Henri Jokiharju said upon being acquired by the Sabres in July that it was his goal to play the full season in the NHL. It's early, and coach Ralph Krueger has emphasized that internal competition will remain throughout the season, but Jokiharju's five-game start certainly has him on the right track.
Krueger said after practice on Sunday that Jokiharju and rookie forward Victor Olofsson were given the go-ahead to look for places to live in the area, a positive sign for the 20-year-old defenseman.
"They're both out hunting for places to live," Krueger said. "But, again, the competition in the league doesn't stop. The pressure on you [to perform] doesn't stop."
Jokiharju has been paired with a veteran in Marco Scandella for all five games this season. Together, their 56.56 shot-attempt percentage ranks 23rd among NHL defense pairs with at least 20 minutes played at 5-on-5, according to NaturalStatTrick.com. Both players said they have good chemistry off the ice, which has translated onto it.
Krueger at multiple points has used the word "confident" regarding Jokiharju, both about his attitude coming into camp and his decisive passing coming out of his own zone. Scandella opted for the same adjective when asked what he's learned about his young teammate.
"He's a really good young player, good puck-moving defenseman," Scandella said. "He's playing with confidence out there, so I feel like it's really working between us."
From an experience standpoint, Jokiharju has good reason to be self-assured. He came to North America and played two seasons of Canadian junior hockey with the Portland Winterhawks of the WHL beginning in 2016, an experience he credits with helping prepare him for the rigors of an NHL schedule.
Jokiharju played 38 games with the Chicago Blackhawks last year at the front end of his first pro season, tallying 12 assists in the process. He went on to spend the rest of the season in AHL Rockford, mixing in gold medals with Finland at World Juniors and the World Championship.
Video: AFTER PRACTICE: Krueger
That taste of the NHL, combined with his success on the international stage, put Jokiharju in position to take the next step this summer. He feels like more of a complete player now than he did a year ago, pointing to his recurring usage on the penalty kill as an example.
He also admits he's benefitted from playing in Krueger's system, which promotes aggressiveness and instinctual play.
"I feel like we're not sitting back," Scandella explained. "So, those reads are a lot easier when you're just making them and you're just playing with your hockey IQ, your intuitions. I just feel like the game's a lot easier when you're not sitting back watching what the other team's going to do."
Krueger said he's been impressed with the way his defensemen have bought into aggressively closing their gaps in the neutral zone, preventing clean entries across their blue line. He cited Jokiharju as one of the team's "driving forces" in that area.
The other strength Jokiharju has showcased is his ability to break the puck out of his own zone. He made multiple plays that led to offense at the other end against Florida on Friday, whether it was a seeing-eye stretch pass that set Casey Mittelstadt loose on a breakaway …
… or the quick, decisive pass along the boards that led to Johan Larsson's second-period goal.
Video: FLA@BUF: Larsson lifts wrist shot past Bobrovsky
"He's making great plays, he's making simple plays, but he's not afraid to hold onto the puck and look for that good pass," Scandella said. "I feel like he's been really sharp out there."
"Maintaining possession and breaking out under pressure is the test of a strong defenseman in the National Hockey League and it's a tough test," Krueger added. "Teams come hard and fast, especially when they're behind as we've had a few times lately.
"Henri's been good at solving pressure which is something quite impressive at his age."
The competition for minutes on defense will remain, with Brandon Montour and Zach Bogosian both working their way back from injury. Though Bogosian's timetable for a return is indefinite, Montour was estimated to be three weeks away as of last Tuesday.
Jokiharju knows nothing will be given. For now, he's just happy he'll no longer be living out of a hotel.
"It feels great," he said.
Video: SABRES IN :50
The Sabres were back on the ice following a day off on Saturday, their first since the start of the regular season. Krueger said he expects the rest to pay off during their afternoon game against Dallas on Monday.
"I think it's going to show up in the game tomorrow," Krueger said. "Today, you're trying to get the intensity, focus that we need to play our hockey and they gave it to us in practice. But that freshness, we expect to show up in the game and the energy that we'll have against Dallas."
The team's lineup remained unchanged from the win on Friday:
68 Victor Olofsson - 9 Jack Eichel - 23 Sam Reinhart
28 Zemgus Girgensons - 22 Johan Larsson - 21 Kyle Okposo
53 Jeff Skinner - 90 Marcus Johansson - 17 Vladimir Sobotka
13 Jimmy Vesey - 37 Casey Mittelstadt - 71 Evan Rodrigues
19 Jake McCabe - 55 Rasmus Ristolainen
26 Rasmus Dahlin - 33 Colin Miller
6 Marco Scandella - 10 Henri Jokiharju
58 John Gilmour
40 Carter Hutton
35 Linus Ullmark
UPDATE (5:10 p.m.) - The Sabres have recalled forward Curtis Lazar from the Rochester Americans (AHL).
He recorded his first point as an Amerk in last night's 3-2 loss at Providence. Last season, he posted AHL career highs in goals (20), assists (21) and points (41) in 57 games with the Stockton Heat, earning a spot at the 2019 AHL All-Star Classic.