Demotion stunned Blackhawks' Jokiharju at first, but he's proving to be quick study in Rockford

                                                                                                                                                                                                   
  • The Blackhawks decided defenseman Henri Jokiharju needed to play more, so they assigned him to the Rockford IceHogs in late January.

    The Blackhawks decided defenseman Henri Jokiharju needed to play more, so they assigned him to the Rockford IceHogs in late January. Associated Press

 
 

When Blackhawks rookie defenseman Henri Jokiharju got the news he was being sent to the minor leagues in late January, his mind went totally blank.

"Kind of weird emotions going on. I was like, 'Oh. Kinda weird.' You don't feel anything," Jokiharju said last week after the Rockford IceHogs wrapped up a practice at MB Ice Arena. "You're just kind of shocked about it."

It's easy to see why.

After all, this figured to be a breakout season for the 19-year-old whom the Hawks drafted 28th overall in 2017.

He was supposed to play 20 to 25 minutes a night in a top-four role, help out on the power play and recharge a defense corps that struggled mightily last season.

At first, that's exactly what happened as Jokiharju was paired with Duncan Keith the first 15 games.

Then came the coaching change and it wasn't long before Jokiharju's role changed drastically.

His playing time plummeted. He was off the power play. Then he left the Hawks in December to play for Team Finland in the IIHF World Juniors, returned for two weeks and was sent to the IceHogs Jan. 31.

"I thought my game was kind of steady. It wasn't that consistent sometimes. But I thought I was pretty steady," Jokiharju said. "But (then) didn't get my ice time and it's pretty hard to play good hockey if you're playing under 13, 15 minutes. …

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"You go D-zone faceoffs; not go that many (in the) offensive zone. I'm still an offensive, creative defenseman, so I need that kind of stuff."

If it sounds like Jokiharju is awfully confident in his abilities, you aren't wrong. There's also a slight undercurrent of cockiness -- but not the kind that necessarily rubs one the wrong way.

"He's got some swagger. He does," IceHogs coach Derek King said. "And you need that.

"He doesn't walk around the locker room (with) chest out and pretending he's the best in the world. He's a real good teammate, he's been real good in the locker room. Guys like him."

When Jokiharju arrived in Rockford, King knew his young defenseman was a bit steamed about the demotion.

"He was upset and he should be," King said. "I mean you shouldn't accept it."

                                                                                                                                                                                                                       
 

Jokiharju scored a goal in his opening game with Rockford, but he also struggled at first to understand that the type of hockey played in the AHL is much different from how it's played in the NHL. That's because he's no longer on the ice with Patrick Kane, Jonathan Toews, Alex DeBrincat and Keith.

Plays that developed and passes that were so easily accepted in October and November suddenly weren't connecting in February. That's forced him to take fewer chances and to get back to basics.

"I think it's good for every young guy to play in the minors," said Keith, who played two full seasons for the Norfolk Admirals before making his Hawks debut in October 2005. "That's where you build your foundation. You get a feel for what pro hockey's all about. It's a good steppingstone to the NHL."

King has found Jokiharju to be "very coachable" and is impressed with how he asks questions or makes suggestions during meetings.

So while this has been -- as Jokiharju aptly put it -- a bit of an "upside down" season, he is trying to help lead the IceHogs to a second straight playoff berth. If Rockford makes it, the added pressure of postseason hockey should serve Jokiharju well down the road.

"I'm a big believer that if you're a top-notch player or a high-end player, coming down here you have to control the game," King said. "You should be able to control that game, or sometimes even take over a game.

"(He was) maybe surprised when he first came down that it's not that easy to do. I think he's getting there. … That's being simple and making the right plays. Being with us he's going to learn to do that. And that'll just help him when he gets back up there."

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