The Chicago Blackhawks have made plenty of moves this offseason, but none maybe more surprising, at least to fans, than the decision to part ways with 2017 first round pick Henri Jokiharju.
The Blackhawks made that decision on Tuesday, sending the defenseman to the Buffalo Sabres in exchange for forward Alexander Nylander.
The big question on the minds of every fan in the wake of the trade is a simple one: why pull the plug now? Why make what amounts to an admission of failure just two years after using a first round draft pick to take the defenseman, and just 38 games into his NHL career?
To the first point, the Blackhawks will likely point to Jokiharju’s style of game and argue that it doesn’t mesh well with head coach Jeremy Colliton’s vision of how he wants his defense to play. Yes, the Finnish-born blue liner has some good athleticism, but he does not have elite speed, elite hands, or elite shooting ability, and that lack of elite characteristics can be looked at as a negative quality for a player ostensibly ticketed for a top-two role in a defensive system, as Jokiharju was in the minds of some Blackhawks fans.
With all of that in mind, the Blackhawks would argue that the decision to cut Jokiharju loose isn’t a matter of the organization failing in their scouting of the defenseman’s skills, The reality is that his game fit Joel Quenneville’s system much better, as he was likely going to be a bit of a jack-of-all-trades, capable of generating some offense while growing into a more defensively-responsible blue liner.
That isn’t the role that Colliton needed him to fill, and as a result, he’s looking for real estate in northern New York.
To the second point, yes, Jokiharju was only given 38 NHL games to prove that he had what it took to play at the pro level, but the team made its feelings known about him on multiple occasions during the 2018-19 season. The club let him play for Finland in the World Championships, pitting him against competition that he should have been clearly superior to. The team also sent him down to the AHL’s Rockford IceHogs, giving him another opportunity to feast on subpar competition.
His numbers weren’t bad in either case, as he registered 17 points in 30 games with the IceHogs and scored two goals and added three assists in seven games with the Finnish squad, but the reality is that he didn’t jump off the screen at any point during his stints away from the team, and thus the Blackhawks felt that it would be okay if they moved on from him.
So what should Blackhawks fans make of the trade as a whole? In the short-term, it’s likely a net-negative for the squad, as Nylander isn’t the type of player likely to light the world on fire. That being said, other players like Dylan Strome and Drake Caggiula have played well after coming to the Blackhawks’ system, and perhaps that’s what G.M. Stan Bowman is banking on with Nylander in this deal.
Another question the trade raises is why the Blackhawks didn’t take their third overall pick in last month’s draft and select defenseman Bowen Byram, knowing full well that they were likely going to jettison one of the more attractive prospects in their organization. That question is one that likely won’t get a satisfactory answer from anyone, and it’s one that Blackhawks fans are more than entitled to be upset about.