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Pitkanen ready to go on the defensive

by Bill Meltzer / NHL.com
Over the course of his eight seasons in the NHL, there have been heavy expectations placed on the shoulders of Carolina Hurricanes defenseman Joni Pitkanen.

The 28-year-old former All-Rookie Team selection (2003-04) and two-time Olympic medalist has yet to come close to becoming the Norris Trophy caliber franchise defenseman he was projected to be when he was drafted by the Philadelphia Flyers as the fourth pick in the 2002 NHL Draft.

Nevertheless, the big Finn's career has not been nearly the disappointment his harshest critics have suggested. 

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First and foremost, Pitkanen logs massive ice time for his team, annually ranking among the League leaders in that category. In 2009-10, in fact, Pitkanen led all players in the NHL with an average 27:22 played per game. To date this season, he has averaged over 23-and-a-half minutes per game to top his club. Any coach in the NHL, including Carolina's Paul Maurice, will attest to the importance of having a defenseman who plays in all game situations.

"We rely on Joni to do some heavy lifting for our team," Maurice told NHL.com. "He plays a lot of hard minutes. When he's on the top of his game, no question about it, he makes us a better hockey team."

Secondly, Pitkanen has averaged .53 points per game over his career. That may not meet the lofty standards expected of him after he tallied 13 goals and 46 points in just 56 games during his second NHL season, but it is a respectable rate of production relative to the majority of defensemen in the League.

To date this season, Pitkanen has posted 3 goals and 8 points in 15 games. If he maintains his current pace, he has a chance to reach double-digit goals for just the second time in his career.

"It's going OK [offensively]," Pitkanen said to NHL.com. "I have tried to get into better shooting lanes this season, and it's going alright. But I think I can do better."

During Pitkanen's career-best season, he frequently found success either going over the middle or getting open when pinching up on back-door plays. In the years that have followed, he has often been content to shoot from the perimeter. Pitkanen acknowledged he still needs to be more aggressive in finding open shots in the areas of the ice where both the rewards and potential physical punishment are greater.

While he has been reasonably content with his offensive output, Pitkanen concedes he and the entire team need to step up their defensive play in front of All-Star goaltender Cam Ward. While he says he pays no attention to plus-minus statistics (he is currently minus-10), the defenseman says there have been a few too many coverage and puck-management breakdowns.

"It's not about [statistics], it's about focus on defense," he said. "I need to be better defensively. We all do. Some games, it's gone good. But it's not good every game, and that's what we need."

The strongest criticism levied at Pitkanen over the course of his career -- both in his pre-NHL days for Finland's Kärpät Oulu as well as in North America -- is that he is inconsistent in his defensive play and sometimes unwilling or unable to use his combination of size (6-foot-3, 210 pounds) and speed to his full advantage. In addition, his critics say he lacks physicality.

Earlier this season, Chicago Blackhawks forward Daniel Carcillo received a two-game suspension for pushing Pitkanen from behind near the end boards. Pitkanen went up the tunnel with the trainer after the play but was not hurt. Afterward, Carcillo referenced Pitkanen's reputation as a "soft" player when discussing the play with the media.

Canes defenseman Joni Pitkanen has a chance to reach double-digit goals for the second time in his career, but says his focus is on helping the team improve in front of its goalies. (Photo: Getty Images)
"I thought he went down," Carcillo told the Chicago Sun Times. "It's Joni Pitkanen. Ask around the League. He's a big guy, but he doesn't play like it."

Pitkanen has averaged less than one hit per game (.91) over the last three seasons, which has fed into the belief that he is deficient in the physical game despite his size. However, he has sacrificed his body in other ways, such as by averaging 1.73 blocked shots per game over the same span.

For his part, the laid-back Pitkanen did not seem bothered by Carcillo's comments or by others' perceptions that he does not sufficiently relish the physical part of the game. 

"I just care that we win, and we won that game (3-0) and played good," Pitkanen told NHL.com. "So I was happy about that."

Something that Pitkanen is not happy about is Carolina's rank in the bottom five of the League in terms of goals allowed per game. Sitting 21st in the League in team offense is not where a team needs to be in order to compete successfully for an Eastern Conference playoff berth.

"No, like I said, we need to be more consistent," he said. "Cam is a great goalie, and we believe in Boosh [Brian Boucher], too. We all just need to work harder in our zone to help them."

Despite his relative youth, Pitkanen is now almost halfway (498 games played) to the coveted 1,000-game mark in the NHL. To date, only three Finnish defensemen -- the retired Teppo Numminen (1,372) and Jyrki Lumme (985) plus the still-active Kimmo Timonen (909 and counting) -- have played as many as 900 games in the League. If he stays reasonably healthy, Pitkanen has a good chance of eventually joining their ranks.

"We'll see," Pitkanen said with a grin. "That's a long way off."
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