GLENDALE, Ariz. – This time last year, Lauri Korpikoski was playing about 10 minutes a game for the Phoenix Coyotes – mostly on the fourth line and as a penalty killer – and goals from him were seen as an added bonus.
He finished with 5 goals – scoring in three of the 71 games he played – and at a minus-10 for the year, likely felt fortunate he had another season remaining on his NHL contract.
Now fast-forward a year and suddenly this fast forward has become indispensible to the team's playoff chances.
The 24-year-old Finn, who was plucked from the Rangers for Enver Lisin (now playing in Russia) in the summer of 2009, is perhaps the most surprising story on a Phoenix team full of surprises.
It is his versatility that makes him so unique.
Some nights, he appears to be the most dangerous offensive threat in the Phoenix lineup. Other times, he plays like a dark horse candidate for the Selke Award.
That combination, though, means he is likely going to have to be a difference maker if the Coyotes wind up winning their first playoff series since moving to Arizona.
Dave Tippett and his teammates, it made Phoenix a better team in other ways.
With the added offense, Phoenix general manager Don Maloney was free to bolster his defense by trading forwards Wojtek Wolski and Scottie Uphsall for defensemen Michal Roszival and Rositlav Klesla.
When Korpikoski missed a few games in March with an upper-body injury, it wasn't all that surprising the Phoenix offense went missing as well.
"When we talked before the season, we talked about goals and for Korpikoski we talked about getting to 10 goals," Tippett said. "Well, he flew past that and when you add in all the other things he does for us … he's become a very valuable guy."
Korpikoski can play all three forward positions and his skills as both a scorer and responsible defender make him a nice fit on any of the four lines. He is one of the team's best penalty killers – equally adept at both blocking shots and using his speed to create shorthanded chances.
When the Coyotes lost Martin Hanzal to injury on Mar. 5, Korpikoski became the defensive stopper; not only checking the opposition's top skill players but using his stickhandling and impressive speed to require those offensive threats to be responsible in their end on occasion.
He has gone from a minus-10 last season to a plus-17 this year, tops among Coyotes forwards despite bouncing from line to line according to need, requiring him to create chemistry with new players.
"Last year, I wasn't playing all the time and not too many minutes. I was afraid to make a mistake or I would be back on the bench," Korpikoski said. "Now I'm playing with a lot of confidence, I can take some chances and know I'll be back out there for the next shift."
Some of that confidence was instilled during last year's Stanley Cup Playoffs. When the Coyotes lost captain Shane Doan to a separated shoulder in Game 3 against Detroit, Korpikoski was among those who filled the void with more ice time and was very effective. His shorthanded goal in Game 6 at Detroit helped take the Red Wings to the limit.
Brimming with confidence, Korpikoski came to training camp in excellent shape and showed from the first practice that his days as a 10-minute man were a thing of the past.
Tippett watches Korpikoski and thinks of another Finnish forward he coached in Dallas with a combination of skill, speed and savvy. Jere Lehtinen collected 500 points and won the Selke Trophy three times during 15 years with the Stars.
Korpikoski isn't quite there yet, but Maloney knows he's going to have to dig deeper in his pockets this summer when his forward becomes a restricted free agent. He'll gladly do so in return for the tranquility he gets watching him play.
"You just feel good when he's on the ice," Maloney said. "Not only is he going to make good decisions and be responsible defensively, but he has the ability to make highlight-reel plays and put pressure on the opponent in their zone.
"(Defenseman) Keith Yandle has been our biggest breakout player this year, but Korpi is right behind him. You think of some of our best and biggest goals of the year, and he's had a hand in a lot of them. And when we went through a period with a lot of injuries, he stepped up when we've really needed him."
Confident and intent on proving his value on the ice, Korpikoski says he is ready for another run at the postseason.
"I like playing in important games and being on the ice when the game is being decided," he said. "We have a solid team and a great group of guys. The system suits my style and we rely on everyone to do their share."