Jokerit Helsinki in 2017-18
What happened? After finishing third in the KHL in 2015-16, the team’s second consecutive top-five finish since joining up in 2014, Jokerit Helsinki plummeted to twelfth in 2016-17, barely making the playoffs. And their post-season stay was not a long one, ending after a four-game first-round sweep at the hands of CSKA Moscow. So what went wrong, and what has been done to fix it? Read on…
Jokerit Helsinki in 2016-17: 23 W — 6 OT/SO W — 12 OT/SO L — 19 L
3rd in Bobrov Div., 8th in West Conf., 12th in KHL. Lost in Conf. QF.
Head Coach: Jukka Jalonen.
In: F Erik Embrich (Ässät Pori [FIN]); D Matt Gilroy (Spartak Moscow); F Henri Ikonen (Syracuse Crunch [AHL]); F Nicklas Jensen (Hartford Wolf Pack [AHL]); F Janne Kivilahti (Espoo United [FIN-2]); D Tommi Kivistö (Avtomobilist Yekaterinburg); D Sami Lepistö (Salavat Yulaev Ufa); D Mike Lundin (EHC Biel-Bienne [SUI]); D Nico Nurmikanta (Kiekko-Vantaa [FIN-2]); F Olli Palola (Växjö Lakers [SWE]); G Karri Rämö (Pelicans Lahti [FIN]); F Julius Rantaeskola (Kiekko-Vantaa [FIN-2]); G Juho Ratilainen (Jokipojat Joensuu [FIN-2]); F Eeli Tolvanen (Sioux City Musketeers [USHL])
Out: D Chay Genoway (Lada Tolyatti); F Frank Gymer (KalPa Kuopio [FIN]); G Riku Helenius (Unknown); F Joey Hishon (Luleå HF [SWE]); D Topi Jaakola (HV71 Jönköping [SWE]); D Artūrs Kulda (Kunlun Red Star Beijing); D Ville Lajunen (Spartak Moscow); F Atte Mäkinen (Kiekko-Vantaa [FIN-2]); F Miro Mäkinen (Kiekko-Vantaa [FIN-2]); F Sakari Salminen (Unknown)
One of the big problems for Jokerit last season was goaltending; the team gave up 165 goals, fourth-most in the West Conference, as Ryan Zapolski and Riku Helenius combined for a KHL-worst .907 team sv%. Zapolski was the better of the two (40 gp, .909 sv%), and will be back in Helsinki this coming season, presumably as back-up to the veteran Rämö. Rämö is coming off three fairly mediocre seasons with the Calgary Flames, but in his last KHL appearance, in 2011-12, he was excellent for Avangard. After going .925 in 45 regular season games that year, he posted a .940 sv% in 21 playoff contests as the Omsk side made it all the way to Game 7 of the Gagarin Cup Final. Rämö can play in this league, and Jokerit will need him to step up and improve the goaltending markedly.
There have been big changes to a Jokerit defence that scored decently well and was middle-of-the-pack in terms of keeping opposing shots down (they conceded about 27 per game), starting with four significant exits from the team. Genoway (52 gp, 7-18-25, +6) was probably Jokerit’s best rearguard in 2016-17, although the sniping of Lajunen (53 gp, 10-6-16) and the defensive stalwartness of Kulda (44 gp, 0-11-11, +11) will be missed as well. Jakola chipped in a useful 19 points in 55 games, but got absolutely torched on the defensive side, posting a team-worst -19 (team-worst, I might add, by nine). In any case, those departures mean that the Danish duo of Jesper B. Jensen (53 gp, 2-13-15, +4) and Oliver Lauridsen (48 gp, 3-6-9, +7) are Jokerit’s most important returning blueliners.
However, with the arrivals of Gilroy and Lepistö, Jokerit fans need not fret about any loss of scoring from the back. Gilroy (57 gp, 7-31-38 last season for Spartak) was second among KHL defencemen in points, while Lepistö (53 gp, 6-25-31 for Salavat Yulaev) was seventh. We can toss Lundin in there too; though coming off a down season in Switzerland (45 gp, 2-13-15), he was seventh among KHL blueline scorers in 2015-16, with a line of 60 gp, 11-22-33 for Barys Astana. Jokerit do need a bounce-back season from Kivistö, a more “two-way” sort of defenceman who struggled mightily in Yekaterinburg last season (57 gp, 2-3-5, -20). And we must wonder a bit who in this group is going to handle the defensive chores; one of coach Jalonen’s pressing tasks is to fix a penalty-kill that toodled along at a 76% rate last season, second-lowest in the KHL.
The off-season has been a much quieter one when it comes to Jokerit’s forwards, where reinforcement rather than replacement has been the policy. The team scored a reasonable 149 goals (12th in the KHL), although as noted the defencemen contributed significantly to that. Jokerit did get a superb season from another of their Danish contingent, Peter Regin (57 gp, 18-30-48, and team-best +15), and three other forwards cracked the 15-goal barrier as well: Brian O’Neill (16), Jesse Joensuu (15), and Tomi Huhtala (15). Pekka Jormakka, who scored 13 in 43 games, would have joined them had injury not chewed into his season. Now, 15 goals in a KHL season is not white-hot, but having five guys scoring at that rate makes for a nicely balanced attack, and all five of the men named above will return to Jokerit for 2017-18. The most significant departure from last season’s forward group is Salminen (56 gp, 6-20-26); he’s a good player, and a personal favourite of mine, but the evidence suggests that he is not at all irreplaceable.
And there are certainly some players among the new forwards who should complement the returning group very nicely. Much of the attention from North America will be upon Tolvanen, who was a first-round pick (30th overall by Nashville) at this summer’s NHL draft. He scored 30-24-54 in 52 USHL games this past season, but I would counsel some patience; the gap between that league and the KHL is a large one, and Tolvanen only just turned 18 in April. Still, a player of interest. Likely to make a significant contribution to the offence is Nicklas Jensen (yet another Dane, but no relation to Jokerit defenceman Jesper Jensen), who scored a very respectable 32-23-55 in 70 games in the AHL in 2016-17. And I will mention also Palola: his first KHL stint, with Vityaz Moscow Oblast in 2015-16, was an unmitigated disaster, but he bounced back nicely last season in Sweden (52 gp, 21-27-48). We can hope that his second try at KHL hockey goes better than that experience two years ago.
Head coach Jalonen kept his job at Jokerit despite last season’s stumble; team brass clearly felt that the major share of the blame should not fall upon him. If he can get the penalty kill fixed, and find a way to reduce his team’s goals against, that will be ample repayment for the faith shown in him. It will also prove that last season’s result was an aberration; if that GA number comes down, Jokerit should be able, easily, to score enough to forestall any nervousness over making the post-season, and they could be good for more than just one playoff round, too. As a final note, this would be a nice season for a long run, as this coming October will mark the 50th anniversary of of Jokerit’s founding.
The Big Question: Based on the criteria laid out in the league’s new strategic plan, three teams will be leaving the KHL after 2017-18 — will Jokerit be one of them? A successful, big-name, financially stable team with decent attendance, in a large arena in a big city in a “hockey country” in the Russian near-abroad? No, Jokerit have nothing to worry about from the KHL, which most definitely wants them in the fold. Especially as the league just extended its deal for broadcasting KHL games in the Nordic countries for another four years.
Next up: Vityaz Moscow Oblast