Its still early in the season, but Joni Pitkanen of the Carolina Hurricanes may be playing some of the best hockey of his career.
Hes healthy again. Hes again among the league leaders in ice time. Hes being used on the Canes top power-play unit. His body language is positive.
I think he has been our best defenseman this year, forward Jussi Jokinen said.
Canes coach Kirk Muller might agree. Muller said when Pitkanen plays consistently well, skating hard and making all the right decisions, he is one of the elite defensemen in the league.
I think he can be up there among the top six defensemen, Muller said. He has the capability to be out there to kill penalties, quarterback the power play, be out there in all critical situations, like you need your No. 1 defenseman to be.
Because of his skating ability, he covers a lot of space out there. And hes big guy. That allows him to log a lot of minutes.
Through Thursdays games, Pitkanen was third among NHL skaters with 32.8 shifts per game and 13th in average time on ice at 25 minutes, 42 seconds per game.
Pitkanen, 29, has just four penalty minutes in the Canes 5-4 start and a plus-five rating. He has a goal and three assists, the goal coming against the Philadelphia Flyers last Saturday.
The first game of the season I was pretty surprised, Pitkanen said. I felt good. And it has been good.
Last season was not a good one. Pitkanen first sustained a concussion in early December, then underwent knee surgery. He played just 30 games, the fewest of his eight-season NHL career, and was determined to bounce back this year.
I trained and had a good summer and I was ready to play, he said. Then the games didnt start.
As the NHL lockout lingered, Pitkanen didnt head back to Finland to play in the Finnish elite league with Jokinen and defenseman Jamie McBain. His wife, Sini, gave birth to a baby girl, Elle, in October the couples second child and Pitkanen stayed in Raleigh to skate with teammates at Raleigh Center Ice.
Pitkanen and his family returned to Finland during the Christmas holidays, and he said he skated three times a week and intensified his off-ice work.
After surgery its always tough when you have to do the rehab, he said. I think it helped me that I had a longer time to train after being injured. I was able to get more power in my legs.
Pitkanen may not be the NHLs most prolific hitter, but hes strong at 6-3 and 210 pounds, knows how to use his weight effectively along the boards and displays a mean streak from time to time. Hes also looking to shoot the puck more.
He enjoys it when he can play a lot and get that 25 to 27 minutes a night, and thats what hes doing right now, Jokinen said. He has some confidence right now and hes finding guys and hes been really solid in his own zone, too.
Pitkanen was a first-round draft pick by the Flyers in 2002. He made the NHLs all-rookie team in 2004 and set career highs with 13 goals and 46 points for the Flyers in 2005-2006.
Traded to Edmonton in 2007, Pitkanen came to Carolina in the 2008 trade that sent Erik Cole briefly to the Oilers. Pitkanen matched the 46-point total with the Canes in the 2009-2010 season, when he had a career-best 40 assists.
But there has always been the sense he had more to give, that the best hockey might still be ahead for the likeable Finn.
When told that Muller said he could be an elite defenseman, Pitkanen shrugged and smiled.
I just try to play to my strengths and do my best and help the team win. Thats what I focus on, he said. Every game is a new game and you have to be ready to play.
Pitkanen should be ready Saturday. Hes back in Philadelphia to face the Flyers again. Thats always special.
There are a lot of games coming, but I think I trained hard the last nine months and I feel good, Pitkanen said. Well see.