RALEIGH — Joni Pitkanen is the Carolina Hurricanes' highest-paid defenseman. He can skate like the wind, he's strong, he plays big minutes, and he can produce points.
In other words, there's much to like about the Finn's game.
And yet, Pitkanen at times can be a hockey enigma. He will pass up a good shot for a tough pass. He doesn't have a lot of the big, bone-crunching hits. He will float out of position defensively, leaving others to scramble.
At 27, Pitkanen has played almost 500 regular-season and playoff games in the NHL. At season's end, he's due to become an unrestricted free agent and could command more than the $4.5 million he's making this season.
"He's at that age where he's still improving," Hurricanes coach Paul Maurice said. "He's coming into his prime, not leaving it, or at the peak of it."
As the NHL's Feb. 28 trade deadline approaches, there may be teams that make interesting offers to the Canes for Pitkanen. As for Pitkanen, he insists he would like to sign a new contract and stay with Carolina.
"It has been 21/2 years, and it has been great," he said in an interview. "It's a great organization, great fans and great people here.
"It's a beautiful area.
"All are good things. Absolutely, I would like to stay here."
A year ago, Pitkanen led the NHL in ice time per game (27 minutes, 22 seconds). He had a career-high 40 assists, eighth-best among NHL defensemen, and matched his career high with 46 points.
That's the kind of play the Canes were expecting when they traded Erik Cole to the Edmonton Oilers in July 2008 to obtain Pitkanen. A former first-round pick of the Philadelphia Flyers - the fourth overall selection in the 2002 NHL draft - Pitkanen was deemed a player with unlimited potential, and general manager Jim Rutherford said he might put up 60 points in a season.
This season has not been as productive. In 46 games, Pitkanen has two goals and 20 assists.
Pitkanen missed five games in late December and early January with an upper-body injury. He had just two assists and a minus-9 rating in the 12 games since his return before Saturday's game, when he had two assists, was active defensively and was plus-one in the Hurricanes' 4-3 overtime victory over the Atlanta Thrashers.
Pitkanen rated his play "pretty good" this season, but, he noted, "After the injury, the first few games I didn't feel my best."
He quickly added, "But every game you feel better, and I'm ready to play now."
Pitkanen looked it Saturday against the Thrashers, and Maurice said the 6-foot-3, 210-pound blueliner has been playing with more authority.
"I think when you have an injury that sets you back and you're tentative, and I think he's come out of that now," Maurice said. "He's stronger on the ice. He'll be able to take more minutes and be more physically involved with games."
Pitkanen, an easy-going, affable type off the ice, at times can play with an edge on it, his anger boiling up, leading to some bad penalties. Although not a fighter, he does stand up for himself. And he can be dogged on the defensive end.
"When he's around the puck, he's at his best," Maurice said. "Where I think he does some of his best work is from our goal line to the hash mark, in coming out of a scrum in our end. That's really when his game is at its best.
"I know we all look at the offensive part, him jumping in and creating things. When I know he's really going, it's almost defensive. He takes his offensive talents and puts them in a defensive role, and breaks the pucks out and breaks up plays and closes gaps. That's when I think he's at his best."
Although some may say Pitkanen is too unpredictable game to game, Maurice doesn't agree.
"He is not an extreme player for me in that he's either wildly great or wildly poor," he said. "I think he's a lot more consistent in terms of what he gets done on the ice, and I think he's been a pretty consistent player for us."
Maurice noted that Sandis Ozolinsh, another free-skating, offensive-minded defenseman, was harder to predict when he played with the Canes from 2000 to 2002.
"Sandis was a player where you weren't sure coming to the ice what was going to go on," he said. "I don't feel that way with Joni. He's a lot more consistent player."
Pitkanen's life has changed. He recently became a father for the first time. His wife, Sini, gave birth to a boy, Akseli Johannes, on Jan. 8.
"Every day you can see he gets bigger," Pitkanen said, smiling. "It's pretty exciting."
Just he hopes the rest of the season will be for himself, for the Canes.
"Every game will be big the rest of the way," he said. "We have to play Canes hockey - skating good, playing crisp hockey, good defense and good offense."
Sounds like Pitkanen when he's at his best.
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