Henri Jokiharju’s No. 1 offseason goal might become a reality at the expense of teammate Connor Murphy.
Jokiharju was adamant in June that his top priority heading into the season was to make the Chicago Blackhawks’ roster. And his path to achieving his goal became a lot easier Friday morning before training camp when the team announced Murphy would miss two months with a back injury.
With Murphy sidelined for at least 19 regular-season games, the Hawks will need to add depth to their right side on defense. That’s where Jokiharju enters the fray.
Jokiharju, a 2017 first-round pick, was one of the top defenseman last season in the Western Hockey League. The 6-foot, 181-pounder tallied 12 goals and 71 points in 63 regular-season games for the Portland Winterhawks. The 19-year-old Finnish blueliner signed an three-year entry-level contract with the Hawks in June. His contract could slide a year and begin in the 2019-20 campaign if he plays less than 10 NHL games this upcoming season.
Jokiharju won’t have much competition for a roster spot among right-handed blueliners. Jan Rutta, who signed a one-year contract worth $2.25 million in March, is the only righty with NHL experience. Some other players that will be in contention for playing time are Carl Dahlstrom, Brandon Davidson and Blake Hillman and possibly Lucas Carlsson. All four players are lefties and would be playing on their off side. Carlsson is the lone player among that group that hasn’t played in the NHL, yet.
Duncan Keith and Jokiharju were paired together on Chicago’s top line on the first day of training camp. Even though it was only Day 1, it’s a positive sign to see coach Joel Quenneville give the youngster playing time with a two-time Norris trophy winner.
During the offseason, Jokiharju did workouts with aerobics trainer Jouni Viitanen in Finland to prepare him to make the jump to the NHL. Viitanen told Scott Powers of The Athletic that they worked on Jokiharju’s speed, strength and stamina.
But what if Jokiharju doesn’t make the NHL or the Hawks decide he’s not ready after a few games? Where will he play?
Jokiharju should be able to play with the Rockford IceHogs in the AHL since he was on loan by Liiga’s Tappara for his first year in the WHL. Under the CHL-NHL agreement, a player drafted from a CHL team cannot play in the NHL if he isn’t 20 by December 31 of the current season. Jokiharju doesn’t turn 20 until next June. Powers reported that the Winterhawks aren’t expected to fight the Hawks on the decision if they want to send Jokiharju to the AHL.
With Murphy out at least 19 games and Jokiharju’s 10-game timetable in play, it’ll be interesting to see out the Hawks manage this situation.