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Henri Jokiharju out to prove he can 'play a whole season' with Sabres

Henri Jokiharju was getting ready for bed Tuesday night when his phone rang.

Stan Bowman, general manager of the Chicago Blackhawks, was on the line and delivered news that left Jokiharju "shocked." Jokiharju, a right-shot defenseman who played 38 games with the Blackhawks last season, was notified that he had been traded to the Buffalo Sabres.

In return, Chicago received winger Alexander Nylander, who played only 19 National Hockey League games in Buffalo after being drafted eighth overall in 2016. When the shock subsided, Jokiharju's focus quickly turned to the opportunity that could await with the Sabres, and he expressed confidence in being ready for a full season in the NHL.

"I hope that I can play a whole season next year in Buffalo and just put in lots of work right now during summer [to make sure] I show up in good shape and just be ready to show everyone, the coaching staff and players, I’m ready to play in the NHL all year long," Jokiharju, who turned 20 last month, said.

His exit from the Blackhawks ended an unusual 10-month span in which he earned a roster spot in training camp, carved out a prominent role under former Chicago coach Joel Quenneville, saw his role decrease under Quenneville's replacement, Jeremy Colliton, and was sent to the American Hockey League.

Under Quenneville, Jokiharju was viewed as a long-term solution to the Blackhawks' aging, under-performing defense. After all, he was selected 29th overall in the 2017 NHL Draft and was solid upon joining the team for camp last September, though it's important to note he made the roster partially because of injuries on Chicago's blue line.

Sabres acquire 'mobile' defenseman Henri Jokiharju from Chicago for Alexander Nylander

Jokiharju, who is listed at 6-foot, 193 pounds, was paired with three-time Stanley Cup champion Duncan Keith and averaged 21 minutes, 34 seconds of ice time over the first 15 games, which ranked second on the team behind Keith during that span. Jokiharju's performance over the first two games provoked a telling response from Quenneville, who doesn't typically heap praise upon young players.

"He complements [Duncan Keith] in a lot of ways," Quenneville said after Jokiharju had two assists in a 5-4 overtime victory over St. Louis on Oct. 6. "He breaks out on some tight-coverage plays coming in off their forecheck. Seems to get some relief with direct plays exiting as well. So it’s been definitely a good start for him. I think he’s going to be in a lot of games back there.”

That opinion may not have been shared throughout the organization. Jokiharju played a season-high 25:29 during a 5-3 loss at Calgary on Nov. 3, and two days later, Quenneville was fired.

For reasons still unbeknownst to Jokiharju, he didn't have the same role under Colliton. Jokiharju had averaged 18:37 of ice time over the following 17 games, recording three assists with a minus-3 rating.

When defenseman Gustav Forsling returned from injured reserve Dec. 19, the Blackhawks announced they loaned Jokiharju to Finland for the IIHF World Junior Championship. Jokiharju, while playing alongside Sabres prospects Ukko-Pekka Luukkonen and Oskari Laaksonen, won a gold medal and scored two goals among five points with a plus-6 rating in seven games.

Upon rejoining the Blackhawks, Jokiharju averaged only 14:25 of ice time in five games before he was assigned to the AHL's Rockford IceHogs. He played only one more game with Chicago, a 5-3 loss to Colorado on Feb. 22, in which Jokiharju played 9:14.

Jokiharju had 12 assists, 11 of which came at even strength, with a minus-7 rating while averaging 18:59 of ice time during his first NHL season.

"I don’t know," Jokiharju said when asked why his playing time dipped under Colliton. "I think it might be how coaches see things different and how they feel about other stuff. I don’t know. It’s kind of tough for me to answer that kind of question. You should probably ask the coaching staff, but I don’t think anything really went down with me during the season."

The demotion gave Jokiharju the opportunity to have a prominent role. In addition to his ice time decreasing in Chicago, he rarely saw time on the power play or penalty kill in Chicago. He did both during his 30 games in Rockford, scoring two goals among 17 points with a plus-7 rating.

During the Blackhawks' locker cleanout in April, Bowman downplayed the notion that Jokiharju fell out of favor in Chicago, adding that the young defenseman was still very much a part of the team's plans.

That changed this offseason. Chicago acquired Olli Maatta and Calvin De Haan, both left-handed defensemen, and Adam Boqvist, a right-shot defenseman drafted eighth overall in 2018, is expected to push for a roster spot in camp. Additionally, Ian Mitchell, a right-shot defenseman drafted in the second round in 2017, is expected to be ready for the NHL after one more season at the University of Denver.

"I guess maybe the progression of a lot of our other young defensemen to where we feel like we have built up a good stable of young players and now we have the ability to make a move like this," Bowman said during a conference call Tuesday. "It’s not easy to acquire talented players like Alex."

The question now is what sort of role will Jokiharju have in Buffalo? He is part of a surplus of right-shot defensemen under contract with the Sabres next season, joining Rasmus Ristolainen, Brandon Montour, Colin Miller, Zach Bogosian, Casey Nelson, Will Borgen and Casey Fitzgerald.

The roster puzzle may not be pieced together until August, as the Sabres have $6.6 million in salary cap space with needs at center and right wing. Regardless, Jokiharju will arrive at training camp with the intent of proving he can play in the NHL.

"Last year, I think I took some steps in my game, just learned how to play in the NHL," Jokiharju said. "Obviously, it’s tough to just to come right away from juniors, play in the NHL. You just learn how to be a pro, how to play game after game. There’s lots of games, obviously. Learn how to be a pro. Obviously, it’s a big confidence boost for me this upcoming season with Buffalo."

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