One of the more interesting moves of the Buffalo Sabres offseason was the trade to acquire defenseman Henri Jokiharju in exchange for Alex Nylander. The 2017 first-round pick came over from the Chicago Blackhawks with a lot of potential.
He played big minutes with the Blackhawks for the first half of last season before being sent down to the AHL when new head coach Jeremy Colliton took over behind the bench. The Finnish defender came to the Sabres with the reputation of being a solid puck mover with a high ceiling.
The 20-year-old defender is off to a great start in the first four games of the season. Jokiharju has given us a brief glimpse of his potential to start this season. He’s been paired with Marco Scandella in each game and they’ve been solid, except the game against the Blue Jackets.
One of the more impressive things about his game so far is how he’s helped turn around the play of Scandella. We’ve discussed on numerous occasions how much the veteran defender struggled last season. Scandella usually gets himself into trouble with the puck on his stick. So far this season, he appears to understand the strength in Jokiharju’s game of puck distribution. He’s relying on his partner to begin the breakout while providing some veteran experience on the ice.
Scandella and Jokiharju have dominated puck possession when they’ve been on the ice in three of the four games this season. They lead all defensemen on the team in 5 on 5 score and venue adjusted Corsi per 60 minutes according to Natural Stat Trick. Entering play last night, the two were in the top 20 among all NHL defensemen in scored adjusted CF%.
Jokiharju has yet to register a point for the Sabres, but he’s made his impact on the team offensively in other ways. One thing that is obvious when you watch the young defender is his willingness to hold the offensive blue line. He knows when to pinch at the right time and keep the offensive possession alive.
You saw this unfold on Jeff Skinner’s goal against the Montreal Canadiens on Wednesday night. At the beginning of the GIF below, you’ll see Jokiharju defend the offensive blue line and force a turnover by the Canadiens forward. Marcus Johansson picks it up and feeds Skinner for his third of the season.
His ability to start the breakout in the defensive zone with his passing has been a key to the Sabres’ strong transition game through the first four games of the season. Ralph Krueger has a system that welcomes stretch passes out of the defensive zone to flip his team from defense to offense quickly. Jokiharju is a perfect defender to play in this system. The pass he made to Zemgus Girgensons on opening night in Pittsburgh is a good example of the type of play I’m referring to.
He has showcased a strong hockey IQ and excellent vision on the ice. At both ends of the ice, he can read the play and knows what he wants to do with the puck before it ends up on his stick.
It’s still early in the season and like most things we’ve witnessed thus far, we shouldn’t get carried away. However, Jokiharju is off to a promising start in his Sabres career. They may have a young top-four defenseman on their hands. He’ll be a fun player to watch develop as the season goes on.