In the 1st edition of "Will he make the team?", we examine Henri Jokiharju.
By definition of "will he make the team", I'm looking at players, like Henri, and if they will A) be on the Chicago Blackhawks opening night roster and/or B) be called up in the 1st half of the season and make an impact as an everyday player (whether it be in a top or depth role).
I am not considering players who may end up coming up in the later part of the year or guys who will have short stints because if the Hawks are out of it around February, then almost anyone on the IceHogs could play and I just don't have time to write 25 blogs.
So, do you think Henri Jokiharju will make an impactful appearance for the 2018-19 Chicago Blackhawks?
Spoiler alert: my answer is yes.
Before a breakdown why I believe he will, a quick lead up to how the 19-year old Finn put himself in the position to have a blog written about him.
Well, the fact that he has hockey in his blood definitely put him on the right path. Jokiharju's father, Juha played professionally from 1988-95 in Finland's top league.
Jokiharju worked his way through the junior leagues in Finland as well until he made the decision to come over and play in the WHL in Portland. I personally believe was an outstanding decision to tighten the curve to his development to make the NHL by playing on North American ice, and maybe even more importantly, playing in a North American style environment.
In his 1st year with the Winterhawks, he registered 48 points in 71 games. He was stuck on the bottom pairing for a good portion of the year, but it was still a great way to get climatized with the culture and CHL grind.
His play and potential definitely stood out to the Blackhawks, who drafted him 29th overall in 2017.
That must have really injected a little more swagger into his game as it was last year though where Henri had his true coming out party making Mark Kelley and scouts look smart for taking this guy.
Jokiharju was one of the best defencemen in the WHL last year with his 71 points in 63 games, as well as sporting a +47 plus/minus rating.
He also had a strong performance in the World Junior Hockey Championship performance as he started to steal the spotlight a little away from returning talked-about defenders in Olli Juolevi, Juuso Välimäki, and Miro Heiskanen.
He registered 2 goals and 2 assist in 5 games in, what was a disappointing showing for the Finns as they lost to the Czech team in the quarterfinals. Still, a solid individual tournament for Henri.
Let's pause to watch some YouTube (courtesy of the WHL):
Now, let's fast forward to now. Henri signed an entry-level deal on June 12th this year with the Chicago Blackhawks. Check. Now, the hard part begins.
Since then, he's doing everything to make Stan Bowman and Joel Quenneville think that the 19-year kid will have a shot at making the team this year.
Getting a line like "it's possible" from Coach Q is actually strong praise (if you know Quenneville-speak) for the youngster.
Stan Bowman was also impressed by his fitness, strength and play in July's prospect camp, "He looks like an NHL-type body right now. Physically is probably the one thing that's a challenge [because] you're going up against the biggest and strongest kids."
He also added, "Last year offensively he had a great season, but he really learned how to be a two-way defenseman." Bowman said.
What's next? The Traverse City Rookie Tournament in September. This is where Jokiharju has another chance to prove that he is ready for showtime.
If he does not stand out as one of the best defencemen for the Hawks in this round-robin tournament, it's not the end of the world but it may hurt his chances.
My prediction is that he will stand out enough by moving the puck out of his zone quickly, skating out of jams and creating offence by QBing a PP. The latter might be enough to help him land a spot on the Hawks as right now they don't have anyone outside of Erik Gustafsson on defence who has the ability to skate the puck up from his end to get a PP going.
Then, it's NHL training camp for Jokiharju to hold his own against the best in the world.
What are the other factors that I took into consideration when determining that Henri Jokiharju will make the Blackhawks this year?
* Development – first-and-foremost, the Hawks will be looking at what's best for Henri's development as a player and person.
Playing defence in the NHL is so damn hard (or so I've heard) and rushing a player can seriously damage their future progression.
With Jokiharju going back to Portland is not an option. He's reached where he needs to at that level. There's talk that he cannot go to Rockford, but there doesn't appear to be too much concern that that wouldn't be an option for Stan to send him down.
Personally, unless he completely lights it up and makes it impossible for the Hawks to send him down, I think he starts the year in Rockford. From there, he can learn how to be a pro and work with Jeremey Colliton and Sheldon Brookbank.
Once he gets his feet under him and is playing too well to keep in Rockford, you move him up.
I know we all wanted a Justin Faulk or someone to play opposite of Keith on the right-side, but maybe Jokiharju's progress was a big reason Stan didn't go out and trade/sign someone. He's already a little blocked with Seabrook, Murphy and Rutta who are also RHD, but nothing the Hawks can't figure out if they want all 4 of them playing on the starting roster at some point during the year.
* Strength and Maturity – Henri is a very composed kid on and off the ice. I think the maturity is there and he will learn the tips and tricks as a pro (either in the AHL or NHL next year) but is he strong enough to battle in the corners with the NHL forwards?
His size doesn't necessarily concern me. You saw what Alex Debrincat did last year. I think we should all stop just looking at what his profile card reads and watch how a player handles themselves on the ice.
What Jokiharju has going for him is that he does have great hockey sense and is cool under pressure.
* Skill and Impact – lastly, does Henri Jokiharju have the skill to be an impactful player. The style that he plays is something the Hawks need, and his skill is obvious.
It's all about how that skill translates to the top league in the world because the Hawks envision him as an eventual top 4 defenceman so it would be unfair to the kid to come up and not be able to play his game if he's not ready.
I'm not saying he needs to be in a top 4 role, he would benefit from lesser minutes on a bottom pairing. What I am saying is, if he is wearing the Blackhawks sweater this year, it won't help anyone if he's not playing that offensive and smart game that got him to where he is today vs. getting thrown out there in a role or with a partner that won't allow him to build that confidence as the player he knows he can be.
Am I overvaluing Henri Jokiharju? I don't feel like I am. NHL.com chose to look into Jokiharju's chances at making the Hawks as well and I suspect more buzz from the masses will pick up on his chances on making the Hawks as fantasy hockey/training camps are upon us.
Many will point to the fact that there aren't a lot of 19-year old defencemen that have had success in the NHL so it's a tall order for the kid.
However, looking last year, there were: Mikhail Sergachev (79 games / 40 points / 15:22 TOI), Charlie McAvoy (63 games / 32 points / 22:09 TOI), Thomas Chabot (63 games / 25 points / 17:31) and Samuel Girard (73 games / 23 points / 17:39 TOI) all who were 20 years old or younger that made some serious impact.
Also, you think Henri is "small" at 6'1 / 180(ish) lbs, well Sam Girard is 5'10 and only 162 lbs(!) and he was very solid last year in Colorado.
Sebastian Aho has been the only defencemen from Jokiharju's 2017 draft to play to date. He had a 22-game stint with the Islanders last year. However, along with Henri, there are others like fellow Finn, Miro Heiskanen, Timothy Liljegren and Cal Foote who all could see NHL time this year.
Is Henri on your roster to start the year? Do you think he will make an appearance later in the season? Or is he AHL (or possibly WHL) bound to develop?