The 2017 NHL Draft was a hot topic leading up to the event for the Chicago Blackhawks. A perennial Stanley Cup contender at the time, the Blackhawks seemingly were always a buyer in the annual late February NHL trade deadline sweepstakes moving first and second round picks for the likes of Andrew Ladd in 2016; Antoine Vermette and Kimmo Timonen in 2015; David Rundblad in 2014 and Johnny Oduya – twice – in 2012 and again in 2017.
However, there was a suggested thought that with the 2017 NHL draft being held at the United Center, the Hawks would be best served keeping and making their first round pick – 29th overall – in front of their home fans. Little did we know then that the Blackhawks franchise may have struck gold that Friday night in late June.
Leading up the draft, Jokiharju was coming off a solid season for the Portland Winterhawks with 48 points in 71 games in the WHL racking up a +/- of 14. The Finnish-born right shot defenseman fit the mold of the next wave of blue-liners coming onto the NHL radar – mobile with less emphasis on size and strength, an ability to contribute offensively and also not be a total liability in their own zone.
Corey Pronman – now the with The Athletic, then wrote for ESPN.com that Jokiharju is “a smart two-way defenseman who can dictate tempo and move the puck efficiently” – exactly what the aging Hawks defensive core was seeking. Pronman then ranked him 21st overall in his pre-draft prospect rankings at the time adding “I don’t think his skill is top-end level, but he’s going to rack up a lot of points thanks to his vision, feet, and decision-making.”
Landing Jokiharju 29th overall was a god-send for Stan Bowman. And that started to manifest itself later in December 2017. Jokiharju received rave reviews for his play in the World Junior Championship – the best showcase in the world for hockey’s future and for the 2017-2018 season Jokiharju averaged over a point-per game for the Portland Winterhawks.
The buzz started increasing for the Finnish sensation after his phenomenal year of hockey on the world stage and in the WHL mixed with a brutal season for the Blackhawks. Missing the playoffs for the first time since 2008, the Hawks started to feel old, stale, and a bit obsolete in the the new age NHL especially on the back end. Necessary cap-management forced the loss of Niklas Hjalmarsson and a few seasons earlier Nick Leddy and having to trade defensemen – something teams in the NHL avoid at all costs – really started to take a toll.
Fast forward to September of 2018 when Jokiharju and another name to remember – 2018 First Round pick Adam Boqvist – started to inject a little excitement into a franchise teetering on the brink of hockey irrelevance and a second season of being in the NHL Draft Lottery.
Both receiving high praise from the front office and the sometimes – ok, frequently – hard to please Joel Quenneville is almost enough in itself to get excited about. But then you see how Jokiharju played in just his second game of the season – in hostile territory no less – against the St. Louis Blues.
Jokiharju made play after play in his own zone flashing an active stick, some offensive prowess, and showing he has no issue hanging with the likes of superstar Vladimir Tarasenko. He racked up two assists logging over 19 minutes on the ice. More telling though is the praise coming from coach Q: “The confidence with the puck on his stick is the part you really notice. He turns it into something.”
That was on the heels of his NHL debut on opening night when Quenneville told reporters after beating Ottawa he was impressed with “all aspects of his game – his gap, his presence in the puck area, his decision-making offensively and defensively, supporting the attack. Looked like he has played the game for a long, long time at this level” – HIS FIRST NIGHT ON AN NHL SHEET. Sunday night, against the loaded Toronto Maple Leafs, Jokiharju assisted on three more goals in an electrifying 7-6 OT loss to the Leafs.
Guess who leads the NHL in assists…
Henri Jokiharju (5)
— Jay Zawaski (@JayZawaski670) October 8, 2018
— Blackhawks Talk (@NBCSBlackhawks) October 8, 2018
Fresh off a 2-0-1 start the Hawks have a little sizzle again. The offense has been dynamite to open the season. The Captain is scoring goals. Patrick Kane is doing Patrick Kane things.
Unfortunately Cam Ward has been awful – but that problem could be solved when Corey Crawford returns in the coming weeks. Brandon Saad being a beast up front again some day would really get me all excited for a Cup run. Keith is looking okay so far – which is fine as he does not need to play 30 grueling minutes per night in October.
Seabrook looks lighter and may have one more year of solid production left in the tank. But the Hawks really could have something special in Jokiharju.
In very limited action he has shown flashes on both ends of the ice that he can be a stabilizing force for the 2018-19 Blackhawks D-core. And maybe a year or two from be the bridge from the Keith and Seabrook era to the Jokiharju and Boqvist era (we’re going to have to workshop something for those names – Keith and Seabs rolls right off the tongue).
If the Hawks are going to go to the playoffs this year as Nick Petrusevski laid out how here and maybe make another deep-ish run with the 88/19/2/7/50 crew, you better believe number 28 is going to have something to do with it too.
At only 19 years old, paired up with future Hall of Famer Duncan Keith and having the backing of Quenneville, the sky is truly the limit for the Jokiharju. Playing with the sort of leadership and experience in that locker room is the kind of thing that spawns greatness.
Now let’s all practice saying his last name – Yo-Ke-Har-You (I think). We’ll be saying it a lot.
Follow Matt on Twitter–Featured Photo Credit: NHL.com