The Chicago Blackhawks are fully aware their blue-line play has to improve next season if they’re going to put an abysmal last-place finish in the Central behind them. However, the organization seems to believe that the natural progressions of their young puck-moving defenders might spare them from throwing around money in free agency or giving up an asset in a trade. Henri Jokiharju is a big reason why.
Last year’s first-round pick, Jokiharju is an elite offensive threat from the point, and his movement skills allow him to get into solid defensive position. That makes him the quintessential Blackhawks defender. However, moving him to the NHL too quickly may come with consequences.
Jokiharju has scored 119 points in 134 games in the WHL. But as skilled as he is, he still is only 18 years old and has to add strength to his 6-foot, 181-pound frame before getting top-4 ice time. In an ideal world, that might mean easing him into a third-pairing role, but the Blackhawks’ need on the blue line is so significant that might not be possible.
So then it becomes an issue of balancing what’s best for Jokiharju against what might be best in the short-term for the Blackhawks. And those decisions become harder and harder based on how you think this roster is positioned for making another run at a championship.
With an aging core, the Blackhawks might be inclined to give it everything they’ve got and try to wring every last drop out of the 18-year-old’s skills right now at the cost of stunting his development. The primary concern would be that necessity forces him to play more conservatively in an effort to fit Joel Quenneville’s system, possibly restricting his offensive capabilities.
Jokiharju is expected to sign his entry-level contract before training camp, which will give us a better indication if he’s ready for the game’s top level. However, if he looks fringy, the decision-making process will be fascinating.
As Scott Powers of The Athletic pointed out in his prospect rankings earlier this week, Jokiharju is technically on loan from his Finnish team to the Portland Winterhawks. So the Blackhawks apparently aren’t sure if they even can send him to Rockford in the AHL if he doesn’t make the NHL team.
That leaves the possibility that he could play in the NHL, AHL, WHL or go back to Finland for the 2018-19 season (though that seems least likely). Of course, there’s always the possibility that he dazzles in training camp and steps in as a top-4 quality defender from the beginning, making this all irrelevant.
But if he doesn’t, what the Blackhawks elect to do with him might tell us a lot about where they think they’re at defensively. If they think he could play now but elect to sit him, it could indicate that they’re willing to show patience at the expense of putting the most talented blue line on the ice. If they think he might not be and move forward anyway, it’s a sign of desperation.
The organization already needs Gustav Forsling, Jan Rutta, Erik Gustafsson, Jordan Oesterle and Connor Murphy to take significant steps forward this season. They also are hoping that Duncan Keith and Brent Seabrook can respond to trying seasons with a bounce-back year.
If all those pieces fall perfectly into place, it might absolve them from making any mistakes with Jokiharju. If Jokiharju is somehow a star overnight, it also bails them out.
Anything in between and things get a little tricky for the Blackhawks.