It has been a most unusual year for Jesse Joensuu, and where his career goes from here could be determined by what's left of it.
The big Finnish winger and 2006 2nd-round draft pick of the Islanders got his Isles season debut Saturday in their 39th game. In 10:49 of third-line ice time, he logged eight shots on goal and registered three hits. The path to that game is almost surreal.
After declining a qualifying offer as a restricted free agent in 2011, Joensuu played 2011-12 in Sweden with HV71. A strong year there (13-16-29 in 50 games) earned him a one-way contract from the Islanders last summer with a Euro out clause if he didn't make this team's NHL roster.
But Joensuu had apparently embraced his role and destiny in the NHL -- not as a top-six scorer but as a bottom-six banger with scoring punch. Things were looking up.
Then the lockout happened. Back to Europe again, this time with the Ässät team in Finland that groomed him as a young junior. A great season there was interrupted by a hand injury that seemed to cast his NHL return in doubt: If the NHL were to return in December, Joensuu wouldn't be healed in time for training camp.
Turns out the lockout ended as late as possible, NHL camps began in mid January, which was just enough time for Joensuu to return to the lineup in Finland. Except something wasn't right. He arrived in NHL camp with a groin injury, opened the season on suspension (essentially IR, but different thanks to the lockout), and ended up needing sports hernia surgery.
This being a weird lockout season, and the Isles having an uncharacteristic relatively healthy season on the injury front, Joensuu wasn't activated until rosters expanded after the deadline. Even then, he didn't get his shot until Matt Moulson got sick -- Matt Moulson NEVER gets sick! -- and opened a slot on left wing.
The coolest part of this story? Joensuu did well in his season debut. Yes, there were the shots and the hits; and sure, you expect a good performance from a guy chomping at the bit to play. But overall, he looked like he could be a useful addition to the Isles' bottom six despite not playing games for the better part of three months.
As the Islanders make their playoff push and rosters expand and -- if there are indeed playoffs -- the war of injury attrition begins, you can picture Joensuu having a role to play, even though Moulson is already back and skating with the team.
For Joensuu, grabbing a role would be huge because (though we've said this before) this may be his last shot at earning another NHL contract. CBA wars and injuries have conspired to make it a very short window, but the Islanders' season and desire for some competent physicality might resurrect his audition.
Everywhere you look below, there are forwards in the pipeline who will fight for NHL jobs soon. Big Anders Lee is already getting his look, signed from college after Notre Dame's season ended. And Bridgeport now fields three forwards who were selected in the first round of the NHL draft.
If Joensuu makes something of this, it's good for the Isles, and essential for him.
Below is some video from the official site discussing Joensuu's return to the lineup. [Or if embed isn't your thing, here's a direct link to Isles TV].
Short version: Jack Capuano on Joensuu's attributes: "Big-bodied guy, protects pucks well ... increases zone time..."
Joensuu: "I've had a three-and-a-half month break, so it's tough, but I've played in the NHL before, seen a lot of the same players, so it wasn't that tough."
For what it's worth, today's practice lines had him in the top 12 forwards:
With the next two games this week coming against the Flyers and Bruins, the Isles will tend to want more size in the lineup. Keep an eye on how this goes for the Finn Named Jesse in the last nine games of the season.