Those who expected to see Johan Harju to play in North America this year after a successful World Championship would have been disappointed, as he surprisingly signed a one-year contract with Moscow Dynamo of the KHL for next season. There is a method to the madness, however, and the end result is him playing for the Lightning.
"We would have liked to have him this year," Lightning Executive Vice President and General Manager Brian Lawton said. "But it was a smart move to play in the Russian League. He will play all the time and develop."
It is not like Harju made an uneducated decision. After all, a season in the KHL is what Harju feels will help him get to the point where he needs to be in his development as a player, and the next step, he feels, is to the NHL with the Lightning.
"The KHL is one step higher in level than (the Swedish Elite League), there are really good Russian and European players so it’s a really good skillful league," Harju said. "The KHL is skillful hockey. I’m not so much worried about keeping up, but improving. I think it’s going to help a lot with stick-handling, becoming skillful in the passing game and overall help me out."
Harju is hoping a year in Russia will continue his development to the point where he is ready to perform at the game’s highest level. He has made an honest assessment of himself and feels he may not be completely ready for the challenge at this point.
"I spoke to him on the phone [recently} and he said he'd like to be here next year," Lawton said. "He wanted to come over when he was closer to where he thought he should be to play in the NHL. He just needs to keep shooting the puck, scoring goals and continue to build his foundation."
The 23-year-old already has a great start to build upon. Earlier this summer he made the Swedish National Team for the World Championships in Switzerland. Harju went on to play in all nine games for the Swedes, recording two goals and four points with a plus-4 rating while playing along side former Lulea HF line-mate Linus Omark.
"It was a good experience to play against NHL players, the best guys in the world," Harju said. "It went pretty well for me and the whole line, I think we played well in the championship. It was great to see the other guys and how they work on the ice and how good they are."
Not to mention he was facing off against a few of his possible future team mates in Martin St. Louis and Steven Stamkos who were representing Team Canada.
"I played against them and they are a good group of guys so we talked a little bit, but yeah it was good," Harju added.
Harju’s line-mate and friend, Omark, a sixth-round pick of Edmonton, will also be joining him in Moscow. Together they have put together some impressive offensive seasons the previous two years. Harju notched a career-high 27 goals last season and has netted 20 or more in the each of the previous two seasons. During his Swedish Elite League career, all with Lulea, he amassed 62 goals and 103 in 204 games.
"I had a pretty good season in the Elitserien last year and now I got an offer from Dynamo in Russia and I have Linus Omark going with me," Harju said. "We are both hoping to go there together and play one good season and then maybe go to the NHL the next year. Until then, the Russian League is the next step for us before the NHL. If we play well there then maybe I will come over to the NHL."
So eyes in Tampa will be gazing toward the Russian capital this season to monitor the progress of the forward. Hopefully, as expected, Harju can use this season as yet another stepping stone in his career.
"He’ll be forced to improve in a very demanding environment," Lightning Assistant General Manager Tom Kurvers said. "When we get our hands on him he’ll have played at a lot of different levels."
As he enters training camp for Dynamo, Harju fully understands what he needs to do.
"I have to play my game," Harju said. "I think I need to become more built. I need to be a guy that can get open and score some goals. I need to be stronger on the puck and offensive, I have been good so far but the NHL is the best league with the best players so I need to improve to be ready."
Hopefully Lightning fans will see the benefits of this year’s season in Russia when camp opens for the 2010-11 season.