While there was a lot of enthusiasm surrounding right winger Joakim Kemell coming into the season, no one could have forecast the 17-year-old’s initial explosion with JYP in Finland’s top pro league, the Liiga.
Kemell stormed out of the gates with 12 goals and 18 points in his first 16 games, putting him on a better pace than Finnish stars such as Patrik Laine and Aleksander Barkov in their draft years. “It was amazing,” Kemell said. “I was feeling great and got a lot of confidence. It was so crazy.”
Kemell made his Liiga debut in 2020-21, getting into one game, so there were some internal expectations. JYP sports manager Mikko Viitanen has known Kemell for six years already and followed the youngster’s progress in the organization, so he knew the skills. But the kid’s start was something else. “The expectation was that a breakthrough season would be 10 goals or more, and he did that right at the start,” Viitanen said. “That’s how he is, Joakim has good character and likes to compete. It doesn’t matter how big the defenseman he faces in a 1-on-1 battle is, he always tries to win the situation. The Joakim we saw at the start of the season is the kid we thought he would be.”
Unfortunately for Kemell and his club, he sustained a shoulder injury right after a very successful October, eventually returning in early December. He played five scoreless games for JYP, then headed to Alberta to take part in the ill-fated World Junior Championship for Finland. Kemell admits he wasn’t 100-percent healthy at the world juniors, and his struggle to get back on the scoresheet in his return to Liiga action has been noticeable. But he wasn’t letting it get him down and actually treated the adversity as a positive. “It’s really good for the mental side of the game,” Kemell said. “It’s helping me grow a lot as a person and a player. I’m just trying to be the best me. Work hard, help my teammates have a good day and try to do better every day.”
And his team had his back when it came to his recovery and scoring drought. “It’s hard to remember sometimes that he’s 17 years old,” Viitanen said. “He’s still a kid playing in the men’s pro league. Everyone around him knows him and recognizes his talent. The big message right now is to relax, because good things will happen. It’s not easy to get injured when you’re in such a good flow, but that’s one thing he can learn, there’s always going to be ups and downs.”
It’s also worth noting that because of summer international junior duty, Kemell only practised with the JYP men’s team five or six times before the Liiga season began, making his hot start all the more impressive. “He’s one of those guys where you talk about how good a scorer he is, but he’s been playing PK for us, and there were some games before the injury where he was playing 20 minutes or more,” Viitanen said. “You can put him in every situation, and we’re talking about a 17-year-old kid. That was a big surprise for me, that he adapted so fast. He wants to learn, and he wants to get better.”
Born and raised in Jyvaskyla, Kemell has been a lifelong JYP fan and grew up watching the team win a pair of titles in 2009 and 2012. “It feels very good,” Kemell said. “When I was a kid, that was my biggest dream, to play in this league and play for this team, so it’s awesome.”
Kemell, a big fan of Washington’s Alex Ovechkin, has some pretty good sniping abilities himself and gave the world
a sneak preview at last summer’s Hlinka Gretzky under-18 tournament by notching five goals in five games. Expectations will be raised when the WJC returns in August, and, by then, Kemell will have developed even more. Right now, the main goal is to improve his strength and power. While Kemell is no weakling, that extra muscle will help him stay healthy and also assist in the first few strides in his skating.
And while his major-junior rights are owned by Connor Bedard’s Regina Pats, Kemell is under contract with JYP for next season, and it would be hard to fault him for staying home and growing his game against men in a top European league. The Liiga saw quite the run from Kemell to start his professional career, so it will be fun to see what he can do next season with another year of development under his belt.