Henri Jokiharju is the cream of the crop among the Chicago Blackhawks’ defenseman in this year’s Top 25 Under 25 series. After posting career highs in scoring in his second season with the Portland Winterhawks in the Western Hockey League, the Finnish blueliner jumped four spots to No. 3 in this year’s rankings. He signed a three-year entry-level contract in June, and he looks to make a push for a roster spot for the upcoming season.
Position: Defenseman (right handed)
Birth date: June 17, 1999 (19 years old)
Acquired via: 2017 NHL draft — First round (29th overall)
Most recent stop: Portland Winterhawks — WHL
Size: 6’0, 181 pounds
Contract: Three years with $925K salary cap hit
Last year’s ranking: No. 7
Jokiharju stepped up in a big way during his season season in North America with career highs in points (71), goals (12) and assists (59) in 63 games. His 71 points tied Swift Current’s Colby Sissions (New Jersey prospect) for third among all WHL defenseman. Jokiharju also had eight points (three goals, five assists) in 12 playoff games, and four points (two goals, two assists) in five games for Finland at the World Junior Championship.
After World Juniors, prospect analyst Corey Pronman of The Athletic said “you could argue he was Finland’s best puck moving defenseman in the tournament.” That’s high praise for just an 18-year-old at the time considering other Finnish blue liners included four other first-round picks: Miro Heiskanen (Stars), Olli Juolevi(Canucks), Juuso Valimaki (Flames) and Urho Vaakanainen (Bruins).
Following Jokiharju (28) for a shift pic.twitter.com/XWjWMWwO4s— Scott Powers (@ByScottPowers) July 20, 2018
NHL Central Scouting, who ranked Jokiharju the 19th best skater in his draft class, said he’s an, “excellent skater who is very elusive with the puck and can beat the forecheck with a pass or his skating ability.”
They added, “(he’s a) very good passer with excellent vision - quickness and mobility allows him to take away time and space defensively.”
Jokiharju compares his playing style to New Jersey Devils defenseman Sami Vatanen, who tallied three goals and 28 points in 57 games last season. Vatanen posted back-to-back 30-point seasons in his first two full NHL seasons.
Jokiharju signed a three-year entry-level contract with the Hawks this summer and impressed Chicago general manager Stan Bowman during the team’s prospect camp. Bowman told NBC Sports Chicago that Jokiharju “learned to be a two-way defenseman” and that the defenseman now has an “NHL-type body now.”
Henri Jokiharju and Blake Hillman vs. Jack Ramsey and Beau Starrett: pic.twitter.com/7SxGPhTvYe— Charlie Roumeliotis (@CRoumeliotis) July 17, 2018
Blake Hillman and Henri Jokiharju as a pairing: pic.twitter.com/VwsOtCDf9m— Charlie Roumeliotis (@CRoumeliotis) July 17, 2018
What’s next in 2018-19?
Jokiharju is focused on making the Hawks’ opening-night roster. In June, he said it was “biggest goal right now.” If he plays less than 10 NHL games during next season, his contract would slide a season and begin in the 2019-20 season.
The Blackhawks currently have Brent Seabrook (age 33), Connor Murphy (25) and Jan Rutta (28) slated in on the right side. Jokiharju’s main competition will be Rutta, who tallied 20 points in 57 games during his first NHL season. Rutta has one year left on his contract that carries a $2.3 million salary cap hit. He’s set to become an unrestricted free agent next summer
But what if Jokiharju doesn’t make the Hawks’ roster? Where will he play?
Prior to his first season with Portland, Jokiharju signed a three-year deal with Tappara in Liiga, Finland’s top division, his agent, Markus Lehto, told Scott Powers of The Athletic. Under the CHL-NHL transfer agreement, a player drafted by a CHL team cannot play in the NHL if he isn’t 20 by December 31 of the current season. If Jokiharju isn’t on the Hawks, he must return to Portland but because Tapparra loaned him to the Winterhawks he shouldn’t be impacted by the transfer agreement.
Jokiharju could also return to Finland and play for Tappara, but that’s unlikely seeing that he sought out playing in North America as a better option for his development, and he was clearly right.