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Jokiharju sees 'good opportunity' ahead with Sabres

Defenseman hopes to earn a spot on NHL roster

by Jourdon LaBarber @jourdonlabarber /

Henri Jokiharju learned he had been traded during a late-night phone call from Chicago Blackhawks general manager Stan Bowman on Tuesday. His initial reaction, he admits, was shock. 

That shock changed to excitement as he began to consider his destination. 

"I just realized it's a good opportunity for me, coming to a great organization like the Buffalo Sabres," Jokiharju said during a conference call on Wednesday. "I'm pumped to play for the Sabres."

Jokiharju expressed optimism about the chance to join Buffalo's young lineup and play in the same organization as fellow Finnish prospects Oskari Laaksonen and Ukko-Pekka Luukkonen, with whom he won gold at World Juniors last season. 

The Sabres acquired Jokiharju, a first-round pick in 2017, in exchange for forward Alexander Nylander on Tuesday. The 20-year-old, right-shot defenseman appeared in 38 games with the Blackhawks last season, experience that Sabres general manager Jason Botterill emphasized in a statement released at the time of the deal. 

"Henri is a young, mobile defenseman who has shown he can compete at the NHL level," Botterill said. "His international success last season only furthered his development and we are excited to add him to our current group of defensemen."

The numbers suggest Jokiharju held his own during his extended stint in the NHL. He tallied 12 assists and the Blackhawks held a 54.3-percent share of shot attempts with him on the ice at 5-on-5, five percent higher than the team's average without him. 

Though he was reassigned to AHL Rockford in January, Jokiharju described last season as a confidence booster. His experience in Chicago taught him the expectations for an everyday NHL player. His time in Rockford gave him the chance to play top minutes, including time on the power play, and he responded with 17 points. 

Jokiharju's self-description fits the mold of defenseman the Sabres have been looking to bring into the organization, from trade acquisitions Brandon Montour and Colin Miller to draft picks such as Laaksonen and Jacob Bryson. 

"I think I'm just a modern defenseman right now, two-way defenseman," he said. "I like to be with the puck and make some good plays. I want to give the puck to better guys who can make some points and score some goals. Just make some plays and be a good, two-way defenseman, take care of both sides." 

Jokiharju's international success included a pair of gold medals with Finland, first alongside Laaksonen and Luukkonen at World Juniors and then among NHL players at the World Championship in May. His friendships with Buffalo's Finnish prospects date back years.

"Oskari is one of my best friends from my hometown so we hang out a lot," he said. "Ukko-Pekka, he's a great goalie, he's a big guy, he's calm in the net and that brings confidence for the team. Oskari is a great, upcoming star. 

"... I think one day we're going to play the same time for the Sabres, and I think that's awesome."

Laaksonen will return to his pro team in Finland next season, while Luukkonen is expected to begin his pro career in Rochester. Jokiharju, meanwhile, hopes the timeline for his NHL arrival is shorter. 

"I hope that I can play a whole season next year in Buffalo," he said. "Just put in lots of work right now during the summer so that I show up in good shape and just be ready to show everyone - coaching staff, players - that I'm ready to play in the NHL all year long."

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