CALGARY – Olli Jokinen’s linemates on the Calgary Flames want the big Finn back in the lineup as soon as possible.
Jokinen was the fourth Flames centre sidelined with an injury at training camp, although Jokinen’s isn’t believed to be long term.
He and wingers Alex Tanguay and Jarome Iginla were having a fine game before Jokinen left Tuesday’s pre-season game against Phoenix. Jokinen gestured to his back before leaving the bench early in the second period.
The Flames said Wednesday that Jokinen was “day-to-day.” Head coach Brent Sutter said following the game “it’s nothing significant.”
With centres Daymond Langkow (neck), Matt Stajan (shoulder) and Ryan Stone (knee) out indefinitely, Calgary can’t afford to lose any more men up the middle with the regular season starting next week.
Langkow and Stajan are second-line-calibre centres behind Jokinen on Calgary’s depth chart. Langkow suffered a neck injury March 21 when teammate Ian White’s shot struck him. He’s skating, but not cleared for contact. Stajan separated his shoulder in the first pre-season game.
“We’d like to have Olli back. We’d like to have all three back for sure,” captain Jarome Iginla said. “That’s definitely a lot of talent to be out.
“There’s three very good centres that aren’t practising today, but I don’t think Olli is going to be long and Staje I think is feeling better and Lanks is feeling better too.”
The dominant storyline of Calgary’s training camp has been whether the return of Jokinen and Tanguay to the Flames’ fold will help boost the club’s offence, which was the worst in the NHL last season at 204 goals.
Flames GM Darryl Sutter signed Jokinen as a free agent in July five months after trading him away to the New York Rangers for Alex Kotalik and Chris Higgins.
Jokinen, 31, signed a two-year deal worth $6 million, which was a pay cut from his previous salary of $5.25 million. Tanguay, 30, whose best season was in a Flames uniform in 2006-07, signed a one-year deal worth $1.7 million.
Jokinen had 19 goals and 31 assists in his 75 games with Calgary over parts of two seasons. Many wonder how much better he’ll be his second time around as a Flame.
Adding heat to the spotlight on Jokinen is the Flames gave up their first-round pick in this year’s draft to get Jokinen from Phoenix at the 2009 trade deadline. Higgins signed with Florida in the off-season. Kotalik was put on waivers over the summer and is trying to move up the Flames’ depth chart at training camp.
Tanguay, who spent last season with Tampa Bay, is to be the playmaker for Jokinen and Iginla. The trio has shown flashes of chemistry in the pre-season.
Iginla banged in a rebound on a Jokinen shot just 17 seconds into Tuesday’s game to give the hosts a quick 1-0 lead en route to a 3-1 victory. Jokinen had another golden chance in front of the net later in the period, but shot the puck wide.
“We probably had three or four chances in the first period,” Tanguay said. “That’s always a good sign, but I feel in practise we’ve been getting a little bit more familiar with one another and getting more and more chances. Hopefully that will reflect in the game.
“We’re hoping Olli is going to be fine to maybe play one more exhibition game, maybe get a little bit more chemistry and get ready for the season.”
When Jokinen left the game, Michael Backlund spent time centring the top line and Tanguay was in the middle on the odd shift.
“I haven’t played there for a long, long time. I’m unfamiliar with the position,” Tanguay confessed. “I’d rather play on the wing.”
Calgary was 4-0 in the pre-season heading into Wednesday’s exhibition game against the Islanders in Saskatoon. The Flames face the Oilers in Edmonton on Friday and at home Sunday before opening the regular season in Edmonton on Oct. 7.
The Flames sent a younger lineup to Saskatoon on Wednesday. Jokinen, Iginla, Tanguay, Rene Bourque and veteran defencemen Robyn Regehr and Jay Bouwmeester were among those who remained in Calgary.
Former NHL player Mike Peca, now a commentator for TSN, said of Bouwmeester during Tuesday’s game that “I enjoyed playing against him. He turned the puck over. He made the game easy to play.”
Bouwmeester, who had three goals, 26 assists and was minus-four last season, shrugged off that assessment.
“He’s not playing anymore, so I don’t care,” the 27-year-old said Wednesday. “Those guys on TV are what they are.”
Bouwmeester couldn’t recall turning the puck over to Peca.
“I don’t remember playing him very much,” he said. “He was on the tail-end of his career every time I played him.”