We’ve spent this month detailing the talent working its way through the Chicago Blackhawks organization in our Top 25 Under 25 series. The Former Blackhawk of the Week series caught the prospect fever, shifting its focus to one of the team’s highest-touted prospects who was drafted in the top 10 of the 2001 NHL Entry Draft: Tuomo Ruutu.
Had Ruutu’s issues in Chicago occurred a few years earlier, the disappointment would’ve been overwhelming. But just as Ruutu started to fade in Chicago, players like Jonathan Toews and Patrick Kane emerged, leaving any prior disappointments in the past. So what went wrong during Ruutu’s tenure in Chicago? The short answer: injuries. The longer answer? Let’s dive in.
Ruutu was the ninth overall pick by Chicago in 2001, remaining at home and playing in Finland’s top league for a few more seasons. Around this time, Ruutu had garnered enough hype to be called the best player outside the NHL. But some of that buzz surrounding Ruutu dissipated in January 2003, when his season was ended on this ugly kneeing incident. That was just the start.
Ruutu was healthy by next season, though, and debuted with the 2003-04 Blackhawks. He played in all 82 games, scoring 23 goals with 21 assists, finishing sixth in the Calder Trophy voting. Ruutu’s final 24 games were especially encouraging: he had 14 goals and 13 assists in that span, a 92-point pace over an 82-game schedule.
And that summer, he scored this dazzling goal in the 2004 World Cup of Hockey, dangling past three players (including Hall-of-Famer Scott Niedermayer) before beating Hall-of-Fame goaltender Martin Brodeur:
Ruutu’s stint with Finland in the World Cup was cut short by a shoulder injury. There’s that “I” word again. Then, of course, came the damn lockout.
Ruutu played no hockey in 2004-05, opting to let his body heal. He came back for the 2005-06 season but played in just seven games in the final three months of 2005 due to a bad back. Ruutu returned in January and skated in four straight games, then went down with a partially-severed tendon in his ankle.
Side note: While researching for this article, I had a vivid flashback to watching that injury happen. It looked like Ruutu just tripped over the net while battling for a loose puck. Somehow, someone’s skate nicked his ankle tendon during that process. It may have been his own skate, it may have been an opponent’s. Even coach Trent Yawney couldn’t figure it out when he watched the game film.
That injury cost him three more months. Rumors swirled in the offseason that the onslaught of injuries had Ruutu considering retirement, although Ruutu denied those rumors in this Chicago Tribune article.
By the 2006-07 season, Ruutu was healthy for 71 games, scoring 17 goals with 21 assists. Decent numbers for a third-line type of player but not for a guy who was taken ninth overall in the draft. Injuries had robbed Ruutu of the ability to consistently make plays like the above highlight-reel goal. There were still glimpses of those skills, at times, but not quite as many as the Blackhawks would have hoped when they drafted him.
Ruutu didn’t have great luck off the ice, either. He was once mistakenly arrested in the Chicago suburb of Bensenville — where the Blackhawks practice facilities used to be — while out for a jog after practice. Ruutu was taken into custody by local authorities before a witness confirmed he was not the suspect in an alleged armed robbery
By the 2007-08 season, Ruutu was nearly an afterthought in Chicago because of all the younger players emerging and he didn’t appear to be part of Chicago’s future plans. That was confirmed on Feb. 26, 2008, when Ruutu was traded to the Carolina Hurricanes for Andrew Ladd, the No. 4 pick in the 2004 NHL Draft.
But Ruutu’s luck significantly improved once he left for Chicago. He played for another eight seasons in the NHL, most of them in Carolina. He had a pair of 50-point seasons, too, scoring 54 in 2008-09 and a career-high 57 in 2010-11. Ruutu was later traded to the New Jersey Devils during the 2013-14 season and remained there through 2016.
Overall, Ruutu had a nice NHL career: he played in 735 NHL games with 148 goals and 198 assists. And the Blackhawks traded Ruutu for a player who was instrumental in their first Cup victory. But it always seemed like Ruutu was destined for more in Chicago, until a litany of injuries robbed him of the opportunity.