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Busting Out
Michael Farber
December 16, 2002
Considered a flop his first four years, Olli Jokinen of the Panthers is finally playing like a No. 3 draft pick
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December 16, 2002

Busting Out

Considered a flop his first four years, Olli Jokinen of the Panthers is finally playing like a No. 3 draft pick

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Sudden Impact

Olli Jokinen had not scored more than 29 points in an NHL season, but he matched that number in only 26 games this year. Here are his stats for his first four NHL seasons.

Season

Team

Games

Goals

Assists

Points

1998-99

Kings

66

9

12

21

1999-00

Islanders

82

11

10

21

2000-01

Panthers

78

6

10

16

2001-02

Panthers

80

9

20

29

The long-suffering hockey fans of South Florida took their hats off to Olli Jokinen on Dec. 4, then flung them onto the ice. The littering was in celebration of Jokinen's first NHL hat trick, a tribute that would have touched the snub-nosed, baby-faced Panthers center more if he actually had scored a third goal. He did fire the puck into an empty Carolina Hurricanes net in the last minute of a 4-2 victory, but he had been three feet offsides when he took the pass, and the referees immediately waved off the would-be score. Jokinen was philosophical after the match, realizing it is better to be a stride ahead of the play than five years behind it.

Until this season Jokinen, the third player taken in the 1997 draft and later traded twice by age 21, appeared to be a classic bust. He even pondered returning to his native Finland early last season. "I figured that maybe I could go home and build my confidence," says Jokinen, who had been dealt by the Los Angeles Kings in 1999 and the New York Islanders in 2000. "Maybe after a few years I'd come back and try the NHL again." Sixth in the league in scoring with 30 points through last Saturday, Jokinen is back without having left.

His metamorphosis can't be categorized simply as a breakout season. Jokinen's 15 goals and competent if not overwhelming defensive play have drawn comparisons to the formidable work of Boston Bruins center Joe Thornton, who was the first player drafted in 1997. But the analog?' is woefully inexact because Thornton has been steadily ascending to stardom while Jokinen has emerged from a vacuum. Jokinen never had more than 29 points in any of his four full seasons; he equaled that total last week, in the Panthers' 26th game. He had scored four winning goals in his first 314 NHL games; he has three in his first 28 this season, for a team with only nine victories.

The vagabond Mike Keenan, who is coaching his seventh NHL team, specializes in projects, from Chris Pronger in St. Louis to Thornton to Jokinen. The formula is familiar: Keenan takes a young, indisputable talent, challenges him to improve his fitness, rewards him with ice time and leavens the mix with what Panthers third-liner Peter Worrell calls an "Iron Miking," a tirade that embarrasses the player. Jokinen received his within 10 days of Keenan's arrival in Florida last December. After the first period of a game against the Hurricanes, Keenan spent 10 minutes dressing down Jokinen in front of teammates, saying those scouts who had raved about him as a junior were wrong.

"The message was that I wasn't ready to play," Jokinen says. "You can take it two ways, and I took it the right way. Mike didn't play me the first 10 minutes of the second period, but the last 30 minutes I was out every second shift. That might have been the turning point."

In his first 102 games with Florida, Jokinen had six goals and 11 assists. Under Keenan he had 24 goals and 34 assists in 84 matches. The 6'3" 205-pounder also dropped five pounds and reduced his percentage of body fat from 11.5 to 8.5 in the past year. "You could see you were dealing with a different person in training camp," Keenan says. "It was like he had rehearsed for this. He came back more gregarious, more self-confident. He got some positive feedback in terms of ice time, and he's taken off from there." Jokinen, who was named an alternate captain before the start of the season, is a candidate to fill the vacant Panthers captaincy.

"You're looking at a happy guy," Jokinen said last Thursday after practice, the morning of his 24th birthday. Indeed, the only one miffed in his family was his wife, Katerina, who had visited the Panthers' arena boutique the previous evening to buy a few of her husband's number 12 jerseys to send to friends in Finland as Christmas gifts. The shop was out of them. "When you score only nine goals [the previous season]," Jokinen says, "there's not a lot of demand for your number."

[This article contains a table. Please see hardcopy of magazine or PDF.]

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