TRAVERSE CITY, Mich. • For those who believe in the significance of letters on hockey sweaters, the Blues’ choices for captain and alternate captain in the NHL prospects tournament were revealing:
• Center Robert Thomas wore an “A” for alternate captain. A no-brainer really considering his background and pedigree as the top prospect in the organization.
• Forward Nolan Stevens wore the “C.” OK, makes sense. At 22, Stevens was among the oldest players on the prospects squad. Plus, he was on the Blues’ roster — albeit as a healthy scratch — for the last seven games of last season after signing an entry-level contract out of Northeastern University.
• And wearing the other “A” was defenseman Niko Mikkola. Come again?
After being drafted in the fifth round of the 2015 draft, Mikkola quickly faded off the radar of many Blues fans and observers. Then again, it would have taken extensive radar to track him.
He spent the past three years in Finland, playing in the Liiga, aka the Finish Elite League. He was at Traverse City with the Blues’ prospects team a year ago, but left the main Blues camp after a couple of weeks because his pro team in Finland —Tappara — was beginning its season.
But as the “A” on his jersey might indicate, Mikkola is much more than an afterthought in the Blues’ organizational pipeline.
“He’s an interesting player,” said Blues prospects coach Drew Bannister. “He’s a highly competitive guy that just is hard to play against. Decent puck skills, but defends very well and has really good gaps.
“And for a big man, skates extremely well. But I think the biggest thing that stands out for me is just he’s willing to compete and win battles.”
After 3½ seasons playing professional hockey in Finland, Mikkola is ready for the North American game. He signed his entry-level Blues contract June 1 and is slated for the team’s San Antonio affiliate this season, where Bannister is head coach.
At 6-5, 198, Mikkola is the biggest Blues defenseman this side of Colton Parayko.
“I think he’s probably grown a little bit,” said Bill Armstrong, the Blues’ assistant general manager. “I think he’s added probably 15 pounds. He’s a Big Rig.”
OK, that nickname currently belongs to Patrick Maroon on the Blues. So Mikkola must be Big Rig II.
“He’s a worker, he’s a grinder,” Armstrong said. “He’s got a little savvy-ness to him. He’s gonna fit in well with our core that we have. ... He’s got some NHL potential and a chance to play.”
For those wondering about the Blues’ defensive depth, Mikkola should be in the discussion along with Jordan Schmaltz, Jake Walman and Mitch Reinke. As he transitions from European hockey, Mikkola probably is a couple of years away from a serious NHL push.
The North American rinks are smaller, and the North American game is more physical. Mikkola played 50 games last year in Finland; he’ll play about 30 more this season for San Antonio — plus playoffs. And he’ll do a lot more traveling for the Rampage than he did in Finland.
Judging by his play in Traverse City, the physical part shouldn’t be a problem. He was more than happy to throw his weight around, slamming opponents into the boards, muscling for the puck, and on one occasion in Tuesday’s 8-4 victory over the New York Rangers, simply pushing a foe to the ice.
“Actually his game reminds us a little bit of (Robert) Bortuzzo, where he’s got some edge to him,” Blues general manager Doug Armstrong said. (No relation to Bill Armstrong.)
“He’s just a player that gains our respect from how physical he can play,” Doug Armstrong continued. “And he does jump into the play. He plays with an attitude right now. Now, we’ll see if he can carry that on to the next level with the men in training camp. But here (in Traverse City) he looks like a player that wants to assert himself as a strong defending defenseman.”
Bortuzzo, Jay Bouwmeester and Carl Gunnarsson all will be unrestricted free agents at the end of this season, so there could be an opening or two on the D-corps sooner rather than later.
Once a player is drafted, there are several factors the Blues weigh in assessing whether a player stays in Europe or comes to North America to play junior hockey or in the AHL. In the case of Mikkola, they had no problem with him staying in Europe until now. In Finland he was getting good coaching, and playing on good teams against good competition.
Mikkola also was playing against grown men, in some cases men in their 30s, when he was as young as 18.
“It’s good hockey out there,” Mikkola said. “In the beginning it was hard but I got used to it. I think when you play against better (players), like the best in Finland, it develops you to be better and better. I finished strong there.”
In each of the past two seasons, Mikkola’s team made it to the league finals, but then lost.
“I never am a big proponent of rushing someone over to North America until they’re ready,” Doug Armstrong said. “You try and work with them. European players I think develop better in Europe. With their training, they’re accustomed to things. Now at 22, 23, you got a decision to make.”
Mikkola decided it was time for the wonders of North America. He laughed when asked if he’d ever been to San Antonio.
“No, but I heard it’s pretty nice,” he said. “Of course my goal is to play in St. Louis.”