When Joni Pitkanen
first arrived in North America during the 2003 Stanley Cup Playoffs, the Oulu, Finland native's grasp of the English language consisted of not much more than "yes" and "no."
Now in his sixth NHL season with his third team, the Carolina Hurricanes
' defenseman has blossomed on and off the ice.
"It took a couple years," Pitkanen told NHL.com. "The first year when I came here I didn't talk too much. It was really difficult, but every year got better and better (and) it's been pretty good last three, four years."
The Philadelphia Flyers
traded up with the Tampa Bay Lightning
to make Pitkanen the fourth choice of the 2002 Entry Draft and had extremely high hopes for him. After three frustrating seasons -- he had 13 goals, 46 points and a plus-22 rating in 2005-06, then 43 points and minus-25 rating the next season -- the Flyers sent him to the Edmonton Oilers
as part of a deal that brought back forward Joffrey Lupul
and defenseman Jason Smith
. After just one season in Edmonton, he was on the move again, this time to Carolina in exchange for Erik Cole
"It's always tough when you come at such a young age to a different country and different culture," teammate and fellow Finn Jussi Jokinen
told NHL.com. "I think Joni's been better and better with the language every year and he's more comfortable now, for sure. I think it helps him and it helps me to have a couple other Finnish players on the team. Obviously we feel a little more comfortable."
Despite all the moving around, Pitkanen kept producing. He had 8 goals in 63 games two seasons ago with the Oilers -- the second-highest total of his career. Last season he had 7 goals, 33 points and a plus-11 rating while leading the team with 24:18 per game of ice time.
"He's been a really great player for us all year. I think the last two or three weeks, I think, (he's been) one of the defensemen in the League." -- Carolina Hurricanes Jussi Jokinen on teammate Joni Pitkanen
He was just as good in the Hurricanes' surprising run to the Eastern Conference Finals. He tied for the team lead with 8 assists while playing a team-best 26:28 per game, which was third-highest among all playoff skaters.
This season, he has 28 points, putting him on pace for a career-best 48. He also has a minus-13, but that comes with playing a League-leading 27:06 per game on a last-place team.
"He's been a really great player for us all year," Jokinen said. "I think the last two or three weeks, I think, (he's been) one of the defensemen in the League."
Pitkanen always has been a player with talent, but last season's playoff run gave him the confidence that he could play important minutes in important games. Pitkanen was part of the Flyers team that went to the 2004 conference finals, but only played just over 12 minutes per game in 15 games.
"That was my first year with the Flyers, and I didn't really know anything, the expectations," Pitkanen said. "But last year I knew what to expect. It was more like I belonged. It was a lot of fun."
He plans on having more fun next month at the Olympics. Selected to Team Finland in 2006, he missed the Games due to surgery to repair a hernia. He's healthy this season and expects to enjoy his time in Vancouver.
"I think it's going to be a great experience to play for your country," Pitkanen said. "Big tournament, big expectations."
Pitkanen hopes his team gets another crack at Sweden in the gold-medal game. In 2006, the Scandinavian rivals met for the championship in Italy, with Sweden skating away with a 3-2 victory.
"I'm hoping its Sweden, so we can beat them," he said.
Contact Adam Kimelman at firstname.lastname@example.org