Zawaski: Making Sense Of Hawks' Jokiharju Trade

Chicago sent Henri Jokiharju to Buffalo in exchange for Alex Nylander.

Jay Zawaski
July 10, 2019 - 11:41 am

(670 The Score) On Tuesday afternoon, the Blackhawks traded their top defensive prospect, Henri Jokiharju, to the Buffalo Sabres in exchange for winger Alex Nylander. 

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While the deal seemed to come out of left field, when we take a moment to look back, it did seem like the organization wasn’t overly enamored with the 20-year-old Jokiharju’s potential. Despite an impressive start to his Blackhawks career last season, Jokiharju was sent to Rockford after 38 games. While he seemed destined to return at some point, it never happened. The Blackhawks then traded for a pair of defensemen in Olli Maatta and Calvin de Haan this summer, seemingly blocking Jokiharju from the opening day roster. Now, we know why. 

Something else to know: Many in the Blackhawks organization had soured on Jokiharju, a source told me and as I reported and explained at length on the Madhouse Chicago Hockey Podcast on Tuesday night. The Blackhawks didn’t see him as much more than a slightly-above-average puck mover with average-at-best offensive and defensive skills.

Even with that knowledge, I was surprised the Hawks bailed on Jokiharju so quickly and received such an unproven asset in return. In his 38 games with the Hawks, there was nothing to indicate Jokiharju wasn’t or wouldn’t be a solid-if-unspectacular NHL defenseman. Would it be a stretch to say he was one of the Blackhawks' top two or three pure defenders last season? I don’t think so. He had the highest Corsi rating (54.1) of all Chicago defensemen and, frankly, just looked the part. His poise was impressive, especially considering he was just 19.

So, could the trade be the result of a system fit issue?  

It was no secret that former Blackhawks coach Joel Quenneville loved Jokiharju’s game.

"Looked like he has played the game for a long, long time at this level," Quenneville told reporters after the Blackhawks' season-opening win last October

Jokiharju didn’t seem to fall out of favor until Jeremy Colliton took over behind the Hawks' bench.

"It might be how some other coaches see things differently and how they feel about other stuff," Jokiharju told Buffalo area reporters Wednesday morning.

Seems like there’s something there, right? Maybe Colliton just didn’t love Jokiharju's game. 

If you take Blackhawks general manager Stan Bowman at his word, it’s simply a deal from a position of organizational strength.

"I guess maybe the progression of a lot of our other young defensemen to where we feel we’ve built up a good stable of young players and now we have the ability to make a move like this," Bowman said Tuesday.

That brings us to the 21-year-old Nylander, who's a highly skilled winger and the son of former Blackhawk Michael Nylander. His brother, William, is currently a star on the Toronto Maple Leafs.

Alex has the Nylander pedigree of skill and offensive talent, but another trait that has dogged the family has been concerns about work ethic and intensity. Nylander will never be confused with Marian Hossa, but I find the "lazy" trope tends to pop up whenever offense-first players don’t explode on the scene as expected.

Nylander appeared in 12 games for the Sabres last season, recording two goals and two assists. For his part, Nylander seemed excited about the change of scenery.

"Buffalo, that's the kind of stuff that's in the past," he said on a conference call. "I thought maybe I would be in the NHL sooner than I have been. I'm just excited and looking forward to being part of the Blackhawks organization."

The Blackhawks' hope is for Nylander to have a Dylan Strome-esque awakening in Chicago. The tools are there. The pedigree is there. Maybe playing with more highly skilled players will light a fire under the youngster.

I just find it hard to believe a player who couldn’t crack the Sabres' roster of forwards is suddenly going to burst on the scene on a suddenly log-jammed Blackhawks forward corps. Artem Anisimov is still on the roster, despite the Hawks' best efforts to move him. Dominik Kubalik is expected to earn a spot. Andrew Shaw is back. David Kampf just re-signed. Anton Wedin is another international signing whom the Hawks like. And don’t forget about John Quenneville.

It sure seems like there are more trades to come. I’ve been told the Hawks have been shopping winger Brendan Perlini, so that's something to keep an eye on, especially with the addition of Nylander. 

So bottom line, what do I think of this trade?

I’m not mad about it. People who make their livings analyzing hockey players seem to be down on Jokiharju. I’m willing to allow for the fact that I might be wrong here, but giving up on Jokiharju seems premature, and the return doesn’t feel like enough for your top defensive prospect. To borrow an old saying from the Spiegel & Parkins Show (RIP), "Let it play out."

Jay Zawaski is the executive producer of the Bernstein & McKnight Show on 670 middays from 9 a.m. to noon and a columnist for 670 The Score. He's also the co-host of the Madhouse Chicago Hockey Podcast, which is available on iTunes, Google Play, Spotify or your preferred podcast app. Follow him on Twitter @JayZawaski670.​​​