led the Liiga in scoring his opening month of full-time pro play.

Kemell’s slap shot is powerful and accurate — even on one-timers — while his wrist shot is also pinpoint with plenty of juice behind it. But his skating has been described as average and his passing ability is said to need work, lending more to the impression of a one-dimensional goal scorer. 

The problem for the Kraken is, with a pick this high, gambling and missing on Kemell could have repercussions more severe than they would be if, say, last year’s third-round pick Ryan Winterton doesn’t pan out. With a top-four pick, especially for a non-centerman, teams are hoping for a natural-born goal scorer who can be a scoreboard difference-maker within a few seasons.

Certainly, Kemell provided glimpses of that potential in last summer’s Hlinka Gretzky Under-18 tournament of top NHL draft prospects. Playing for Finland, he scored five goals in five games facing players that more represent his future NHL peers than current Liiga pros — some of whom are twice his age. 


Then again, there will be age and physical disparities to overcome in the NHL as well. Kemell is reputed to play stronger and tougher than his size and — having turned 18 only this past April — should still be growing and filling out.

That said, his height and weight don’t exactly scream NHL power. And already, the production decline after his physical setback last fall will inevitably raise questions about Kemell’s durability and mindset when the going truly gets tough in NHL corners.

Still, natural-scoring sharpshooters with a strong work ethic don’t come around every day. And a fledgling franchise such as the Kraken will inevitably need to go beyond playing it safe — as it did when gambling a second-round pick on defenseman Ryker Evans a year ago — to try to lock in star talent.

Some concerns surrounding Kemell might be alleviated next month if he turns in a strong effort when the 2022 IIHF World Junior Championship tournament gets replayed after being canceled by the pandemic last December. Kemell appeared in two tournament games before the cancellation, going scoreless. 

Thing is, he’ll be drafted before that tournament gets replayed. 

And for the Kraken, the risk portion of the high-risk, high-reward potential of drafting Kemell, tempting as it might be, could prove too much to stomach this early on in the franchise’s tenure.