Of the four late-season acquisitions made by Pittsburgh Penguins general manager Ray Shero last spring, Jussi Jokinen was easily the afterthought.
Picked up from the Carolina Hurricanes for a conditional draft pick, Jokinen was intended to be an insurance policy at the center position after Sidney Crosby suffered a broken jaw. Although the 30-year-old Jokinen scored 11 points (7g, 4a) in his 10 regular season games with the Penguins, he returned to a supplementary role once the playoffs started and Crosby returned to the ice.
In the wake of the Penguins’ loss to the Bruins in the Eastern Conference final, trade pickups Jarome Iginla, Brenden Morrow and Douglas Murray were permitted to walk via free agency, while Jokinen remained under contract for the 2013-14 season. As part of the deal that brought him to Pittsburgh, Carolina is paying $900,000 of the Finn’s $3-million salary this year, making him more affordable for the salary cap-pushing Pens.
But Jokinen’s monetary value has been the least interesting part of his superb fit with the Penguins (4-1-0). With star winger James Neal missing the past four games due to injury, Jokinen has been a fixture on Evgeni Malkin’s wing through Pittsburgh’s first five contests. While Jokinen can handle center competently, he can play all three forward positions – and that versatility has played out in his favor so far.
After seeing his ice time slip to around 11 minutes per game in the playoffs, Jokinen is up to 15:18 this season, which ranks fourth among Pittsburgh forwards. He’s converted that opportunity into production, as his five points (3g, 2a) put him in a tie for second on the team with Malkin and defenseman Matt Niskanen.
Acknowledging the small sample size, Jokinen has looked to be a stylistic fit for the Penguins, as well. The 5-foot-11 left-handed shooter doesn’t possess any otherworldly physical gifts, but his “hockey IQ” is outstanding. Jokinen is perpetually ready to take a pass and move the puck to the open man. He’s not timid about shooting – as his hat trick against the Hurricanes last week would attest – but Jokinen’s first instinct is to always make the “right” play.
His selfless tendencies were on display Saturday night in Tampa, as the Penguins rallied for a 5-4 victory. Watch Jokinen execute the volleyball-like “bump” pass to set up Crosby’s third goal of the night:
Plays like that make Jokinen an ideal complement for the array of offensive talents the Penguins possess. He’s a first-class facilitator at the offensive end, and a responsible defender like most Finland-trained pros.
With Neal (hopefully) returning to the lineup soon and second-year talent Beau Bennett likely to get occasional top-six action, the opportunities may dwindle a bit for Jokinen in the coming weeks. Nevertheless, the Penguins need to keep him on the ice enough to benefit from his abilities.
Jokinen’s acquisition may have been complete happenstance, but it may end up being one of the best trades Shero’s ever made.