Henri Jokiharju has been one of the Blackhawks' most reliable defensemen this season. He ranks fourth on the club in even-strength ice time and is tied for second among team defensemen with 11 assists.
But at 19 years of age, he's eligible to play in the 2019 IIHF World Junior Championship for one last time and the Blackhawks loaned him to Team Finland on Tuesday to do exactly that. It's a chance to go up against the elite players at his own age from around the world and play in every situation.
"It's a great opportunity for him but also for our team," coach Jeremy Colliton said. "We're thinking about what kind of player he's going to be months down the road and years down the road. It's a chance for him to go there and be, if not the top player, one of the top players and help lead them to success, being a leader and being a top, top guy. You don't get those chances very often. He'll have the opportunity to be a big part of their team and make a lot of plays.
"He's a confident kid, but get more swagger in his game. Then when he comes back here he can contribute even more to our team."
Jokiharju recorded four points (two goals, two assists) in five games for Finland during last year's tournament; his four points ranked tied for first on his country's blue line. Finland's run ended in disappointing fashion, getting upset by the Czech Republic 4-3 in a shootout in the quarterfinals.
Jokiharju is expected to be a leader on this year's team, which is hoping to bounce back in a big way and make a real run at the championship. And the Blackhawks like that idea for his development, even though it takes away a key part of their back end.
"We're going to build this team to the highest level we can," Colliton said. "It's the best thing now for our team and also for him. If we're going to win, we need him to be a big part of our success, and so this is the right thing for his development. Then it's a no-brainer.
"He wants to be here. He wants to play in the NHL. It's the highest level. But he gets the chance to play for his country. Like we told him, they're so excited to have him. It's a lot of responsibility for him. It can really help him grow as a person and a leader and a player. He's got to embrace the opportunity, but I think he will and it can be a great experience for him."
The tournament will run from Dec. 26 through Jan. 5, 2019 in Vancouver.
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