Oliwer Kaski turned in the third-best single-season performance by a defenseman in the history of Finland’s top league a year ago, racking up 51 points in 59 games and earning a league MVP award. The 24-year-old then inked a deal with Detroit and made the jump to North America to kick off his pro career here.
That new journey was 19 games old when Detroit pulled the trigger on a trade.
The Finnish blue liner had five points (2g, 3a) with Grand Rapids up to that point, but had just a single assist in his last 12 games wearing a Griffins sweater and found himself in and out of the lineup.
Carolina acquired Kaski in exchange for Kyle Wood, an offseason acquisition who ended up being a frequent healthy scratch for Charlotte. It was a common type of trade at this level, giving players a needed change of scenery. What was uncommon, though, was the caliber of untapped potential the Checkers got in return.
The difference in environment was immediately evident for the newest Checker.
“I’ve loved it here,” said Kaski. “It’s a little different system. I think we have a little younger group here too. We’ve been winning lately so the chemistry is good and guys are really happy. There’s some small differences.”
The Checkers, who were one point out of last place in the division at the time of the trade, wasted no time getting their newest weapon into the lineup. It paid dividends as Kaski put up three points in his first two contests.
“He brings another dynamic offensively,” said head coach Ryan Warsofsky. “He can drive offense from the blue line down and joins the rush. He’s also got a deadly shot on the power play.”
For Warsofsky, the key to unlocking Kaski’s full potential was simple.
“Everyone talks about players’ weaknesses. We want to talk about their strengths,” said Warsofsky. “I want to see what they can do for us, not what they can’t. Play towards your strengths.”
Kaski’s high-flying style of play fit right in with Charlotte’s skilled blue line, and getting the green light to embrace that seems to have boosted the young defenseman.
“From day one they told me they want me to join the rush and move the puck a lot,” said Kaski. “Joining the rush is a big part of my game. Moving the puck and shooting a lot, I think the system here gives me all the chances to do that and I like that a lot. That’s what they want from me.”
Kaski has already at least doubled all of his production with the Griffins in fewer games with the Checkers, and has been a reliable piece on the blue line during Charlotte’s best stretch of the season.
For a player relatively new to the North American game – he spent one season at Western Michigan University in 2015-16 before returning to his home country – this success with the Checkers has helped bolster Kaski in ways that may not have clicked in Grand Rapids.
“Kas has come in and he has some confidence now,” said Warsofsky. “He’s scoring, as you can see, but even more so he’s getting up into the play and playing with confidence.”
If it was a change of scenery that Kaski needed to fully find his game, it’s looking like Charlotte has provided that for the young Finn.
“I got a new opportunity so I’m trying to use this the best I can,” said Kaski. “I’ve loved it here. I’ve gotten more ice time and more confidence. That’s been better for me.”