We’re back for the next installment of our ranking of the best prospects in the Detroit Red Wings’ farm system. Today we look at defenseman Oliwer Kaski:
Oliwer Kaski is a Finnish defenseman, who will turn 24 on September 4. He stands 6’3” and weighs 187 lbs., a native of Pori, Finland. Kaski, a right shot defender, just finished this past season with the Pelicans of the top Finnish pro division, Liiga, and is set to join the Red Wings organization this year.
Kaski has had one of the more peculiar paths to being a Red Wings prospect, a career that has zig-zagged across the planet and never really being extraordinary until recently. Kaski came up in the Finnish junior leagues as a member of the Ässät organization, playing on their U17 team in 2011-12 (when he was 16), scoring 24 points in 13 games. The following year he moved up to the U18 team, scoring 24 points in 37 games, consistently establishing himself as an offensive defenseman. From there he moved up to the Ässät U20 team, starting in 2013-14 at age 18, a significant underager, putting up 17 points in 37 games. The next year he showed significant offensive improvement, more than doubling his point total with 37 in 48 games. Unfortunately, this period of time was also his draft periods, as he was eligible for the 2013, 2014, and 2015 NHL Drafts and was selected in none of them, showing that Kaski still had a long way to go.
At the end of the 2014-15, the 19 year-old had made it all the way up the rungs of the Finnish junior leagues and by virtue of being a junior league player, he had the ability to play NCAA hockey if he wanted, which he did. He joined the Western Michigan Broncos for the 2015-16 season and had a modest first season in North America, scoring 12 points in 31 games. Kaski ultimately decided that he was better off developing in Europe, and so after playing one game with the Broncos in 2016-17, he exited the NCAA and joined the Finnish pro league, Liiga. Signed by the Lahti Pelicans of the Liiga, he put up 6 points in 36 games his first season as a pro. In 2017-18 he improved, but only marginally, scoring 16 points in 49 games. Up to this point in Kaski’s career, there was basically no evidence that he was ever going to be an NHL prospect of any kind, as a largely low scoring defender in a pro league far inferior to the NHL.
But then everything changed. In 2018-19, Kaski exploded, suddenly scoring 51 points in 59 games, including 19 goals. He was named the MVP of Liiga and the 23 year-old went from a random name to suddenly an NHL commodity, which is when the Red Wings swooped in and scooped Kaski up. Signed to the Wings back in late May as a UDFA, Kaski joins the Red Wings organization and finally gets his shot at the NHL.
As you may have guessed from his statlines during the “career arc” section, Kaski is an offense-first defenseman. He’s not going to stay at home or be a defensive rock, he’s going to move the puck and try and create plays from the blue line. In this excellent piece from The Athletic (that I recommend you read if you want to learn more on Kaski), Kaski described his play to then-NCAA coach Andy Murray back several years ago as:
“’Oliwer, how would you describe your defensive style?’ Murray remembers asking.
‘And he said, ‘No coach, I’m offensive,’” Murray recalled. “I said, ‘OK, we’ll accept that.’”
That’s the name of Kaski’s game. He was noted by scout Corey Pronman as someone who skates well and has a hard shot, and the Pelicans coach remarked that Kaski is a strong passer and praised his vision and general hockey IQ. The downside to all of this is that most scouts agree that Kaski lacks some type of high-end skill and he’s not particularly strong in his own end. You take the offense with the shaky defense.
To get a closer look at the player, here’s a highlight reel of Kaski’s 2018-19 season:
As you can see, he’s a smooth skater who is comfortable with the puck on the stick, willingly taking it to the net in several of the highlights. We also see his strong slap shot, particularly when teed up for one timers, as well as his general awareness to throw the puck at the net.
Kaski also has other valuable commodities in a defenseman. He’s a larger dude (6’3”), a right-hand shot, and has added weight since playing in college, now up to just under 200 lbs. In that sense, the combination of good skating, size, and being a right-shot, he somewhat resembles what the Wings liked in first round draft pick Moritz Seider, though obviously Seider was marketed as much stronger defensively. On a team that likes to balance its defensive pairs to be one right-shot and one left-shot, there may well be room for Kaski on a future bottom pair in the NHL (assuming Hronek and Seider are right-shots on the top two pairs).
There really is no concrete track record when it comes to players like Kaski, because very few of them exist. His career arc has been so unusual that it is difficult to get a read on what his abilities truly are. Is Kaski more of the player from the prior years, who struggled to make an impact in a solid but not great pro league? Or is he the guy from last year who looked ready for the NHL? His age also complicates things because at 24, he is likely quite close to a finished product … a finished product that again, we have very little read on. Plenty of UDFA’s exist, but most come from the NCAA, or are consistent stars in Russia (Artemi Panarin).
As a result, the variance of projections for Kaski’s career is massive. He could become a legit NHL defenseman, or he could be a career AHLer (or worse, ECHLer). I honestly have no real idea. What I do know is that he’ll likely be splitting time between Grand Rapids and Detroit this year, and if he plays well in GR, he’ll get his shot in Detroit. The Wings signed him because they saw something in him and once he adjusts to North American play, he’ll get an opportunity with the Red Wings. What happens then, is anyone’s guess.
Best case scenario: NHL defender of some kind
Worst case scenario: Career minor leaguer