Stop me if you've heard this one before.
The Hurricanes acquire a versatile Finnish forward in his mid-20s on the morning of a game in February. The player rushes to the airport with no guarantee he’ll arrive in time for his first game with his new team. He makes it, just barely, and fueled by little more than adrenaline, he picks up an assist on his winning debut.
Fortunately for Jussi Jokinen, that’s where the similarities between his situation and that of Tuomo Ruutu almost a full year ago come to an end. Ruutu finished off his whirlwind day with 40 stitches after catching a stick to the face in the closing minutes. Somehow, given the coincidences up until that point, Jokinen emerged unscathed.
“I was a little scared that the same thing was going to happen to me,” said Jokinen with a smile. “I’m lucky.”
In a situation where a player gets off a plane and steps right into an NHL contest, you might expect him to feel a little sluggish. Perhaps there’s something in the Finnish delicacy of reindeer and mashed potatoes (according to Ruutu’s player bio), but neither Jokinen nor Ruutu seemed to have much of a problem getting into the thick of things.
“I think that’s something that’s going to help,” said Jokinen, who was actually planning to arrive during the second period until his flight left ahead of schedule. “You don’t have time to think anything, just put the gear on and go.”
Jokinen is actually the third Fin to arrive in Carolina over the last year, joining Ruutu and Joni Pitkanen, who joined the team under much more relaxed circumstances in the offseason. All three players, who are the same age, know each other dating back to their days as prominent youth players in Finland, and have played together representing their country in World Junior tournaments and World Championships.
“For me it helps to have a few other Finns here so I can ask some questions in my own language if I don’t know something,” said Jokinen. “With Pitkanen, we played pretty much on the same team since we were between 15 and 20, so I know him very well. I’ve played a little bit on the same line with Tuomo – he’s a great player and I think those two guys have been a big reason why this team has been as good as it is.”
Adding Jokinen to the mix was a long process for General Manager Jim Rutherford. The player cleared waivers – twice – before Rutherford was able to figure out a deal in which he could add Jokinen and offset his salary at the same time by sending Wade Brookbank and Josef Melichar the other way.
“We felt over the last little while that we needed to add some depth up front,” said Rutherford, who estimated that the negotiations took three or four weeks to complete. “Ideally, we were looking for a two-position player, and Jokinen fits that bill. He can play the wing, he can play center and he’s good on faceoffs. We’ve liked this player for a while.”
Knowing that Rutherford worked so hard to get him was good news for Jokinen, who couldn’t help but feel unwanted when he saw his playing time decrease with Tampa Bay and his name eventually appear on the waiver wire.
“I read those comments Jim gave,” said Jokinen, who thinks the Canes' faster, puck-possession style of game will suit him better than what he was used to in Tampa. “Obviously it gives you confidence that there are still teams in the league that believe you can play and can be a difference maker and can help the team win. It gives you a lot of confidence.”
Although listed primarily as a left wing, Jokinen can play on either wing if called upon, something Coach Paul Maurice may very well do, and will be a mainstay in shootouts for the rest fo the season. For now, he’ll stay at center, where he won 13 of 15 faceoffs in his Hurricanes debut.
“I know from watching his play that he’s comfortable in all three forward positions and can play his off-wing if he needs to,” said Maurice. “Because he’s a very bright man and a very intelligent hockey player, it’s going to be good to move him around whenever somebody has in injury or somebody’s not going. He can fill in and be a real good utility player for us.”