Blackhawks aim to find out if Henri Jokiharju is ready for the NHL

Blackhawks aim to find out if Henri Jokiharju is ready for the NHL

By: Jimmy Greenfield – Chicago Tribune

No matter where this hockey journey takes Henri Jokiharju, Finland always will be the starting point.

It’s where he was born and learned to love the sport, where he has been living this summer and where he spent his final days before flying to Chicago to partake in the Blackhawks development camp, which runs from Monday to Friday at MB Ice Arena.

Jokiharju will stay in Chicago for the Blackhawks Convention and be here in September for training camp, where he got a nominal look last year but had no real chance of making the team.

This year will be different.

“Talking about going to the NHL is a huge thing, but I’ve been working really hard all summer and I have the confidence right now,” Jokiharju said in a phone interview. “I’ll do everything that it takes to make the team.”

Jokiharju’s North American journey began two years ago in Oregon, where he joined the Western Hockey League’s Portland Winterhawks without much fanfare. He was on the radar of NHL scouts, but a first-round pick? That wasn’t in the cards — until he began to make many people, including his coaches, take notice.

“One thing I can say about Henri is he always has found a way,” Winterhawks associate head coach Kyle Gustafson said. “When we took him in Portland, he was playing as the fifth (or) sixth defenseman; the next year he was on the World Junior team. No one was really talking about him as a first-round draft pick, (but the) next thing you know Chicago steps up and takes him.”

Jokiharju began his first season in Portland playing on the Winterhawks’ third pairing. By the time the season ended, he was their second-best defenseman behind Oilers prospect Caleb Jones, the younger brother of Blue Jackets All-Star Seth Jones.

Last season Jokiharju was the Winterhawks’ unequivocal No. 1 defenseman, playing important minutes in every situation. He ran the power play and blocked shots on the penalty kill while playing about 30 minutes per game.

After scoring 48 points (nine goals, 39 assists) in his first season, Jokiharju had 12 goals and 59 assists last season in 63 games. The offensive numbers weren’t much of a surprise. His ability to get the puck out of his zone, see the ice and find teammates is what drew the Hawks to him in the first place.

What’s likely to get Jokiharju to the NHL sooner than later is improvement on defense.

“For a smaller defenseman (6-foot-1, 180 pounds), the way he uses his stick, the way he’s able to pivot and squeeze guys off, that’s really underrated in his game,” Gustafson said. “And those are all defensive aspects of his game that go a little bit unnoticed.”

Jokiharju has been busy since his WHL season ended. He was added to the roster of the Finnish national team and played in six games before NHL players bumped him from a chance to play in the World Championships. Perhaps a bigger moment came last month when he signed his first pro contract, a three-year, entry-level deal with the Hawks.

Whether Jokiharju will top that by making his NHL debut this fall remains to be seen. The Hawks have a clear need on defense but aren’t going to throw him out there if he’s not ready.

And how will the Hawks know he’s ready? Mark Kelley, vice president of amateur scouting, says Jokiharju will make that decision for them by what he shows on the ice.

“The way he progressed this year, it gives him an opportunity to come into camp and show us where he’s at,” Kelley said. “No matter what we want to think or want to hope and project, Henri will decide that when he comes in.

“The game is faster, the players are stronger. When he shows us he can acclimate to that, that will be Henri’s time.”

Which is just fine with Jokiharju.

“I don’t have any expectations,” he said. “I just want to get better year after year.”