Jason Botterill made another move yesterday to bolster his roster and this one was a considerable sized trade of high-end prospects. The Buffalo Sabres sent 2016 first-round pick Alex Nylander to the Chicago Blackhawks for 2017 first-round pick Henri Jokiharju.
The Sabres general manager continues to bolster his defense and particularly on the right side. Jokiharju is the second right-shot defender that he acquired this offseason. All of sudden the blue line is full of quick-skating, puck-moving defensemen.
In regards to Nylander, this move isn’t surprising. He’s struggled to get traction in the NHL with the Sabres and a change of scenery is probably best for him. There are a lot of question marks about his ability to have success in the NHL. If he gets the opportunity to play in a top-six role with the Blackhawks on a line with Patrick Kane, Jonathan Toews or Dylan Strome it’s possible he can begin to reach some of his potential.
For the Sabres, they’re adding another young blueliner to their roster. Jokiharju is only 20-years-old and played in 38 games last season with the Blackhawks in the first half of the season. He played the second half of the season in the AHL with the Rockford IceHogs. The Finnish defender was utilized on the top pair with Duncan Keith under Joel Quenneville. Then when Quenneville was let go, he fell out of favor with new head coach Jeremy Colliton.
In his 38 games this season, Jokiharju picked up 12 assists and was one of their defensemen in on-ice expected goals. According to Moneypuck, he was the best defenseman in on-ice xG% (47.8%) and had the best relative xG% on the entire roster during the 2018-19 campaign.
As a 19-year-old rookie averaging 19 minutes a night, his underlying numbers and offensive contributions were impressive. According to Corey Sznajder’s tracking data, Jokiharju was the top defenseman in primary shot contributions per 60. This metric looks at shots and primary shot assists by a player that generates a rating on their offensive contribution.
His PSC/60 was on the same level as other young star defensemen in Rasmus Dahlin and Miro Heiskanen. Jokiharju slotted between the two in this data point with a 16.77 rate, which is ahead of Heiskanen (15.03) and behind Dahlin (18.89).
Entering the 2017 NHL draft he was touted a solid puck-moving defender that can contribute offensively. So far, that scouting report has translated to the NHL. The chart below from CJ Turtoro’s A3Z tool, using Sznajder’s tracking data grades Jokiharju out favorably in zone exits, shot contributions and even zone-entry defense.
His ability to transition the puck quickly from defense to offense shows up on video as well. This goal highlight below from a game against the St. Louis Blues in October is a prime example of his talent exiting the zone with a pass up the ice that led to a goal. The second half of the clip gives an excellent angle of the play.
This next clip from the World Junior Championship, while he was playing for Finland, shows his ability to carry the puck through the neutral zone with speed feed a teammate for a tap-in goal.
It’s possible that Jokiharju could start next season in the AHL, but he’s probably ready to make the jump to the NHL full-time next season. The key will be for the Sabres to understand that he’s probably not ready to step into a top-four role yet. He was sheltered with the Blackhawks with 59% of his shifts starting in the offensive zone according to Natural Stat Trick. He also played 55% of his time with Duncan Keith as his partner on the left side.
If he’s in the opening night lineup right now it probably makes the most sense to start him on the third pair with a player like Jake McCabe. The two should compliment each other with their different playing styles.
This move falls in line with Botterill’s focus on acquiring puck movers that can skate well. With another right-shot defender in the mix, we’ll see what this signals for the remainder of the Sabres offseason.