2017 first-rounder Henri Jokiharju aiming for a Blackhawks roster spot at 19
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The most obvious comparison for Blackhawks defenseman Henri Jokiharju, the guy who proved what he’s hoping to accomplish can be done, is the Bruins’ Charlie McAvoy.
Last season, one year removed from his draft year, a 19-year-old McAvoy became an instant success on the Bruins’ blue line, a stalwart who produced offensively and held his own defensively.
But Jokiharju said he doesn’t have to look that far for a role model.
‘‘I actually get more hope and confidence from Alex DeBrincat,’’ Jokiharju said in a phone interview Sunday. ‘‘He’s such a great player. He came into the group [at 19 years old] and scored 52 points his rookie season. That’s phenomenal. I have a lot of respect for that kind of guy, and it gives me more hope. It’s a boost for me.’’
Few expected DeBrincat to make the Hawks out of training camp last season. But he looked great in prospect camp, looked even better in the rookie tournament in Traverse City, Michigan, then forced his way on to the NHL roster in training camp. That’s the route Jokiharju — the Hawks’ first-round pick in 2017 — hopes to take, starting with prospect camp Monday at MB Ice Arena.
Of course, it’s not unusual for 19-year-old forwards to enter the league and find success. It’s a lot less common for defensemen to do so.
‘‘You have to defend bigger guys, and only six defensemen play in a game, so it’s harder to make the team,’’ Jokiharju said. ‘‘And if you’re a forward, if you make a couple of mistakes, it’s not that big. There are always two or three guys defending. If you make a big mistake as a D-man, it’s more likely that they score. You have to be ready and be the complete package to make the NHL.’’
The Hawks, desperate for a right-handed shot to step in and become a reliable top-four — if not top-two — defenseman, will give Jokiharju every opportunity to prove he is that complete package.
‘‘He’s pretty excited about coming into camp and trying to make our hockey team,’’ coach Joel Quenneville said. ‘‘He’ll make that decision for us. He’s certainly somebody [who] we’re looking forward to seeing his progression from last year.’’
Jokiharju tore up the Western Hockey League last season, posting 12 goals and 59 assists in 63 games in his second season with the Portland Winterhawks. The Winterhawks are moving on without him, so he likely will end up in Chicago or Rockford this season.
It’s also possible Jokiharju will go to the Finnish Elite League for a year. It’s unlikely, but Jokiharju has some history with it. His father, Juha, played for more than a decade in the Liiga. Juha was a point-a-game winger for much of his career, and Henri said he briefly flirted with the idea of making a run at the NHL.
‘‘He was kind of close but kind of not close,’’ Jokiharju said with a laugh. ‘‘His biggest dream was to play in the Finnish league and win the Finnish league, and he did that.’’
Jokiharju, on the other hand, has a different dream. And he’s awfully close to realizing it.
‘‘You want to dream big, and you don’t want to set the bar too low,’’ he said. ‘‘I think it’s realistic for me [to play in the NHL this year], so I want to set the bar high.’’