Each day for the rest of the year, Second City Hockey will countdown the top 10 Blackhawks stories of 2018.
When the Blackhawks opened training camp before the 2017-18 NHL season, Henri Jokiharju appeared to be on the bubble of players who could break camp at the top of the organization.
The 2017 first-round pick, selected 29th overall, was part of a logjam of veterans and prospects competing for one of the seven spots available among Blackhawks defensemen. But on the first day of camp, the road to a roster spot was opened for Jokiharju when Connor Murphy and Gustav Forsling were ruled out with injuries that would prevent them from starting the season on time.
And Jokiharju seized the opportunity.
It helped that then-Blackhawks coach Joel Quenneville paired Jokiharju with future Hall-of-Fame defenseman Duncan Keith, but Jokiharju proved he belong at the NHL level during training camp, started the regular season with the team and has maintained a high level of play while averaging an even 20 minutes of ice time through the first 32 games of his NHL career.
The offensive abilities in Jokiharju’s game were evident from the beginning, as the Finland native picked up a pair of assists in his second game and three more on the following night, part of an early offensive explosion from the 2017-18 Blackhawks.
Growing pains have emerged at times, which is typical for a teenager — Jokiharju won’t turn 20 until next summer — getting his first taste of NHL action. His point total is up to 11, although Jokiharju is still searching for his first NHL goal. He’s also not on the active roster at the moment, playing on loan to Team Finland in this year’s World Juniors.
But when Jokiharju returns, the Blackhawks will again have one of the players with the best possession metrics on the team. His mark of 54.76 CF% still leads the team, and his 46.55 xGF% only trails the D pairing of Carl Dahlstrom and Connor Murphy that have been leading Chicago over the last few weeks. It bears mentioning that Jokiharju has benefited from the most favorable zone starts on the team, but he’s consistently turned that advantage into offensive opportunities, which is exactly what should be expected from a young, offensive-minded defenseman.
From the 2017 draft class, No. 3 overall pick Miro Heiskanen — selected by the Dallas Stars — is the only defenseman with more games played and more points scored than Jokiharju. It’s still incredibly early in his career, but the early returns suggest that the Blackhawks have found, at a minimum, an NHL-worthy defenseman near the bottom of the first round from the 2017 NHL Draft. And Jokiharju’s ceiling keeps ascending upward each night.