Henri Jokiharju

The Blackhawks' thinking behind Henri Jokiharju's development

The Blackhawks' thinking behind Henri Jokiharju's development

A little more than a month ago, the Blackhawks were in the basement of the entire NHL. And Henri Jokiharju's minutes were dwindling.

At the time, it probably made sense to send him to Rockford, where he could regroup mentally and play in all situations on the top pairing. But things have changed rather dramatically now that the Blackhawks are in the middle of a legit playoff race.

On Friday, Jokiharju was recalled on an emergency basis because Brent Seabrook (abdominal strain) was out and Carl Dahlstrom (flu-like symptoms) was a game-time decision. Jokiharju played, and logged a season-low 9:14 of ice time. He took just three shifts in the third period.

The reports after Friday's morning skate were that Jokiharju's stint wouldn't necessarily be temporary. But it was, with the Blackhawks sending him back to Rockford on Saturday morning.

"I just think the other guys played pretty well," coach Jeremy Colliton said. "When I look at Henri's game, we're happy. I see a growth from when he left us to go to Rockford to now. Circumstances required us to bring him for the game, just with Seabs and Dahlstrom. Dahlstrom probably could've played in the end, but we didn't know that in the morning. So we wanted to get Henri since we called him up, but we feel that he's where he should be in Rockford and we're happy with his progression and how he's handling it. He's playing 21, 22 minutes every night and we're seeing a growth in his game, so that's a positive."

There are two sides to this development: The Blackhawks obviously want Jokiharju to be playing heavy minutes and developing as an elite defenseman. But they also want him playing in meaningful games.

The easy thing to wonder is, why can't he do that in Chicago rather than Rockford? Isn't he one of the team's better defensemen? Well, yes. But the Blackhawks don't want to run him into the ground at age 19. Young guys tend to struggle with the grind of an 82-game season because it takes a toll physically and mentally to do that against grown men in the NHL.

In the AHL, it's less taxing and, quite frankly, there's not as much pressure because he's not in the spotlight every night. There's value in developing at your own pace and doing it out of the spotlight, and the Blackhawks are looking at it from that lens.

"He's been great," Colliton said of Jokiharju's attitude. "We've had really good feedback, talked to [IceHogs interim coach Derek King] and [assistant coach] Anders [Sorensen] obviously, how he's been down there. He's been a pro. I think that's been good for him too. Initially when we sent him down he wasn't very happy. But when he got there, it was like, 'Oh OK, maybe this is a good thing.' And that was the reaction last night too.

"Yeah, he wants to be in the NHL, he wants to be a great player, an elite player and that's what we want too. But he's where he should be right now."

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Blackhawks send struggling rookie Henri Jokiharju to Rockford as blue line crowds up

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AP

Blackhawks send struggling rookie Henri Jokiharju to Rockford as blue line crowds up

With the Blackhawks getting set to return from their nine-day hiatus in Buffalo, Henri Jokiharju was assigned to the Rockford IceHogs of the American Hockey League on Thursday.

It's both surprising but also not, considering his ice time has dipped for the last month and a half. He averaged exactly 20:00 minutes of ice time per game in his first 32 games, and was the team leader in 5-on-5 ice time before he left for the 2019 World Juniors.

In his most recent content before the All-Star break, Jokiharju logged only 12:55 in a 3-2 shootout win over the New York Islanders. It was the second time in four games he had logged fewer than 13 minutes, and in between that stretch he was a healthy scratch.

With Slater Koekkoek part of the mix and Gustav Forsling returning from his upper torso injury soon, perhaps that's part of why the decision was made to send Jokiharju down. He can reset in Rockford and play in all situations rather than rotating in and out of the lineup on a nightly basis.

It's a long 82-game season, and many rookies struggle with that in their first year. It's a lot of hockey they're not used to. Jokiharju is no different.

"I think as a 19-year-old, we're pleased with his progression," coach Jeremy Colliton said before the break. "It's not going to happen overnight where he becomes a dominant player at this level. There's going to be ups and downs, and that's part of the journey as a young player. You got to go through some adversity, and it's not going to be perfect and that's fine. It's up to us to give us to give him the feedback he needs to continue to improve and up to him to work as hard as he can."

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Blackhawks know development won’t be linear for Henri Jokiharju

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AP

Blackhawks know development won’t be linear for Henri Jokiharju

The Blackhawks couldn't have been more pleased with how Henri Jokiharju performed at the 2019 World Juniors. He was one of Finland's best and most reliable players, and played a crucial leadership role for his country that won gold.

But he hasn't been as effective on the blue line as he was before he left. 

In four games since returning to the Blackhawks, Jokiharju has one assist, two shots on goal, a minus-3 rating and is averaging only 14:47 of ice time. He averaged exactly 20:00 minutes of ice time per game in his first 32 contests and was among the top Chicago skaters in 5-on-5 ice time.

On Sunday against the Washington Capitals, he was a healthy scratch.

"I think as a 19-year-old, we're pleased with his progression," coach Jeremy Colliton said. "It's not going to happen overnight where he becomes a dominant player at this level. There's going to be ups and downs, and that's part of the journey as a young player. You got to go through some adversity, and it's not going to be perfect and that's fine. It's up to us to give us to give him the feedback he needs to continue to improve and up to him to work as hard as he can."

To be fair, Jokiharju hasn't exactly been put in the best positions to succeed as of late. In one of the games, he was moved to the left side as an experiment for the Blackhawks, who organizationally have a surplus of right-handed shot defensemen. In another, the team rolled with seven defensemen, which makes it difficult for any defender to get in a groove.

The other part of the equation is that the Blackhawks are currently at seven defensemen, and have another on the way when Gustav Forsling returns from his upper-torso injury. Somebody needs to come out. Two guys, actually.

The Blackhawks aren’t looking at this stretch for Jokiharju as a setback. They know player developments aren’t linear, especially with young defensemen. So they’ll be patient with him and make sure he’s growing into the player they all want him to become at his own pace, even if it means cutting back his ice time.

"I'm not sure the way to go is to play them until they drown," Colliton said. "I think we try to give them what they can handle and sometimes maybe give them less than they can handle while giving them feedback, whether it's off-ice work or video work or extra practice time. That can be part of the picture. We could end up with a rotation on defense with some of the young guys we have. That wouldn't be a bad thing either. We have some young players. It's tough to play 82 games at this level against top competition night in and night out. It could be an option to lighten the load somewhat."

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