Astounded mocking jeers were heard around the league when GM Darryl Sutter and the Flames signed Olli Jokinen to a two-year $6 million dollar contract on the first day of free agency, exactly five months after trading him to the New York Rangers before the trade deadline. Jokinen did not work in Calgary the first time around, and everyone agrees on that, the player himself included. He is however still an unquestionably talented player, albeit one with a few tough seasons just behind him. Could he bounce back this year to resurrect his career, in the process maybe saving Sutter's job?
During his days with the Florida Panthers, where he was a team leader and a point-per-game player for about four years before his eventual trade to the Phoenix Coyotes, Jokinen looked like a world-class goal scoring center who in a better team could have made a bigger difference. But as soon as he was traded to the Coyotes, and then traded again to the Flames his production suffered and he appeared to lose his mojo. He still put up a respectable 50 points between the Flames and the Rangers last season, but that's a far cry from the 89 and 90 points he scored with the Panthers the two years following the lockout, respectively. Not to mention he only scored 15 goals, his lowest total since 2001-2002. He only scored on a terrible 6.4% of his shots, compared to a career average closer to 10%. Also speaking of lower confidence on the ice was his shots total, which dipped from a career high of 351 with the Panthers in 2006-07 to less than half that amount, 162 last season. Everything went wrong for Jokinen last year.
He knows he hasn't been playing well, and spoke about it to the Globe and Mail's Eric Duhatschek on September 20th, just before training camp started for the Flames. He's been working hard to figure out what he's been doing wrong the past two years, and trying to get back to the habits he had on and off the ice during his glory days :
“A lot of times, when things don’t go as planned, you try to look back on what you did good the last time you played good – with the training habits, playing weight, eating habits, all that stuff - You want to go back to what you were doing a few years ago.”
He is clearly committed to bouncing back with Calgary this year, and he seems to not be doing it just to prove his critics wrong. In fact he appears to actually agree with them. He also talked to Duhatschek about how important the mental part of the game is and how his mental toughness is much improved from the previous year. It's rare to see a player so aware of what he's been doing wrong as a professional athlete and so willing to admit to his shortcomings. But he's also clearly highly motivated and in better physical condition than he has been in years, having packed on 10 pounds of muscle that will enable him to play a more physical brand of hockey again.
Jokinen is out to prove he is a top class player this year. Playing with the likes of Alex Tanguay, another guy with a lot to prove who had 5 straight seasons of at least 40 assists before his career hit a rut two years ago after leaving Calgary for Montreal, he will have every chance to do just that. If they can find chemistry together and find the scoring touch they each had about three or four years ago, the Flames' league-worst offense in 09-10 will look a whole lot better this year. Whether Jokinen still has it in him to bounce back and be an elite scorer is another matter, and just how he starts the year will tell us a lot about how this experiment will go. His attitude for the coming season tells us he has the will to get back on top. It remains to be seen if Calgary is the right place for it.