Only five games into his first season in Buffalo, Henri Jokiharju received an edict from his general manager that any young player on the Sabres’ roster bubble wants to hear: move out of the Buffalo Marriott at LECOM Harborcenter and find a more permanent place to live.
“Yeah, of course it feels great,” Jokiharju, a 20-year-old defenseman, said. “Get out of the hotel and get your own place. It’s awesome.”
However, Jokiharju, one of the Sabres’ top offseason acquisitions, isn’t taking his situation for granted. He discovered last season how quickly circumstances can change in the National Hockey League. Jokiharju led the Chicago Blackhawks in 5-on-5 ice time for the first 15 games, only to have a diminished role once coach Joel Quenneville was fired in November.
Jokiharju finished the season in the American Hockey League and was traded to Buffalo for Alexander Nylander in July. Though coach Ralph Krueger has stated repeatedly that internal competition will continue through the season, the edict from Sabres management to Jokiharju illustrates how he’s quickly earned their trust.
Jokiharju seemed to be the logical candidate to be sent to Rochester once Brandon Montour returns from a hand injury. Not anymore.
“Henri’s been a positive point, for sure,” Krueger said. “Our D corps in general is playing quite aggressive on our gaps through the neutral zone. We’re denying entry into our zone quite regularly, which we’re happy of. Henri’s one of the driving forces there.
“Of course, maintaining possession and breaking out under pressure is the test of a strong defenseman in the National Hockey League and it’s a tough test. Teams come hard and fast, especially when they’re behind as we’ve had a few times lately. Henri’s been good at solving pressure which is something quite impressive at his age.”
Jokiharju has quickly become one of the Sabres’ most trusted defensemen. Entering Wednesday, Jokiharju ranked seventh on the team in 5-on-5 ice time, ahead of Rasmus Dahlin, and his 7:40 on the penalty kill was fourth among the team’s defensemen.
Additionally, Jokiharju and Marco Scandella formed instant chemistry to become a reliable pairing. The Sabres have controlled possession with both on the ice – they rank eighth in 5-on-5 shot-attempt differential among all NHL pairings to play at least 60 minutes this season, entering play Tuesday – and their efficient play in the defensive zone has illustrated the impact of Krueger’s new system.
The Sabres are no longer relying on man-to-man coverage around their own net. Instead, they’re playing more zone concepts, which allows defensemen to rely on each other and provides more freedom to pressure the puck in certain situations. The system, Jokiharju said, has made a remarkable difference with his play defensively.
Despite his limitless potential offensively, Jokiharju was viewed as a potential liability by Chicago coach Jeremy Colliton, who replaced Quenneville. Colliton, like former Sabres coach Phil Housley, used man-to-man in the defensive zone. That system is often difficult for young defensemen since there is little margin for error.
“I think the defensive zone, it’s big,” Jokiharju said when asked what he enjoys about Krueger’s systems. “Last year, I had some struggles with man-to-man coverage, but I think this year I’m of course a little bit bigger. I think the defensive-zone structure is really good. I really like it.”
“He’s making great plays, he’s making simple plays, but he’s not afraid to hold onto the puck and look for that good pass,” Scandella said of Jokiharju. “I feel like he’s been really sharp out there.”
Jokiharju, a first-round draft pick in 2017, played alongside Duncan Keith on the Blackhawks’ top pairing at the start of last season and averaged 21:34 of ice time over the team’s first 15 games. Jokiharju had eight assists with a plus-1 rating during that span. He showed the potential of being the sort of dynamic defenseman Chicago lacked since it won three Stanley Cups under Quenneville.
However, Jokiharju was loaned to Finland for the IIHF World Junior Championship last December and averaged only 14:30 of ice time in his final five games with the Blackhawks before he was sent to Rockford. Jokiharju said his confidence never wavered, though. He understood a different coach is going to view games differently and is potentially looking for different qualities from defensemen.
Quenneville, now coach of the Florida Panthers, reflected fondly on his time working with Jokiharju prior to a game against the Sabres on Friday. Hours later, Jokiharju made a brilliant breakout pass to spring Casey Mittelstadt for a breakaway and played 17:40 against the Panthers.
“It seemed like his reads were good and his gap was outstanding,” Quenneville said of Jokiharju’s play in Chicago. “He had good patience with the puck as well. I thought with how he was defending for a young kid, his reads, his positioning on the rush killing plays, his quick puck movement, supporting the attack and good patience at the offensive blue line, he had a tremendous start to the year.
“You’d expect off a start like that, there’s a lot of potential there to be at least a regular, up to a pretty important defenseman.”
Jokiharju has become that in Buffalo. He’s helped address one of the Sabres’ debilitating weaknesses from last season: defensive-zone exits. Jokiharju has looked poised under pressure when attempting to break the puck out of the Sabres’ end, and his brilliance has helped spark an offense that entered Wednesday with a league-best plus-12 goal differential.
Jokiharju doesn’t hesitate to join the rush and is keenly aware of when he should take advantage of such an opportunity. During the third period Monday against Dallas, Jokiharju retrieved a loose puck near his own blue line, darted toward center ice and quickly made the proper read to dish a backhanded pass to Vladimir Sobotka.
Jokiharju then skated down the ice to create a 3-on-1, which ended with Sobotka passing to Jeff Skinner, who scored to push the Sabres’ lead to three goals. Jokiharju credited Scandella with providing him with the confidence to make such a play. However, Jokiharju also has earned Krueger’s trust by showing maturity in the defensive zone.
“Probably more of an all-around player,” Jokiharju said. “I can play the PK now. I think that’s one of the biggest things.”
Jokiharju’s early emergence could create a predicament for the Sabres, who will have eight healthy defensemen once Montour returns. They could attempt to send John Gilmour to Rochester, though the 26-year-old will need to clear waivers. Additionally, Zach Bogosian is expected to return at some point, though he is listed as “out indefinitely” while recovering from hip surgery. General Manager Jason Botterill could make a trade or risk losing Gilmour. There also is the chance an injury could occur.
Regardless of the looming roster decisions, Jokiharju appears to be part of the Sabres’ long-term plans.
“I haven’t ever seen him as a 20-year-old,” Krueger said. “I just see him as a player that needs to be playing a certain way within our framework, and that he’s done a really good job of doing that. … His puck-moving ability has been confirmed, but also the way he attacks and plays on his toes and looks for his gaps early.”