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FEATURE: Blackhawks make development decision on Jokiharju

The Blackhawks assigned rookie defenseman Henri Jokiharju to the Rockford IceHogs, hoping to give him more minutes and opportunities to develop

by Chris Wescott /

Henri Jokiharju is a big part of the Blackhawks future, so the organization is exercising patience with his development. On Thursday, the team assigned the 19-year-old defenseman to the Rockford IceHogs of the American Hockey League.

Jokiharju made great strides in the summer to ready himself to make the roster out of camp. The jump from the Western Hockey League to the NHL is no crack in the sidewalk to hop over - it's a canyon.

Video: Jeremy Colliton on the bye week, Jokiharju

However, the 29th-overall pick in the 2017 NHL Draft made the transition look easier than that. He showed poise from the start and racked up a large number of minutes for a rookie. Something changed over the last couple of months, with Jokiharju receiving less ice time from Head Coach Jeremy Colliton and his staff.

So what did the coaches see from Jokiharju to make them tap their brakes on Jokiharju's tough minutes?

"I don't want to go too in depth with it. That's a conversation you have with him, and we have," said Colliton. "He's 19 years old and it's hard, physically, to get out of the d-zone when you're that. Obviously, he doesn't have the 'man body' yet, but he will. And we want him to not just be playing to survive out there. We want him to be playing to excel and be a top player."

It shouldn't come as a surprise that an organization is sending one of their best young players to the AHL for seasoning. It's a common occurrence in the NHL. Look no further than the Blackhawks current blue line.

Connor Murphy, who made a quick jump to the NHL as a rookie in 2013-14, still played 36 games for the Portland Pirates that year. Erik Gustafsson, Gustav Forsling and Carl Dahlstrom have all done their time in the minors.

Even Norris Trophy-winning Duncan Keith spent two full seasons in Norfolk before getting a look in the NHL.

As of the All-Star break, 88.1% of players to log at least one NHL game this season are AHL alums. When you break it down even further, 91.1% of all defensemen to play in the NHL this year have played in the AHL.

It's not necessarily the right of passage for every single player, but it's the primary development league of the NHL for a reason.

"We want him playing more," Colliton said of Jokiharju. "I think he'll be a power-play guy, a top guy. I think he can do that here, but he wasn't getting that opportunity. We love him. It doesn't change how we feel about him, that's what I told him this morning. We believe in him and think he's going to be a big part of us when we get this thing going the right way. He's a big piece of the puzzle. But we also think for him to continue growing his game, the best place is Rockford."

Colliton said they want him to play with a tight gap, defend hard and work on his d-zone exits.

"He's going to make plays, we're not worried about that. He's going to get the chance on the power play and we think that's for the best."

By making this decision, the Blackhawks also afford more ice time to go around for other young defensemen they want to evaluate and develop.

"It's not just him," said Colliton. "We have the whole group to manage, as far as their development and where they fit in with our team next year. I think when you look at the d-core, it's changed since I got here, since training camp. Murphy and Forsling were injured and Dahlstrom was in Rockford. Now they're here and playing pretty well, so we just think that when you look at the total picture this is the best thing."

Forsling was activated off injured reserve on Friday morning, meaning he'll make his return from an upper-torso injury.

With a full, healthy group in Chicago, the best case scenario is Jokiharju flourishes in the AHL and makes it impossible for the organization to keep him there. But patience is also a virtue and there's something to be said of letting your best assets overripen in the minors before challenging them to lead the big club. After all, there's plenty of time. Jokiharju's career is just beginning.

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