The Blackhawks didn’t expect to be in this situation with a budding top-four defenseman in Henri Jokiharju. At least not this quickly.
See, Jokiharju wasn’t suppose to play in 38 NHL games this past season. Hell, even if he played in the NHL, the Blackhawks only wanted it to be nine games so his three-year entry-level contract would slide and commence in the 2019-20 season. Adding to that, Chicago now has to protect Jokiharju — a 2017 first-rounder — in the 2021 expansion draft.
How did the Blackhawks get here? Injuries to defensemen Gustav Forsling and Connor Murphy.
Forsling, who underwent wrist surgery last July, didn’t make his season debut until mid-November. Murphy returned three weeks after that following rehab from back surgery. With both men out, Jokiharju entered the lineup on opening night.
Jokiharju, who will turn 20 on June 17, tallied eight assists in 15 games under Joel Quenneville before the head coach was fired on Nov. 8. Jeremy Colliton took over and deployed a more man-to-man orientated defensive scheme, leaving Jokiharju paired with Duncan Keith while also giving him a few spins with Erik Gustafsson. Jokiharju played in 17 more games under Colliton with three assists before he was loaned to the Finland’s national team for the World Junior Championship.
At World Juniors, Jokiharju scored two goals and three assists as Finland won gold. He returned to Chicago with added confidence from the tournament, but it didn’t translate on the ice in Colliton’s eyes. Jokiharju only played in five games and was a healthy scratch for others before he was assigned to the AHL, where he spent the rest of the season save for one emergency call-up. While in the AHL, Jokiharju scored two goals with 15 assists in 30 games, and was on the ice for 25 goals for and 20 goals against in 5-on-5 play, according to prospect-stats.com.
How does that rookie season compare to other recent NHL debuts?
The short answer is “quite well.” Below is a table that briefly summarizes debut seasons of some recent first-round picks, with the age of the players in their debut seasons, when it happened and their draft selection included as reference points:
(Zone Start Ratio or “ZSR” is calculated on a 0-1 basis, with 0 as all defensive zone starts, 1 as all offensive zone starts and 0.5 as all neutral zone starts)
Sample size can be a minor issue here, as Jokiharju only played in 38 games, while the majority of the others were on board for the entire season. But there’s still plenty to like from Jokiharju’s numbers, as compared to other young defensemen who recently made the leap to the NHL. Jokiharju’s CF% is No. 3 in this group and his CF% relative to his team is larger than any. The xGF% stat is not as kind to Jokiharju, but some of that can be attributed to the dreadful xGF% numbers for the Blackhawks as a whole. Seeing Jokiharju’s relative xGF% numbers soar above his teammates is an encouraging trend.
The question to ask about Jokiharju, which is similar to the one we asked about Keith on Thursday, is what will happen to Jokiharju’s analytics if the play of the rest of the Blackhawks improve? Will they continue to rise with everyone else or will Jokiharju become the anchor that holds them down?
That answer will be determined in future seasons. But considering Jokiharju was a teenager playing in his first NHL season, it’s hard to be discouraged about his future.