When asked which Hurricanes forward he hasn’t played with this season, Jussi Jokinen
had to think, but not for long.
After a quick glance of the nameplates that sit atop the RBC Center’s locker room stalls, Jokinen concluded that, with the exception of Cory Stillman, who’s played exclusively with Eric Staal since his arrival from Florida 12 days ago, he’d spent time alongside them all.
That pretty much sums up the variety of roles and positions Jokinen has played this season, continuing a trend of versatility that has marked his time in Carolina. He’s played all three forward positions and has spent time on all four lines this season, something none of his teammates, and likely few of his peers around the league, can claim.
“I would expect to be moving around a little, because I’ve played everywhere since I’ve been here,” he said.
All the same, that shifting has never been more frequent than this season, his third with the team. He started the year at right wing, played on the left side of the top line with Staal when he was producing and on the fourth line when he was struggling, has been part of an effective defensive group with Brandon Sutter and now centers a scoring line with Jeff Skinner.
It’s enough to make any player’s head spin, much less the fans and media that follow him. However, his ability to handle his nomadic status in the lineup, fueled by his smarts, is what makes him so effective.
“The advantage is that he doesn’t have to take a game or two to get to the position and understand it,” said coach Paul Maurice. “He can play center the whole game and then go to the wing if you need a goal or you’re defending because he can play both sides of the puck.
“Most importantly, he just handles it well. It doesn’t faze him a little bit. If you change lines on him in the game, it doesn’t affect his game.”
Maurice said that ability to adapt is part of why Jokinen has flourished in Carolina following an unsuccessful stint in Tampa Bay that saw him clear waivers twice before coming to the Hurricanes in exchange for Wade Brookbank, Josef Melichar and a fourth-round pick in February of 2009.
Since that trade of would-be spare parts, he’s posted 132 points in 178 games in a Hurricanes sweater. That includes 45 points in 54 games this season – a 0.84 points-per game pace that marks the best of his career and trails just Staal’s 0.95 for the team lead. He’s tied with Tuomo Ruutu for third on the team in scoring, despite having missed 12 games due to injury. He’s scored 22 points in his last 21 games, beginning with a three-game stretch that earned him NHL Player of the Week honors in mid-January. He’s had a plus or even plus/minus rating in 28 of his last 33 contests.
All of that has made his quiet stretch to start the season – prompting his stint on the fourth line – a distant memory.
“The fourth line wasn’t my preference, but it happened,” he said. “Now I feel like I’m playing some good hockey.”
Over the years, Jokinen, now 27 and in his sixth NHL campaign, has learned to stay on his toes. He said that not once has he started a season playing the position he was expecting to play over the summer. This time around, he thought he would be on the right wing, which, as fate would have it, is the position he’s spent the least amount of time in.
“It’s not that big of a deal for me,” he said. “I feel like that’s one of my strengths.”
His latest change is one of the most drastic, as he moved from a primarily defensive role on the left side of Sutter and Jiri Tlusty into an offensive one centering Skinner and Ruutu. Asking a player to change his position and mindset from one game to the next is typically a big request.
Not with Jokinen.
“He came in to us as a center iceman and has probably played the bulk of his time on the wing to the point that I think he may even prefer it now, but he’s a center iceman from his training as a young man and he’s our best faceoff guy,” said Maurice. “Here we’re going to be looking for a little more offense out of him and he should be able to handle that as well.”
“I enjoyed the role with Sutter because we went up against the other team’s top lines and I thought we did a pretty good job of shutting them down, but now with Ruutu and Skinner I’ll be counted on a lot more to create offense, and that’s good too,” said Jokinen.
That will mark the most drastic change in Maurice’s lineup to face Atlanta on Wednesday, although Tuesday’s practice also featured altered defensive pairings. Joe Corvo was paired with Bryan Allen and Tim Gleason skated with Jay Harrison, with the duo of Joni Pitkanen and Jamie McBain staying intact.
Those groups still leave Derek Joslin as the healthy scratch. Maurice has hinted that he may dress seven defensemen and scratch a forward sometime in the future to get Joslin playing for the first time since Feb. 26, but it appears that won’t happen against the Thrashers.
“I’m not looking to make any changes yet,” he said.