Had things worked out differently, Jussi Jokinen would have been more than happy to stay with the Carolina Hurricanes.
He scored a career-high 30 goals for the Canes in the 2009-2010 season. The year before, he helped Carolina reach the Eastern Conference finals, scoring some memorable, meaningful playoff goals. Just ask Marty Brodeur.
But Jokinen, 31, now plays for the Florida Panthers, signing a four-year, $16 million free-agent contract last July. He's trying to get another team into the playoffs, and a victory Saturday over the Canes would mean a much-needed two points for the Panthers (30-23-14).
"It has always been a nice place to come," Jokinen said after the Panthers’ morning skate at PNC Arena. "I was here the longest time I've ever been (in the NHL), for four and a half years. My first child was born here. So there's always going to be that thing there. I have nothing but good things to say about my time here.
"Obviously that '09 playoff run was special. It's always a fun time to come here."
The Canes became disenchanted with Jokinen and more or less gave the forward away, first placing him on waivers, then trading him on April 3, 2013, to the Pittsburgh Penguins for a conditional late-round draft pick. Last season, he had 21 goals and 36 assists in the regular season for the Pens, then seven goals and three assists in 13 playoff games.
Jokinen also played some of his best games against the Hurricanes. He had a hat trick with the Pens in an October 2013 game against the Canes in Pittsburgh.
"For some reason, even before I got traded (to Carolina), I always played well against the Hurricanes," he said. "I had the hat trick and a three-assist night. And I always like playing in this arena, so hopefully I can have a good game tonight."
Even if the Panthers do fail to reach the playoffs this year, Jokinen is optimistic about the future. He looks around the room and sees such rising stars as defenseman Aaron Ekblad and center Aleksander Barkov.
"This team can be really good and we've taken some steps forward," he said. "We have what I think a lot of GMs are looking for. We have a really good, young core, we have some really good guys in their later 20s and then some veterans who have won the Cup who know what it takes to win."
The Panthers now have a future Hall of Famer in their midst: ageless Jaromir Jagr, who was traded to Florida by New Jersey on Feb. 26 for a pair of draft picks. Jagr has a goal and four assists in five games with the Panthers.
"He was my biggest idol growing up," Jokinen said, smiling. "It's been really fun. He's so passionate about hockey. It's been a privilege to play with him."