If all goes according to plan, Henri Jokiharju will be a steady force on the Chicago Blackhawks blue line sooner rather than later. The 19-year-old Finnish defenseman has all the tools to be a top-notch defender in the National Hockey League.
At the beginning of the season in Chicago, Jokiharju flashed that potential. He shouldered big-time minutes early in his rookie season, showing great poise and producing solid possession metrics. But sometimes, the best long-term plan for young prospects is to turn down the heat a little and allow them to simmer down in the minors.
After recording 12 assists in 38 games in the NHL, Jokiharju was assigned to the Rockford IceHogs of the American Hockey League - where he's done more than just simmer.
"It's been pretty good," Jokiharju said of his time in Rockford. "I've gotten plenty of power-play time and I've played big minutes. I think that's a big part of my development."
Jokiharju has compiled two goals and 15 assists in 28 games with the IceHogs, flashing that offensive upside that was part of why Chicago selected him 29th overall in the 2017 NHL Draft.
"He's a pretty special player," said Rockford forward and Blackhawks prospect Dylan Sikura. "For him to jump in right away as a 19-year-old was pretty special. Obviously, you're going to go through stuff in your first couple of years that are learning experiences. He's obviously an offensive guy and he's going to have to figure out how he wants to play his game.
"I was telling him, it's going to take time. When I first came down, my brother told me this is the best thing that's going to happen to you and I told Henri the same thing. Two or three years from now he's going to look back on this when he's a steady player in the NHL and he's going to say 'that was probably the best thing for me.' It takes time to develop and for him, time is on his side. He's got a lot of time to figure it out."
Jokiharju appears well on his way to figuring it out. Playing a ton of minutes for Rockford this season has helped the defenseman get into a rhythm, which is key to improvement.
"You get the flow going," he said. "Hockey is a way different game when you get the flow going."
Those minutes and opportunities are also helping Jokiharju take steps toward becoming a vocal leader in the Rockford locker room, despite his rookie status.
"I've been extremely impressed with Henri," said Rockford veteran defenseman Andrew Campbell. "He plays a ton of minutes down here and has done a great job and I've been really impressed, for such a young guy, that he hasn't been afraid to speak up and he's not afraid to talk in the room. He kind of has some leadership qualities I've been very impressed with. He's still got so much time and such a bright future ahead of him. He's really worked on his game down here and he'll be a Blackhawk for a long time."
Jokiharju thinks it's natural for a player who logs a lot of ice time to serve as a leader. And that's exactly the type of defenseman he wants to be in Chicago for years to come.
"I want to play big minutes," he said. "I want to play on the power play and the PK and be a big special teams guy. I think that's a big part of the game. I just want to play my own game and then there are leadership traits that come with that."
According to those in Rockford, Jokiharju has also shown some physicality in his game.
"He's definitely got a little edge to him," said Campbell. "He's not afraid to get a little chirpy with the other team and he's definitely got some pushback. I think that will be key for him at the next level to fend off some guys and create some room for himself. I think that's a key tool in his box moving forward."
"He's actually a pretty thick kid for being that young," said Rockford Head Coach Derek King. "He's mature that way. I think the big thing for Henri is playing in the gray areas and being a little harder on pucks, not relying on his skill as much. Sometimes you've got to work hard.
"He's been battling a lot harder. There are times when you wish he would have won a puck battle and all that but that will come with time. With this league too, it's not as structured. It's a little more chaos out there sometimes and that's something you have to get used to when you come down here."
"[The AHL] is kind of the same but more guys try to take your head off over here," Jokiharju laughed. "There are more grinders here but I don't feel a huge difference."
King says once Jokiharju got over the initial shock of being sent down to a new league, he settled in nicely and continues to get better. Jokiharju admits there were adjustments to be made.
"I think it's a little bit of a scramble sometimes in the AHL here but I don't feel a huge difference," he said. "You have a little more time with the puck. Matching up with the players is OK. I think every team tries to match up d-pairings and forwards against other d-pairings and forwards. That's one of the biggest things in this league mostly. We have good defensemen so I feel other teams try to match their forwards against our D."
And now that he's adjusted, Jokiharju has flourished.
"He's a special player and he's taken strides," said Sikura. "It's not that he wasn't a great player when he arrived, he was. But you can tell there are little things he's been working on. He's a big piece of the puzzle."
As this hockey season winds down, Jokiharju understands the approaching summer is an important one for him.
"[I want to keep] getting better in every area," he said. "Just work hard this summer, come into camp next season in good shape. I need to have a strong offseason the whole way. I think [it's about] getting to a place so they have no chance to send me down next year."
And for those who have been watching him play lately, that's the likely outcome.
"I believe he will be [in the NHL next season]," said King. "As long as he keeps working and continues to work on the little things when you're playing without the puck. That's the big thing, and being able to win battles. I can't see him being back with me. I'll take him! But I don't see him being back."