Under normal circumstances, having a 19-year-old defenseman break camp, lead the D-men in possession, and contribute 12 assists (7 primary) would be considered a coup for an organization that hasn’t brought a quality D-man up through its system since Niklas Hjalmarsson (skypoint Cam Barker). Likewise, having a 19-year-old D-man posting 17 points in 30 games in the AHL would be cause for cautious optimism.
Henri Jokiharju managed to do both, and thanks to his bosses, he managed to do it in the most back assward way possible. And here we stand in puzzlement, wondering whether Harju will be anything more than a trade piece when it’s all said and done, despite all the good he did.
38 GP, 0 G, 12 A, 12 P
54.1 CF%, 47.97 xGF% [5v5]
It Comes With a Free Frogurt!
There was a ton to like about Harju this year.
The most obvious was his sparkling 54.1 CF%, which led all Hawks D-men by some distance and set Harju as one of exactly three Hawks D-men not named Dennis Gilbert to eclipse 50 on the year. (Slater Koekkoek was second with a 52+ and everyone’s favorite Erik Gustafsson third with a 50+.) His CF Rel% was also second on the Hawks at 5.4, just ahead of Brandon Saad and behind Dylan Sikura. For a team with such rampantly dogshit defense and poor goaltending while Harju was up, those possession numbers come with even more weight.
He also had 12 points over 38 games, outpacing guys like Gustav Forsling, Slater Koekkoek, Carl Dahlstrom, and Brandon Motherfucking Manning. These were all guys who were the equivalent of wiping your ass with a vinyl shower curtain by just about every metric and eye test, and who nonetheless got minutes over Harju at times.
And he did all of this paired with a couldn’t-be-bothered Duncan Keith, who, when he wasn’t pouting and pissing over whatever it is that chaps his already dangerously red ass, simply refused to fall into the free safety role he’s going to have to learn to live with if he wants to be effective.
Certainly by stats and mostly by sight, Harju was a Top 3 D-man on a historically bad blue line. That’s not a bad rookie year for a 19-year-old.
The Frogurt Is Also Cursed
Let’s get the stuff that was somewhat under Harju’s control out of the way first. Remember those 12 points he had? Five of them came within the first three games the Hawks played. He had games where he was overpowered on the boards, which you should expect from a 19-year-old D-man making his first run at it. If you want to argue he should have scored at least ONE GOAL (TICKETS STILL AVAILABLE), I’ll hang up and listen to that too.
But it’s the stuff that was out of his control that made his season one of the most frustrating since Our Special Boy was getting beaten with a bag of sweet Valencia oranges (they won’t leave a bruise!) by future cigarette boat enthusiast and Florida Man Joel Quenneville (who, ironically, thrust Harju into a top-pairing role from the get go).
His PDO, which is a rough measure of luck (below 1.000 is bad luck, above is good), was a comical .963. Mark Lazerus noted that the Hawks’s team save percentage was an abysmal .896 with Jokiharju on the ice, whereas no other regular Hawks D-man experienced anything lower than a .921. And once Colliton took over, his TOI dropped precipitously, despite the fact that he was one of the best—if not THE best—D-men the Hawks had.
And then there was the jerking him around. You might recall that the Hawks sent Jokiharju over to Finland for World Juniors, and he wasn’t particularly happy about it. Stan Bowman’s throbbing galaxy brain called it a “confidence booster,” which, as you know by now, is code for “None of us had the stones to scratch Seabrook.” But the thing about confidence boosters is that you have to ride them, not shove the players with the “confidence boost” down the depth chart and max out at a 16:45 TOI upon returning, which is exactly what THE GREAT COMMUNICATOR did.
It took all of six games before they demoted Harju after returning from getting his confidence boost. This was after playing him on his off side with Seabrook, and then subsequently scratching him in the next game because he, get this, had a hard time playing with the worst D-man the Hawks have. Once again, Harju wasn’t happy about the demotion, and it’s hard to blame him.
But you know what? It might not have been the worst thing in the world for him to play some time in the AHL, get his sea legs, and come up as a legit candidate to play on the top pairing at the beginning of the year. There were times he looked overmatched and confused. But why in the middle of the year, after Harju had shown he could run in the NHL and in the midst of a “playoff run”? What other team sends one of its best players away, twice, at the very moment they’re saying they’re trying to make the playoffs? The way the organ-I-zation handled Harju, from beginning to end, should be cause for concern.
They jilted him twice in one year against his will and stats. When they weren’t sending him off to beat up on children at Worlds or avoid the beer-league rats toiling in the AHL, they were sticking him on his off side with the so-bad-it’s-not-funny-anymore Brent Seabrook and neutering his playing time. All of this while still pushing the “this is a playoff team” narrative right up until their formal elimination. You can’t blame Harju for any of that, but you have to wonder how it’s gonna affect his development and desire to play for this team long term. Real good spot to be in after dressing such a historically bad blue line.
If you ever needed more proof that the Brain Trust was born on third, look no further than inciteful decisions like these.
Can I Go Now?
As it stands, Harju should be a top-pairing guy next year. The question will be, “Is that enough?” A 20-year-old with good possession numbers in a small sample is nice. Coupled with the offensive potential he’s shown in the A and WHL, he starts to look really nice. But if the goal is to make one more run at a Cup with the Core still here, Harju has to develop into that #1 guy, and quickly. Jerking him around all year doesn’t seem like the best way to foster that development.
The other bugaboo now is that you have Ian Mitchell returning to Denver, Adam Boqvist reportedly nowhere near ready for the NHL, and Nicolas Beaudin likely in the same boat as Boqvist right now. If the Hawks want to make a play at a proven #1 D-man—and if you haven’t been following, the Hawks absolutely need one, and they’ll likely need to trade for it—Jokiharju is probably one of the best pieces they have to work with. As Sam said, you can’t fit all four of them on the same blue line AND expect THE CORE to still be here. But we can do that thought experiment later.
Overall, Harju had an excellent introductory season and got punished for it, because there’s no fucking plan, just a process.
They never said it was a good process.
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