Florida’s Jokinen continues to fight frustration

Originally published in Eishockey News in 2007

By Lucas Aykroyd

Personal achievements are nice, but when you’re the captain of an NHL team, they don’t mean much. Olli Jokinen has learned that lesson, year after year.

In 2005-06, Jokinen’s 89 points signaled his arrival as one of the NHL’s elite power forwards. But his Florida Panthers missed the playoffs for the fifth straight season, which they’ve done ever since he came to Miami with goalie Roberto Luongo in a 2000 trade from the New York Islanders.

With Florida near the bottom of the Eastern Conference standings this year, it looks like the same story will unfold again. The big 28-year-old center, who’s on close to a point-per-game pace, could be forgiven for asking: “What do I have to do?” He’s Florida’s all-time leader in game-winning goals (26).

The Panthers are convinced of Jokinen’s worth. They gave their captain a four-year, $21-million contract extension back in March. But they couldn’t come to terms on a similar deal for Luongo, who was traded to Vancouver at the NHL Draft in June in exchange for, among others, Todd Bertuzzi. Big “Bert” was sidelined with a back injury early in the season and has been a non-factor. Meanwhile, Luongo has emerged as Vancouver’s saving grace, with the Canucks enjoying a long winning streak after Christmas.

Still, Jokinen is quick to defend the goaltending of Ed Belfour, the cantankerous 41-year-old former Stanley Cup winner who has usurped the starting role from Alex Auld: “He had a slow start to the season, but over the last 20 games he’s been very good. He’s a guy who wants to win. When he came here, he was coming off back surgery. It was tough. Now he’s giving us a chance to win, much like Luongo did for us the last five years. He’s doing his job. We just haven’t been able to score enough.”

The outspoken native of Kuopio, Finland, who’s chasing Alexander Ovechkin for the NHL lead in shots on goal, also praised fellow countryman Ville Peltonen. The former Swiss League scoring champion signed with Florida this season after previous unsuccessful stints with San Jose and Nashville, but hasn’t lit it up offensively despite having more room to operate in the new NHL as a smaller forward.

“It’s been tough for the guy, making a comeback in this league and getting hurt in training camp,” Jokinen said. “It takes time to get used to the NHL again. The team signed him in the hopes that he’d play well in the second half of the season. In fact, I think he’s been one of our best forwards in the last 10 or 15 games.”

Jokinen’s willing to try anything to get back in the playoff hunt. He’s been manning the right point on the power play instead of planting himself in front of the net. He even recently grew a 1970’s-style moustache and said he wouldn’t shave it off until the Panthers won 20 games. But the hair on his upper lip was removed by the time Florida dropped a 4-3 shootout decision to the Canucks at GM Place on January 7, with five wins left to go. Evidently that moustache wasn’t a lucky charm.

Asked why Florida has struggled so much away from Miami’s BankAtlantic Center, Jokinen retorted: “Not just the road! It’s been the same story at home too. It seems that when we get a lead, we start getting nervous. Then when we make a mistake, the puck ends up in the back of our net. It’s tough to keep pissing away points.”

If the trend continues, Olli Jokinen may wind up representing Finland again at the 2007 IIHF World Championship in Moscow. He’s become a fixture with the blue-and-white squad at that tournament, appearing every year since 1998, except for 2001. But he’d prefer to have things other than the national team on his mind when April arrives.

“We’ve just got to find a way to win games,” said Jokinen. “It’s a critical time for our hockey club now, and we want to be there in the mix.”

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