Blackhawks Prioritize Development Over Results With Jokiharju

Chicago Blackhawks defenseman Henri Jokiharju has had a very interesting first professional season. First, not only did he make the NHL out of training camp, but he also played big minutes while paired with Duncan Keith.

In December, he was loaned to Team Finland for the World Junior Championships, where he played a major role in their gold medal win. He was then reassigned to the Rockford IceHogs in the American Hockey League and has spent the last month down there, save a one-game emergency call-up.

Jokiharju’s Usage Affected by Coaching Change

When the Blackhawks fired Joel Quenneville in November, many felt Jokiharju would flourish under new head coach Jeremy Colliton. As we look back, it turns out the exact opposite is true. In his 15 games playing for Quenneville, Jokiharju only played under 20 minutes three times. He eclipsed the 20-minute mark just five times in his 23 NHL games after the coaching change.

Even with spending the last month in the AHL, Jokiharju still leads the Blackhawks with a 54.3 shot attempt percentage. He also still leads all Blackhawks defensemen by starting 60.7 percent of his shifts in the offensive zone.

Henri Jokiharju, Rockford Icehogs
Henri Jokiharju has been helping the IceHogs late-season surge. (Jenae Anderson / The Hockey Writers)

When Jokharju was reassigned to the IceHogs on Jan. 31, the move came as a surprise to many fans. Even as we watch the Blackhawks defense struggle on a nightly basis, this move wasn’t made for this season’s team, but rather for Jokiharju’s long-term future and success.

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Making the Best of a Demotion

Jokiharju’s time in Rockford has been beneficial. He is playing big minutes, being used in key situations and getting plenty of time on both the top power play and penalty kill units. These are things that were not happening in Chicago.

“I definitely want to be that type of defenseman,” Jokiharju said about playing big minutes in his AHL debut. “You have to play good to earn those minutes.”

Henri Jokiharju, Rockford Icehogs
Henri Jokiharju is playing in every situation with the IceHogs. (Jenae Anderson / The Hockey Writers)

The Blackhawks felt that “bum-slaying” in the AHL and hopefully getting some postseason games under his belt would go further in his development than trying to make a terrible defensive corps better in the NHL.

“He’s a special player, especially at this level,” IceHogs interim head coach Derek King of Jokiharju. “I think he manages it, the way he plays, he can handle it. He’s just so smooth out there.

“He reminds me a little bit of like a (Nicklas) Lidstrom or someone like that. He can play the whole game, probably, and not really kill himself. He gets his shots through. He simplifies the game. He makes clean flat passes”

Many IceHogs Benefiting from Jokiharju’s Play

Jokiharju scored in his first AHL game against the Chicago Wolves. You add that to his 11 assists and he is nearly a point-per-game player in 13 contests. Seven of his 11 helpers with the IceHogs have been primary assists.

There are have been plenty of forwards in Rockford who have benefited from Jokiharju’s addition to the roster. Luke Johnson is one such player as he has six goals and 12 points since Feb. 1, with many of them occurring with Jokiharju on the ice.

“Yeah, for sure,” Johnson replied when asked if he makes an extra effort to get to the net when Jokiharju is out there. “I think, knowing certain guys’ tendencies, you kind of try to think about that stuff when you’re on the ice. Obviously, Joki, he does a really good job of getting pucks through when he’s on the point. I just try to go the net and sometimes you get lucky by going there.”

Luke Johnson Rockford Icehogs
Luke Johnson has benefitted from play with Jokiharju. (Jenae Anderson / The Hockey Writers)

Time Will Tell if This was the Right Move

The demotion may not have sat well with Jokiharju, but the youngster has not let that affect his play on the ice.

“It’s good for him,” King added. “With guys getting sent down, you always worry if they are going to have the lip on or feel like they aren’t getting treated right. Every guy that has come down from the Hawks have been very good pros.”

You have to remember that Jokiharju is still only 19 years old. While he is better than guys on the Blackhawks roster, including Carl Dahlstrom, Gustav Forsling and Slater Koekkoek, the Blackhawks need Jokiharju to be a top player for years to come. They feel he will achieve that by being a big fish in a small pond down in the AHL.

“When I look at Henri’s game, we’re happy,” Colliton said after his one-game return to the NHL last week. “I see growth from when he left to go to Rockford to now. Circumstances required us to bring him for the game, just with Seabs and Dahlstrom. Dahlstrom probably could have played in the end, but we didn’t know that in the morning. We wanted to get Henri in, seeing as we called him up, but we feel he’s where he should be in Rockford. We’re happy with his progression and how he’s handling it. He’s playing 21-22 minutes every night and we’re seeing growth in his game. That’s a positive on that.”

Head Coach Jeremy Colliton
Jeremy Colliton and the Blackhawks are happy with Jokiharju’s progress. (Photo by Gregg Forwerck/NHLI via Getty Images)

Jokiharju has had the right attitude during all of this and he has been a huge part of the IceHogs’ late-season surge as they are tied for the final playoff spot in the Central Division.

“I want to win every game,” he said. “I think we have a good group of guys. It’s fun to be around here. The biggest part is to focus on the win and then hopefully on getting better.”

Whether you want to see Jokiharju back in the NHL or are fine with his time in AHL, the organization is more concerned about his personal development than if he can help the Blackhawks this season. Only time will tell if this was the correct way to handle this situation.