After just three games, the Blackhawks look like they have a keeper in 19-year-old defenseman Henri Jokiharju.
And of all the indicators leading to that very early conclusion — the standard statistics (five assists), the advanced stats (a 67.3 Corsi percentage), his plus-minus (plus-5), his playing time (19:39), the eye test — the biggest indicator of all is Hawks coach Joel Quenneville.
Generally a tough critic who’s not easily impressed, Quenneville might be the charter member of the Henri Jokiharju Fan Club. As it turns out, it’s not young players that Quenneville disdains — it’s young players who play like young players. Jokiharju doesn’t do that.
“Looked like he has played the game for a long, long time at this level,” Quenneville said after the Hawks’ opener against the Senators, a 4-3 overtime victory Thursday night.
And, after Jokiharju had two assists Saturday night in a 5-4 overtime victory against the Blues in St. Louis, more of the same:
“I like his competitiveness. I like his poise and patience for a youngster,” Quenneville said. “He’s only going to get better in how he’s going to read situations, play around his net in his own end. But I like how he wants the puck. He really has good patience and good play-recognition.”
But wait, there’s more.
“He complements [Duncan Keith] in a lot of ways. He breaks out on some tight-coverage plays coming in off their forecheck. Seems to get some relief with direct plays exiting as well. So it’s been definitely a good start for him. I think he’s going to be in a lot of games back there.”
And that was before Sunday night’s 7-6 overtime loss to the Maple Leafs, when Jokiharju had three assists. Besides setting up Patrick Kane twice for tying goals in the final 1:24 of regulation, Jokiharju showed off a trait that is sure to warm Quenneville’s heart — a knack for shooting the puck from the blue line and getting it through. Leafs goalie Garret Sparks stopped the shot, allowing John Hayden to score on the rebound to tie the game 3-3 in the second period.
That elicited yet another Quenneville compliment that seems more like a predictor of staying power than Jokiharju simply being a rookie off to a hot start against opponents unfamiliar with him.
“There’s probably going to be a few situations every period that are going to be new and he can learn from,” Quenneville said. “But you’ve got to love his poise and patience as the game progresses. He seems to get better as the game goes along as well.”
Jokiharju is putting up good numbers, but it’s the intangibles that matter most. As Quenneville noted, at 19, Jokiharju looks like he’s been here for a while. The game isn’t too big for him. Based on his play in close games, big moments aren’t too big for him, either. The Hawks could have used this kid in the playoffs in 2016 and 2017. But alas, he was just 15 and 16 at the time.
You can’t blame Quenneville for being excited — he’s like a guy stranded in the desert who just found a glass of water. The Hawks haven’t acquired a top-four defenseman to complement Keith, Brent Seabrook and the since-departed Niklas Hjalmarsson since they traded for Johnny Oduya in 2012. Every veteran acquired has failed to fill the bill. And every prospect who has come from Rockford has either been sent back for seasoning, traded or let go in the expansion draft.
It’ll take more than three games to know whether Jokiharju is a mirage. But the Hawks defensive corps is Quenneville’s baby. When he’s this excited, it’s a good bet this kid is here to stay.