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Rookie watch: Jokiharju thrives with Blackhawks

Gold medal experience at World Juniors boosts teenage defenseman's confidence

by Mike G. Morreale @mikemorrealeNHL / Staff Writer

Henri Jokiharju is hoping a greater confidence in his game will help improve on his strong start as an NHL rookie defenseman with the Chicago Blackhawks.

Jokiharju, a right-handed shot, is paired with three-time Stanley Cup-winning defenseman Brent Seabrook in a top-four role and is tasked with playing against many of the elite players in the League. The 19-year-old averages 19:15 in ice time and ranks fourth on the Blackhawks in blocked shots (37), seventh in hits (47) and 11th in shots on goal (62). 

He ranks sixth among rookie defensemen with 12 points, all assists, in 37 games.

Jokiharju said his confidence got a boost after helping Finland win their fifth championship with a 3-2 win against the United States at the 2019 IIHF World Junior Championship in Vancouver.

"It was huge," Jokiharju said. "We had such a great team. I played with my own age group. Just winning it was a great experience, feeling how good it feels. Second, the confidence the tournament gave me and the flow I had in every game was great."

Jokiharju had five points (two goals, three assists), and a plus-6 rating averaging 22:32 of ice time in seven games for his country. 

Back in the NHL, Jokiharju is one of only three teenage defensemen along with Rasmus Dahlin (18) of the Buffalo Sabres and Miro Heiskanen (19) of the Dallas Stars. 

"Not too many guys can step into the League at such a young age so that's impressive," veteran Blackhawks defenseman Duncan Keith said. "He's definitely advanced for his age and the reason for that is his skating ability, hockey sense and poise. Those things are not easy to have, at any age, and for a young defenseman it's impressive.

"At the same time, we're all trying to get better and everyone progresses at different speeds and different ages, so it's now up to him to keep working and trying to get better."

The Blackhawks control 53.94 percent of all shots attempted when Jokiharju is on the ice, higher than Keith (49.69), Jonathan Toews (49.43) and Patrick Kane (47.44). Chicago has directed 95 more shots on goal (SAT) than against with him the ice, also highest on the team.

"Last year offensively he had a great season, but he really learned how to be a two-way defenseman," Blackhawks general manager Stan Bowman said. "The biggest jump for him (in the NHL) is going to be can he defend. I think his offensive skills are elite."

Jokiharju was selected in the first round (No. 29) of the 2017 NHL Draft and then had career-highs in goals (12), assists (59) and points (71) in 63 games for Portland of the Western Hockey League last season. His plus-47 rating ranked fifth among WHL defensemen.

"Preparing for the NHL was the biggest thing for me while I was playing two seasons in Portland," Jokiharju said. "When I'm at my best, I want to make things happen, have a good passing and skating game, and good gap control. That's when I'm playing with confidence."

Jokiharju (6-foot, 193 pounds) was compared to New Jersey Devils defenseman Sami Vatanen in his draft year and was No. 19 in NHL Central Scouting's final ranking of North American skaters eligible for the 2017 draft. He turned out to be the ninth defenseman selected in the first round.

"The thing that stands out with him was how smart a player he is; I think that's what's given him this chance," John Williams of NHL Central Scouting said. "From Chicago's standpoint, Duncan Keith is a great role model, as well. But [Jokiharju] can really skate, thinks the game well, and can make plays with the puck. As he's matured he's gotten stronger and added some physicality to his game and that's helped him, as well."

Jokiharju received high grades for his acceleration and mobility in skating, and his ability to give and receive a pass as part of his puck skills.

"He's obviously a quick learner because he adapted after coming to North America from Finland (in 2016-17)," Williams said.

Jokiharju signed a three-year, entry-level contract with the Blackhawks on June 12, 2018 and is set to be a fixture on defense in Chicago for years to come. 

"For a 19-year-old, [Jokiharju] shows a lot of poise and calmness with the puck and he wants to be a guy to make a play which bodes really well for his future," Blackhawks coach Jeremy Colliton said.

"I think he got a little bit of a break from the NHL grind when he played world juniors. It's a great tournament with obviously the best players of his age group and he was a huge part of their success and played almost half the game on most nights. He gained a little confidence and hopefully he'll take another step in the second half for us."

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