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Joona Kunnas

Joona Kunnas of the L.A. Jr. Kings was picked 77th overall by the Tri-City Storm in the USHL draft.

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Joona Kunnas of the L.A. Jr. Kings was picked 77th overall by the Tri-City Storm in the USHL draft.

The Tri-City Storm grabbed a pair of Finns in this week’s United States League entry draft and the sixth-rounder is just as intriguing as the kid who went second overall.

That’s because the 77th selection on the day was defenseman Joona Kunnas, a 6-foot-2, 195-pound project whose hockey path is a little more winding than usual.

The big blueliner, whose father works in international sports marketing, moved to California in August and though he spent more than six years in the Jokerit system back home, only intended on playing high school hockey this season. But suiting up for the Santa Margarita Eagles set off a fortuitous chain of events and now it’s possible the diamond in the rough will be drafted in the NHL this summer as well.

Santa Margarita’s coach is former NHLer Craig Johnson, who saw Kunnas’ potential and alerted Jack Bowkus, bench boss of the Tier 1 Elite League’s L.A. Jr. Kings. Bowkus was in Texas at the time, helping the Dallas Stars with some development work, so he had a colleague watch Kunnas at a Jr. Kings practice. That colleague also happened to be Los Angeles star Anze Kopitar’s father, who knows a thing or two about big Europeans and thought Kunnas was worth a look. When the coach returned, he agreed with the assessment.

“I said ‘wow, he’s a big monster of a kid,’ ” Bowkus said. “He looked like a forward playing defense. He had a real offensive knack; his skating was more that of an offensive player.”

Though Kunnas is listed as weighing 195 pounds, Bowkus says he’s now closer to 6-foot-3 and north of 200 pounds and the kid is learning how to impose himself on opponents.

“The North American game was a challenge for him,” Bowkus said. “It took him a while to adjust to the speed of the game. By the end of the year I saw him using his strength more in front of the net. He’s more physical now and more patient with the puck.”

Whenever Kunnas needed advice on his craft, he didn’t need to look far. He lives down the street from Anaheim legend Teemu Selanne and spent Christmas dinner with another Finnish Duck, blueliner Toni Lydman.

“He had a pretty great season,” Kunnas said. “And it’s great to hear their stories.”

Adjustments aside, the youngster is happy to be plying his craft on North American ice now.

“I really like hockey here,” Kunnas said. “It’s different, but I like it better. It’s faster and more physical. It’s not always about the pretty plays.”

Heading to Tri-City next season will be the next step in Kunnas’ intriguing story and he’ll have a friend right away thanks to the Storm’s savvy drafting of left winger Thomas Nykopp with the second selection overall. The two have been friends for years and both played for Jokerit back in the day. They came to North America with the intention of playing together and though it didn’t happen right away, they’ll meet in Nebraska for the 2011-12 campaign.

“With Thomas, he’s got size, skating ability and he can score,” said Tri-City coach and GM Drew Schoneck. “He certainly fit the bill in what we needed.”

Nykopp played in Columbus this year for a different Tier 1 Elite League team, the Ohio Jr. Blue Jackets, where he put up an impressive 49 goals and 97 points in 61 games. The 6-foot-3, 200-pounder led the team in both categories.

“It was kind of a natural fit,” Schoneck said. “Whenever you can bring friends onto a team together, it’s a good situation.”

And though Nebraska will be a big change from sunny California, Kunnas is ready for the next step in his career, which he hopes will lead to the NHL one day.

“It gets me one step closer to my dream,” he said.

Central Scouting’s mid-term rankings listed Kunnas as the 174th North American skater available and though he dropped off the final list, it’s hard not to think of NHL defensemen such as Mark Streit, Tobias Enstrom or Andrei Markov - all late-round gems who beat the odds.

“We watched him a couple times this year and the biggest thing is he improved from the beginning of the year to the end,” Schoneck said. “And I don’t think he’s done improving yet.”

THN.com's Prospect Watch focuses on up-and-comers from the AHL, Europe, major junior, the NCAA and even minor hockey destined to become big names in the NHL.

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