So as Jesse Joensuu was recently demoted back to Bridgeport, several questions have been raised specifically about his future and what he needs to do to improve. Up front, yes I am a fan of Jesse Joensuu. I have been high on him since the Isles drafted him in the 2nd round of 2006. I have seen him develop over the previous two seasons in Bridgeport and the previous seasons in the SM-Liiga and World Junior Championships. I am a Jesse Joensuu apologist. I am his public defender. There, I said it. Deal with it.
The general feeling is time is running out for the 23 year old to make an impact on the organization. As the local Jesse Joensuu public defender, I've developed what basically has become the basis of this article out of my comments defending Joensuu. More specifically, I want to take a look at why it would be foolish now to give up on a 23 soon to be 24 year old Joensuu.
For this argument I will use a player correlation to Joensuu. I honestly don't like using correlaries for players as I think each individual player bring their own unique twist to the game that does not show up in the box score. I also know that the player I will use are not necessarily the same type of players that Joensuu is. My purpose in using the correlation is to show that there is still time for Joensuu to develop. So just to be clear, I am not saying he will turn into Frans Nielsen, Ville Leino, Jere Lehtinen or whomever else I use below, he will turn into Jesse Joensuu. Whatever that happens to be.
First off I feel the need to counter some of the comments that have been made about Joensuu's conditioning, work ethic and fitness specifically in relation to his skating. Several people have voiced their opinions that his conditioning is lacking and if he looses weight, he will become a faster skater. This also implicitly attacks Joensuu's work ethic, that he isn't striving to be the best he can. This is simply not true. In fact Joensuu has in the past sought out help to improve his skating. As highlighted in this August 2009 article by Chris Botta, Joensuu looked to former Finnish Olympic long track speed skater Janne Hanninen to help improve his skating ability in the off seasons. You don't enlist the help of a former Olympic speed skater if you're not serious about improving your skating abilities. This tells me the opposite of what has been said about Joensuu, that he is dedicated to making himself a better player.
Yes Joensuu is not the best skater in the world. In fact I'm pretty sure he would readily admit that himself. Most players his size aren't that fleet of foot (Dainius Zubris comes to mind...) and no he'll never be Michael Grabner, but the idea that he isn't trying to improve his skating abilities or that loosing 10-20 pounds as some have suggested isn't realistic.
Second is his scoring and long term scoring potential. Anyone who is expecting Joensuu to put up more than about half a point per game over the course of a season is looking in the wrong place for this. .5 PPG had been Joensuu's average more or less since his days in the SM-Liiga and through his AHL career. Scoring is not his role. He's primarily a defensive forward who can contribute 35-40 points a season. Think more a bigger version of Antti Miettinen or poor man's Jere Lehtinen.
So now onto the player correlation. I will reiterate myself: By comparing Joensuu to this player, I am not saying he will turn out to be the same type of player. I am simply showing that at his age, Joensuu is not alone in terms of his production both at the NHL or AHL level of players that have gone on to be solid NHL contributors:
You really don't have to go far to find a player who compares favorably in terms of developmental arcs to where Joensuu currently is. OK, I understand that you're looking at two different types of players. But there are more similarities then differences when you get down to it: The 23 year old versions of Jesse Joensuu and Frans Nielsen are/were predominantly defensive minded forwards with some offensive potential. Their body types and learning edges of their respective games led to several questions as to their long term development and viability at the NHL level.
So lets get in the time machine to late January, early February of the 2007-2008 season, Frans Nielsen was a relatively unproven 23 year old soon to be 24 year old (Frans' birthday is April 24th) auditioning in what turned out to be the end of the Nolan/Cobbled together Vet roster days and the beginning of the rebuild. He had his NHL debut the previous year, scoring two points in fifteen games. By this point in the season, the Isles are out of playoff position and going to give this skinny looking kid from Denmark an extended audition for the rest of the season. It was his second year in the Islanders organization, having come over from the Elitserien prior to the 2006-2007 season. Once called up Ted Nolan proceeds to either healthy scratch Frans, play him less than 10 minutes a game and when he does play he gets banged up and winds up loosing 13 games to injury. Man, can this guy really become a decent NHLer?
