Olli Jokinen has played all but one game in the past five seasons and his 374 points during that span ranks among the NHL’s top 10 since 2002-03.
Yet there was a time when Jokinen was considered a bust, a flop, a washout. He had just finished his fourth NHL season in 2001-02 and didn’t yet have 90 total points. He was on his third NHL team on three corners of the United States and all they shared in common was the exasperation they felt with him. Jokinen was a Patrick Stefan before the real Patrick Stefan.
The third overall draft pick in 1997, Jokinen was expected to be a dominant offensive force right from the get-go.
But it wasn’t until he was almost 24, his fifth year in the NHL, that Jokinen blossomed. His 36 goals for the Florida Panthers that year were one more than the 35 he had in his first four years combined.
It would have been too easy to give up on Jokinen in those early years and let him go back to Finland. Us members of the media are often too quick to jump all over top prospects who don’t mature quickly to projected expectations.
So while Jokinen, 29, will continue to flourish in Phoenix – and perhaps play his first playoff game – here are a few more heralded prospects who are candidates for a career breakthrough season in 2008-09.
Gilbert Brule – The sky was the limit for Brule after he was taken sixth overall by Columbus in 2005. He made the Blue Jackets out of training camp, but then sustained two serious injuries that limited him to just 34 games (seven in the NHL).
Brule had no business being in the NHL at 18 years old and his fast-tracking clearly stalled his development. Columbus kept him again as a 19-year-old and he didn’t even play 11 minutes a game en route to a 19-point season. Things got even worse in 2007-08 and this summer he was traded to Edmonton.
Still just 21, Brule is eager for a fresh start in a new environment. He unquestionably has the speed and skill to develop into a producer who can play on the top two lines. It might not happen this season, but it’s far too early to throw him out with the bath water.
Cam Barker – It’s easy to forget the Pittsburgh Penguins were the worst team in the NHL in 2003-04 and were poised to take Alex Ovechkin first overall in the 2004 entry draft. But it was the Washington Capitals who won the draft lottery and moved from third pick to first. The Penguins slipped to second pick and got Evgeni Malkin as a consolation prize.
The big losers that year were the Chicago Blackhawks. Just one point out of the basement, the Hawks slipped from second pick to third after Washington won the lottery. They went from getting a can’t-miss superstar to a best-of-the-rest prospect.
Cam Barker is no slouch, but he’s a long way removed from Ovechkin and Malkin. Projected to be Chicago’s power play quarterback of the future, the best he can hope for now is being the No. 2 gunslinger behind Brian Campbell.
At 22, Barker has yet to prove himself completely in the NHL and his development has been interminably slow. But with excellent credentials and a roster full of young, talent-laden teammates, Barker is on course to make a steady ascension into top-four defenseman status.
Bobby Ryan – The image of Anaheim GM Brian Burke and Pittsburgh GM Craig Patrick standing at the podium of a unique 2005 draft lottery drawing is still crystal clear. One of those gentlemen would be the winner of the lottery and get the right to select Sidney Crosby. The other? Well, he’d have the right to select anyone not named Sidney Crosby.
The Ducks selected Bobby Ryan second overall that year and three years later, Crosby has out-pointed Ryan 294 to 10 in the NHL.
That doesn’t mean Ryan is a flop, although ex-Edmonton GM Kevin Lowe would have you believe he is. Ryan just turned 21 a few months ago and has shown he can score at every level when given the opportunity. He’ll get that chance this year with the Ducks in the NHL.
Ryan will never challenge Crosby on the scoresheet, but he will become a prominent player on the top two lines in the future. It’s far too early to write him off.
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