Blackhawks rookie defenseman Henri Jokiharju shuts down star, opens eyes

Blackhawks rookie defenseman Henri Jokiharju shuts down star, opens eyes

By: Tom Musick – Sun-Times.com

Coach Joel Quenneville almost never is quick to praise a young player, particularly a young defenseman.

At best, a player who lacks experience might get the following endorsement: “I didn’t mind him.” Other common critiques by Quenneville include, “He was just OK,” which means something less than OK, and, “He was ordinary,” which is about as bad as it gets.

So it was striking when Quenneville spoke glowingly about 19-year-old defenseman Henri Jokiharju this week.

“I liked him a lot,” Quenneville said after the Blackhawks’ 2-1 overtime loss Sunday to the Oilers. “He had a great start [to the season], and I liked him over the last three or four games. He’s done well.

“He’s out there against top guys. He’s got a tremendous gap; he’s got quickness; he recovers well. He’s going to get better with his stick. He makes a lot of direct plays. He’ll get better in that area, recognize options offensively. But getting exposed to [those] type of assignments at this stage of his career is pretty flattering, but he’s handled it extremely well.”

In other words, Quenneville really doesn’t mind him.

Has he spoken like this about any other young blue-liner? This type of praise typically is reserved for proven veterans, not a baby-faced Finn.

But Jokiharju has earned the off-ice compliments because of his on-ice accomplishments.

Quenneville leaned heavily on Jokiharju and defense partner Duncan Keith to handle the Oilers’ potent top line, which featured superstar Connor McDavid at center along with Ryan Nugent-Hopkins and Kailer Yamamoto on the wings.

It’s a risk for any defender to take on McDavid, who the Penguins’ Sidney Crosby recently said was an “easy pick” for the NHL’s best player. But the risk was even greater for Jokiharju, who entered the showdown with all of 11 games of NHL experience.

As he has done all season, Jokiharju proved to be up to the task. He and Keith subdued the Oilers’ potent top line throughout regulation, although McDavid eventually broke through in the three-on-three overtime while Jokiharju watched from the bench.

“He’s been great,” defenseman Brent Seabrook said. “I thought he was exceptional, the way he played. The way he’s able to skate and move, as a young defenseman, he makes a lot of smart plays. He’s good with the puck, confident with the puck, and he can shoot it.”

Expect more top assignments on the way for Jokiharju and Keith.

It looks as if the pairing will stick for quite some time — something Keith, 35, is eager to embrace.

“I was actually thinking about that before the game Sunday, thinking I’ve bounced around with a few different partners,” Keith said. “It’s a good feeling to know that he’s as young as he is and as good as he is. It definitely bodes well for the team and myself as a partner with him.”

Keith has provided guidance for Jokiharju throughout the season. But the rookie has helped the older guy, too.

“He allows me to play my game, for one thing,” Keith said. “For 19 years old, he’s pretty poised. He’s a great skater, he’s good with the puck, makes smart plays, good defensively. Defense isn’t an easy position to break into, and he’s doing it like a veteran.”