EDMONTON – Teemu Hartikainen’s sooner-than-expected debut with the Edmonton Oilers came more out of necessity than by design, but the circumstances haven’t prevented the Finnish forward from turning heads in his five NHL games.
In a season where little has gone right for the rebuilding Oilers, riddled by injuries and destined for a second straight 30th-place finish, the robust Hartikainen has provided something of a silver lining since he was recalled from Oklahoma City of the AHL on March 17.
Hartikainen, 20, drafted 163rd overall by the Oilers in 2008, not only scored his first NHL goal in a 5-4 shootout loss to the Calgary Flames Saturday, he’s seldom looked out of place since being summoned from the minors.
“I’m feeling pretty good so far,” said Hartikainen, who has averaged more than 16 minutes of ice time per game with the Oilers.
“I’m in my first year. I’m a sixth-rounder, so I didn’t expect anything, but when I saw guys being lost to injuries, I started thinking about it, that I might get a chance this year.”
When he attended training camp in September, the six-foot-one, 215-pound Hartikainen was considered a long shot to get anywhere near a roster spot with the Oilers this season.
But after forwards Taylor Hall, Ales Hemsky and Sam Gagner went down with season-ending injuries, the door of opportunity swung open for Hartikainen.
So far, he’s made the most of it.
“You do have to seize the moment,” head coach Tom Renney said. “You can see the depth of a player’s confidence, first and foremost, by how they apply themselves.
“You can see the depth of their passion to play by how they apply themselves. You can see how badly they want to be in this league by how they apply themselves. All of those things on the ice, yes, but also in the dressing room, in the weight room, on the bus and on the plane. All those kinds of things.
“This kid is all-in. It’s that simple. This kid wants to be an Edmonton Oiler as soon as he possibly can be on a full-time basis, and he’s playing every game with the relative importance that is has.”
Hartikainen had already started making a name for himself in Oklahoma City, scoring 17-25-42 in 66 games with the Barons, when the call came from Edmonton.
He had not only delivered the gritty, physical game the Oilers expected from him in the AHL, he’d shown better-than-expected offensive instincts than many thought he possessed. The native of Kuopio, Finland has delivered more of the same in his first five NHL games with a goal and an assist.
“That’s my game,” Hartikainen said. “I’m battling hard in the corners every game and I try to drive hard to the net and shoot the puck and try to get my goals.
“I’m confident with my offensive play. I create chances every game. I got my first goal and I’m happy and more relaxed now. I even scored more in practice this morning.”
Against the Calgary, he took a pass from Jordan Eberle, bulled his way past veteran Cory Sarich and zipped a shot over the shoulder of Miikka Kiprusoff on the short side.
“He plays hard,” said Andrew Cogliano. “He seems like the typical kind of Finnish guy. He takes pucks to the net. His skill is pretty good. He’s been pretty impressive. I like watching him play.
“This is a time when guys like him can establish themselves for next year. I think he’s surprised a lot of guys in the dressing room.”
With Hall, Hemsky and Gagner gone for the year and captain Shawn Horcoff, Colin Fraser and J.F. Jacques banged up, Edmonton’s forward lines have been in a state of constant flux.
Hartikainen played right wing on a line with Eberle and Chris VandeVelde against the Flames, and Renney will likely go with that trio Tuesday against the Los Angeles Kings.
“They’re hungry and they don’t want to make mistakes,” Renney said of Hartikainen and fellow call-ups VandeVelde, Ryan O’Marra and defenceman Jeff Petry.
“They want to play hard. They want to play well. They want to leave a good impression. That’s all a good thing.”
Completely ready or not, Hartikainen isn’t spending a lot of time thinking about how or why he’s in the NHL right now. He’s simply trying to make the most of the opportunity.
“I feel I’m ready,” he said. “Of course, I have to develop my skills, my skating. This summer is going to be hard work for me.
“If I get a little bit faster, I definitely can play over here. These five games, it’s been good. I’ve seen I can do it.”