With Frans we have the fortune of hindsight, we know what type of player he is now. But back then we didn't know who or what he was or would be. He was a total unknown. To say otherwise now is revisionist history. He was a scrawny kid from one of the other Scandinavian countries that hasn't had a track record of developing talent. Could his small frame stand up over the course of a season? Sure he could skate, but would he be knocked off the puck due to his frame? He never scored more than 20 points in any of his seasons over in Sweden and he only has five points in 31 NHL games through the end of the 07-08 season. Will this guy ever score? We wouldn't know what Frans is until he became a regular during the 2008-2009 season, a roster spot that wasn't guaranteed to him going into the season either.
When you look at it, Frans and Jesse's 23 year old seasons are very similar. There was one major difference, Joensuu came over as a 21 year old while Frans came over as a 22 year old and as a 23 year old still had a year remaining on his ELC unlike Joensuu. Let's take a look at Frans' 2007-2008 season (Notes: The AHL doesn't keep TOI stats, so TOI is NHL only; Frans technically played in 17 games in the 2007-2008 season, but one was an injury induced 1 shift, :47 outing vs the Rangers I opted to omit):
Here is Joensuu's 2010-2011 season so far:
Their NHL numbers are very similar, with Joensuu playing slightly more than Frans did. We also have to remember that Frans was also a healthy scratch for Ted Nolan several times after his initial call-up and lost basically 13 games to injury as well. The difference in AHL points per game isn't drastic with .81 for Frans and .61 for Joensuu. Joensuu's PPG in the AHL is pretty consistent with the rest of his career where he generally is a .5 PPG player.
When you look at some of the advanced stats, Frans and Joensuu's NHL production at 23 look similar as well. In 07-08 Frans' relative CORSI of -11.2 was good for fifth worst on the Islanders with only Kip Brennan, Jeff Tambellini, Shawn Bates and Drew Fata producing worse relative CORSI. Similarly, Jesse Joensuu's relative CORSI this year isn't as bad as one might think. At a -7.1, it puts him ahead of eight Islanders including six regulars: Jack Hillen, Jon Sim, Radek Martinek, Nino Niederreiter, Matt Martin, Rhett Rakhshani, Zenon Konopka and Trevor Gillies. (Note: I used relative CORSI instead of On-Ice CORSI due to the seven game differential between Nielsen and Joensuu.)
When Dom wrote about Joensuu's demotion, he showed that he didn't play exclusively with Matt Martin and Zenon Konopka but saw decent even strength time with Nielsen, Michael Grabner and Rob Schremp Hockey. Similarly, during the 2007-2008 season, Frans saw mostly even strength time with the human enigmas Blake Comeau and Jeff Tambellini, but also a good deal of time with Miro Satan and Trent Hunter. Like Joensuu, to blame Frans' poor offensive production during that season on the quality of linemates doesn't quite hold up either.
One big difference between the two, and one that I think might hold Joensuu back in the end, is their respective propensity towards taking penalties. Despite the opinions of Daniel Briere (Dude, you're too old to be called Danny) Frans has always shown himself to be a clean player. The most penalty minutes he ever received in a season (Europe and NA) is 28 in 2004-2005 with Malmo. As an NHL regular, Nielsen has never had more than 18 in a season, the mark he currently is at thanks in large part to his 10 minute misconduct from the Briere incident. That would be Joensuu's low mark as a professional. He regularly finds himself with 60-80 penalty minutes. For someone who only occasionally drops the gloves and is a defensive minded forward, that is an awful lot of time in the sin bin.
