While most expert see Rasmus Dahlin from Sweden as number-one pick in the upcoming NHL Entry Draft, there’s also a Rasmus from Finland expected to have his name called in the first round.
Growing up hockey wasn’t the only option for Rasmus Kupari. Born and raised in Kotka, Finland, basketball and football were other popular sports in his city, but Kupari was turned on to hockey at a young age and never looked back.
“My dad (Marko Kupari) also played ice hockey when he was younger, and first time he asked me if I want to go try hockey, then I think that became my hobby and I liked it,” Kupari explained. “I also played soccer when I was younger.”
Now Kupari is described as a two-way centre, with good hands and the potential to be a second-line player that can chip in offensively at the NHL level.
This season the 18-year-old scored six goals and eight assists in 38 games while playing for Karpat in the Finnish Liiga and winning his first senior pro championship.
“Rasmus is a very, very good skater and he has very skillful hands,” said Karpat coach Lauri Mikkola. “Very good technique – those are the best qualities in Rasmus: good skating and skillful hands.”
After coming from HPK Hameenlinna, Winnipeg Jets prospect Kristian Vesalainen and Kupari began playing together – a move Mikkola calls a positive one for Kupari’s development.
“I think (he learned) a lot because Rasmus sees how much work Vesalainen is doing,” said Mikkola. “I think Vesalainen is a very hard-training guy and he’s a good teacher for Rasmus (on) how hard he needs to work every day. I think Rasmus learned a lot from Vesalainen.”
Kupari agreed the pairing with Vesalainen was a positive experience this season.
“That was nice, one younger guy,” he said. “Also, a good player and good friend so that was good for me.”
The six-foot-one, 183-pound centre also represented Finland on the international stage twice this season. He was held without a point at the 2018 IIHF World Junior Hockey Championship. Then, at the IIHF Ice Hockey U18 World Championship, Kupari scored two goals and an assist in four games as Finland defeated the U.S. 3-2 to win gold.
“That was an awesome experience,” Kupari said of the under-18s. “First gold medal for me, and first chance so that was an awesome end to the season. I came there after they played four games so it was hard with a new lineup, new team. Of course I played other tournaments with some of them.
“It was a different kind of tournament (compared to world juniors). (Under-18s) was in Russia, different kind of city than Finnish cities or Buffalo. Different kind of tournament.”
Kupari is a skilled forward who is always considered a threat with the puck on his stick. He has good one-on-one skills, is creative with the puck and has a knack for the net. His vision on the ice allows him to find the soft spots on the ice for his teammates to get him the puck.
His low centre of gravity makes him difficult to knock off the puck.
Kupari is ranked 11th amongst international skaters by NHL Central Scouting while ISS Hockey has him at No. 15 in the top 200 players available for this week’s NHL Draft in Dallas.
“Very good hands and vision in traffic,” said ISS Hockey Scouting Director Dennis MacInnis. “He is very dangerous when he has the puck on his stick, and is a threat offensively. He has great instincts for the net and the ability to find open ice. Will still need to bulk up and add size and strength to play at the next level and be effective.”
Kupari has one year remaining on his contract with Karpat, and is likely headed back to Finland for next season, despite the Ontario Hockey League’s Sault Ste. Marie Greyhounds owning his Canadian Hockey League rights after selecting him in the 2017 CHL Import Draft.
Mikkola calls Kupari’s play similar to Sebastian Aho and Jesse Puljujarvi while Kupari agrees with the Aho assessment and also likes to watch Buffalo Sabres centre Jack Eichel.
“He’s a good, smooth skater, skillful player,” Kupari said of Eichel. “I like to watch that kind of player and try to take some things from them. I think I want to be the same kind of player those kinds of players are.”
As he looks to take the next step in his career, Kupari understands where he needs to be better.
“I think there’s two big things that I have to improve: one is my physicality and my physical game - get more strength for battles,” he said. “Then I think another is my defensive play. If I’m playing at centre, I have to be better in our zone.”