Jokiharju welcomes the competition and the challenge as camp nears

Jokiharju welcomes the competition and the challenge as camp nears

By: Mark Lazerus – Chicago Sun-Times

There was no easing into the NHL for Boston Bruins defenseman Charlie McAvoy. His first game was Game 1 of the 2017 playoffs. He started, too, just weeks after wrapping up his sophomore season at Boston University. And on his first shift, in the very first minute of his NHL career, he botched a dump-in attempt, firing the puck into teammate Riley Nash’s back.

McAvoy was mortified.

“Your first game, it’s kind of like the great unknown,” McAvoy said. “When you come up, you’re not sure if you can play in the NHL. And I remember making a mistake on my first shift, and thinking, ‘Man, I’m way out of my league. I don’t know if I can do this.’”

He turned out fine, of course. McAvoy, just 19 at the time, acquitted himself well with three assists in six playoff games. He then was a star rookie last season, pairing up with future Hall of Famer Zdeno Chara to help rejuvenate the aging Bruins. He finished with seven goals and 25 assists in 63 games.

Henri Jokiharju has played in one NHL preseason game, last year in Columbus. (AP Photo)

It’s exactly what Henri Jokiharju hopes to do with the Blackhawks. He’s 19, same as McAvoy was. He’s a first-round pick, same as McAvoy. He’s a right-handed shot, same as McAvoy. And the Hawks happen to have a future Hall of Famer in dire need of a capable partner on the top pairing — Duncan Keith.

Jokiharju has been hearing and reading the comparison for months. He’ll finally get to see if he can pull it off when training camp opens next Friday. McAvoy cautioned that it can be intimidating at first, saying it took a few games and a few helpful tips from Chara for him to feel like he really belonged in the NHL.

But Jokiharju doesn’t sound like a guy who’s going to be intimidated.

“It’s not a big deal for me,” he said following the Hawks’ 4-3 loss to the Columbus Blue Jackets in Friday’s prospect-tournament opener in Traverse City. “If I start thinking about that kind of stuff, it’ll just frustrate me. I don’t want that feeling. Just focus on my own things and what I can do best, and just enjoy the hockey. That’s it.”

The tournament is Jokiharju’s first significant time on the ice in weeks. He’s been working out off the ice three times a week, but has mostly been unwinding and allowing himself to mentally reset before camp opens. A recent long weekend at his sister’s place in Denmark (a short flight from his home in Finland) to celebrate his dad’s 50th birthday helped.

“A lot of guys this time of year, they rush to be on the ice,” he said. “But in Europe, we do it pretty well, and we don’t rush to be on the ice too much. But I’m still in the gym, because I want to get bigger and stronger all the time, and be ready for the NHL and ready for my chance.”

Jokiharju’s still a long shot to make the Hawks opening-night roster, because there’s a glut of veterans in his way. The Hawks re-signed Jan Rutta and Erik Gustafsson last season, then signed free agent Brandon Manning to a two-year contract in July. Brandon Davidson, who has played with the Oilers, Canadiens and Islanders over the past four seasons, will be in camp on a tryout, and could very well claim another roster spot.

It doesn’t faze Jokiharju. Nothing seems to. He’s counting on the competition being merit-based, and if that’s the case, he likes his chances.

“I haven’t paid any attention at all to that,” he said. “I don’t take any pressure from that kind of stuff. It’s the NHL. It’s hard to make the NHL on any team, because there are always going to be five or six guys who want to take your place. So you have to be as good as you can and block the noise. Then just see what happens.”