|Justin Jokinen is the latest hockey prodigy to come from the halls of Cloquet High School, whose alumni include Jamie Lagenbrunner.
In 1993, forward Jamie Lagenbrunner, now captain of the New Jersey Devils, and defenseman Rick Mrozik were each tabbed by the Dallas Stars during the NHL's Entry Draft in Quebec City. Langenbrunner, in the midst of his 11th NHL season and sixth with New Jersey, was a second-round pick and Mrozik, who retired in 2005 after eight seasons in the minor leagues, was a sixth-round choice.
In 2006, defenseman Clay Wilson, a 2001 graduate of Cloquet, signed with the Anaheim Ducks. He's now with the Syracuse Crunch, the American Hockey League affiliate for the Columbus Blue Jackets.
Esse, now in his 18th season and ninth as head coach, has high hopes that his most-recent prodigy, senior forward Justin Jokinen, becomes the latest documented success story this June at the NHL Entry Draft in Ottawa.
Jokinen almost single-handedly led Cloquet (15-13-2) to the state Class AA tournament for only the second time in 15 years. After registering 22 goals and 50 points as a junior, Jokinen racked up 43 points and 21 goals this season despite being blanketed by the opposition each game.
Able to play as either a grind-it-out wing or goal-scoring center, Jokinen was ranked No. 60 by NHL Central Scouting at the mid-term rankings. He is expected to be ranked there or better when the final rankings are released Thursday. Jokinen is the third-highest rated high school player from Minnesota in this year's draft rankings.
"I'm a stickler for playing positional hockey, and Justin played his position as well as anyone I have ever coached,'' Esse told NHL.com. "That enabled him to find any open area on the ice. He was an all-around player that could use the body when necessary and create space down the middle.
“Right now, Justin still has a lot more potential and he's been playing at such a higher level that I'm confident he'll succeed wherever he lands. He can skate, pivot and perform the fundamentals without thinking.''
At 6-foot-3, 180 pounds, Jokinen still remains undecided on his future, although he has expressed an interest in playing in the Western Collegiate Hockey Association.
In the meantime, he continues to mature and build his portfolio. He exhibits a hard, accurate shot and has the ability to be strong on the puck.
Jokinen, an honorable mention on the the 2008 Associated Press All-State Minnesota boys hockey team, averaged 25 minutes of ice time a game and took great pride in leading by example.
"He's really a low-key player; not a big rah-rah type of guy,'' Esse said. "There weren't many skilled players around him this season and, to be honest, he would have probably had about 70 points if there were. There were some games this season where there were five or six NHL scouts at the game, but it never really fazed him. When he increases his lower-body strength, look out.''
Jokinen considers it an honor to be regarded so highly entering the 2008 NHL Entry Draft.
Jokinen grew up watching Wayne Gretzky and Mario Lemieux, but admits to enjoying the newest All-Star taking the League by storm – Washington's Alex Ovechkin.
"He's just an all-around great player who can bury the puck when he needs to,'' Jokinen said. "You can't help but respect a player like that. If I wanted to imitate one player in the League, it would probably be Ovechkin. You can tell he works hard at his game and he's always having fun.''
Not surprisingly, enthusiasm is certainly a trait Esse has observed in Jokinen throughout his high school career.
"Justin is such a pure athlete,'' Esse said. "He can dunk a basketball and excel at shortstop if he set his mind to it. He was determined to concentrate on hockey following his junior season and it was obvious that he had his sights on someday playing professionally. He plays the game with a lot of passion and determination and that will only benefit him down the road.''
Jokinen, nominated for the Mr. Hockey Award as the outstanding senior high school player in Minnesota, would have much rather seen his team win a state championship then earn the title, `Mr. Hockey.'
Cloquet dropped a 5-0 decision to Edina High School in the opening round of Minnesota's Class AA tournament before losing, 5-4, to Woodbury High in the consolation round. Jokinen had a goal and one assist while taking 12 of Cloquet's 35 total shots against Woodbury.
"I wish I could have done more to help,'' Jokinen said. "It was sad when our season ended with two losses, but we did have a good year overall and to have an opportunity to play at the Xcel Energy Center (in Minnesota) was a great experience for all of us.''
Contact Mike Morreale at email@example.com.