There are other correlaries I could use if I wanted to get deeper into this, Antti Miettinen didn't become a regular in Dallas until he was 25 after a season and a half apprenticeship in the AHL and Ville Leino really didn't fill his potential until this past post season with Philly at the age of 26.
And that brings us back to Joensuu. Similar questions to those that I brought up earlir in regards to Nielsen (By that I mean developmental questions) about him are being asked now: He's a slow skater, how will he adapt at the NHL level? He only averaged about .5 PPG in the SM-Liiga, hasn't had a season of over 50 points in the AHL and only 8 points in 41 NHL games. What's his long term scoring potential? Can he use his body when needed?
So what is Joensuu's future?
Unlike Nielsen who had a year remaining on his ELC after the 2007-2008 season, Joensuu is an RFA this summer. Will the Isles resign him? If so can he win a roster spot out of training camp? Will he leave for Europe like Jeremy Colliton two years ago, or signed and loaned back to a European club for the year? I hope not the latter two as he has nothing left to prove in Europe (I will save my major juniors vs. Elitserien/SM-Liiga for another time). I believe he probably has more value to this organization next year than fellow RFA forwards' Robin Figren (23 in March) and Tomas Marcinko (23 in April).
Another issue, something that wasn't there for Nielsen three years ago, is the depth of the Islanders organization at forward and how he figures into that. After the 2008 draft, the cupboard was still relatively bare at forward prospect wise. At the end of the season, the younger players/prospects at forward for the Isles were Kyle Okposo, Blake Comeau, Jeff Tambellini, Trevor Smith, Ben Walter, Sean Bentivoglio and Jeremy Colliton signed, Joensuu, Robin Figren, and Tomas Marcinko about to sign and Brian Day, Doug Rogers, Rhett Rakhshani and Jason Gregoire in college. Of that group, Smith, Walter, Bentivoglio, Day, Rogers and Tambellini are gone from the organization and at best marginal NHLers. In terms of competition at forward, there wasn't much there for Frans.
The situation is much different for Joensuu. In the three drafts in the interim Garth Snow has collected a talented group of young forwards. We already know the younger group of established players currently on the NHL roster that weren't there in 2008 (Schremp, Grabner, Moulson, ect.). Islanders are expected to have Nino with the big club, Rhett Rakhshani figuring somewhere, David Ullstrom and Casey Cizikas probably starting in the AHL, the possibility of Kirill Petrov, David Toews, Jason Gregoire and Corey Trivino in the organization in some capacity, Anders Lee, Kirill Kabanov, Brock Nelson and Jason Clark on the horizon and of course the very real possibility of another forward lottery pick competing for a roster spot. There is a whole lot more quality competition for Joensuu now then there was for Frans in 2008. Can he elevate his game in the face of this competition?
The biggest shadow on the horizon for Joensuu (literally and figuratively) is his former Bridgeport line mate David Ullstrom. In terms of the type of player Joensuu is projected to be and role he would likely fit at the NHL level, Ullstrom fits the bill to a tee and possibly better than Joensuu could. Ullstrom is two years younger than Joensuu and possesses a similar body size (6'3", ~200 lbs) and two way game. Something I think is a big factor in why Ullstrom might wind up getting the edge over Joensuu in the long run is their respective propensity to take penalties. Ullstrom is much more like Frans in this respect (Outside of an 86 minute mark from his U-20 days due in large part to a line brawl that is responsible for close to 40 of those minutes), in his two Elitserien seasons he had 49 combined penalty minutes and 14 so far through 40 games of his AHL career. In this respect, Ullstrom is the more Fransian player.
What does this all mean?
The simple answer to all of this is we don't know what will happen. But at 23, Jesse Joensuu is not yet what he will develop into. Yes, Jesse Joensuu probably won't turn into Frans Nielsen. But if you had given up on Frans after the trying season he had at 23, which is very similar to the one Joensuu is currently going through now, you would have made a grave mistake. The point of this is to argue that if you give up on Joensuu now like many are you might be making a similar mistake.