Chicago Blackhawks defenseman prospect Henri Jokiharju could have stayed in Finland to continue his development as a hockey player, like a lot of his friends did.
Instead, Jokiharju, 18, the No. 29 pick of the 2017 NHL Draft, is preparing for his second season with Portland of the Western Hockey League, which he hopes will speed his path to the NHL.
Jokiharju, who participated in his first development camp with the Blackhawks in July, said his decision to play in North America wasn’t as difficult as it might seem.
“I have always had a strong idea that I wanted to come over and play hockey, and be close to the NHL,” Jokiharju said. “After the first week [in Portland], I had a rough week [being homesick], but after that I was fine. I knew that someday you have to take that step and get away from home, so that was good to make it at that time.”
After adjusting to life in North America on and off the ice, Jokiharju began to show his skills as an offensive-minded defenseman with Portland last season. He had 48 points (nine goals, 39 assists) in 71 regular-season games and three assists in 11 WHL playoff games.
His play attracted the attention of the Blackhawks, who went into the 2017 draft looking to stockpile defensemen. Chicago selected defensemen with five of its nine picks and Jokiharju was the headliner. The Blackhawks also took Ian Mitchell of Spruce Grove (Alberta Junior Hockey League) in the second round (No. 57), Roope Laavainen of Jokerit Jr. (Finland) in the fourth round (No. 119), Jakub Galvas of Olomouc (Czech Republic) in the fifth round (No. 150) and Joshua Ess of Lakeville South High School (Minnesota) in the seventh round (No. 215).
Jokiharju and Mitchell each are right-handed shots, a valued commodity to the Blackhawks, but Jokiharju’s slick skating stood out most. The next step is adding more strength and defensive responsibility.
“He’s a very good skater,” said Blackhawks director of amateur scouting Mark Kelley. “He has great ice awareness. He’s very good with the puck and making plays with the puck, but if you look at all the good defensemen, it takes a little longer [to develop] only because there’s two elements to it. He’s going to be offensive, but at the same time, he’s going to have to be defensive, as well.”
Kelley isn’t big on comparing prospects to NHL players, but there’s an obvious one to be made with Jokiharju. His mobility, fluid strides and ability to absorb a lot of ice time are all traits that also belong to Blackhawks defenseman Duncan Keith, a two-time winner of the Norris Trophy and 2015 Conn Smythe Trophy recipient during Chicago’s run to the Stanley Cup.
“We would call him an easy skater,” Kelley said of Jokiharju. “Easy skaters, especially on defense, go longer. They can play more minutes. [Keith] would probably be at the top of the bar.”
Jokiharju is still a long way from the top; he is expected to miss the rest of the World Junior Summer Showcase in Plymouth, Michigan, this week, after sustaining a lower-body injury playing for Finland. His goal clearly is to get to the NHL someday, preferably sooner than later.
That’s why he decided to leave home as a teenager.
“I learned [to play] a quicker game and we had a good team in Portland,” said Jokiharju, whose older brother, Juho, is a forward at Clarkson University. “I feel like the WHL and all [Canadian Hockey League] leagues are more close to the NHL than the Finnish hockey league [Liiga], so that’s why [I came over]. I learned a lot about the North American game and the quick [transition] game. The Chicago Blackhawks [play] the same kind of game, so it’s good.”