Pitkanen worthy of early praise

Rookie defenseman Joni Pitkanen knows he's got plenty still to learn about the NHL.

Updated: January 30, 2004, 5:42 PM ET
By Rob Parent | Special to ESPN.com

Contrary to popular Philadelphia opinion, Joni Pitkanen isn't such a Finn-ished product, after all.

Joni Pitkanen
Joni Pitkanen has been touted as the Flyers' best defenseman since Mark Howe.
Oh, he's pretty far advanced for a rookie. Calm with the puck. Smooth on his skates. Passes like a pro. But the defenseman, who is barely out of his teens yet represents the Flyers' best offensive threat from the blue line since Eric Desjardins was a young Montreal import, is far from perfect.

Fortunately, he's quite aware of that.

"I think it's been good so far," said Pitkanen, 20, struggling with a new language as much as he is with a new league. "This is the first year so everything has been good. Everything has been new to me. Every play I try to learn something. I knew I'd have to learn here, but I didn't know it would be this much. Everything is different and harder."

Yet there is no question of Pitkanen's talent. The No. 4 overall pick of the 2002 draft -- the Flyers took him after acquiring the the pick in a trade with Tampa Bay for Ruslan Fedotenko -- he honed his skills in the Finnish Elite League and international championship play for another season before joining the NHL. And while the speed of the NHL game still tends to surprise him, Pitkanen continues to draw raves.

"His ability to see the ice is one strength he has, but he can really skate himself out of so much trouble, too," said Flyers coach Ken Hitchcock. "It seems like he's very comfortable for somebody that's only 20 years old. He's going to be a special player when he matures."

Back in training camp, no less a subdued critic than Hitchcock was comparing the look of Pitkanen's game to some guys named Paul Coffey and Nicklas Lidstrom. When Jeremy Roenick heard that from a reporter, he came up with a question of his own: "Should we give him the Norris (Trophy) right now?"

Nah. But how about that Calder thing?

"No, no," said Pitkanen, who apparently knows the name of a rookie of the year award when he hears one. "The next game is my focus. Every game to me is a big competition, so the next game is the most important thing and a challenge to me."

Thus far, it's been more of a challenge than Pitkanen and perhaps the Flyers expected it would be for him. While Hitchcock was all raves in the preseason, he knows defensemen take years to develop, even when they're equipped with top-flight skill. That process is exacerbated when the kid hails from the European ranks.

Joni Pitkanen
Defense
Philadelphia Flyers
Profile
2003-2004 SEASON STATISTICS
GM G A PTS +/- PIM
36 4 11 15 7 24
"When you're a young player from Europe you're not used to playing so many games," said veteran Swedish defenseman Marcus Ragnarsson, who has served as Pitkanen's on-ice mentor over the first few months. "But I think he's been doing a good job, and lately he's really picked up his physical play. I think that's something he's tried to do because guys have been playing him hard. Joni wasn't used to that, being from Finland. Playing here on the smaller ice you have to get used to it, because you have to learn to take a hit and make a play as well."

Pitkanen has made plays. But he also says he's accustomed to playing a lot of games. For a young player trying to learn English along with the finer points of defensive positioning, however, dealing with down time at home can be the most difficult of challenges.

"My parents are with me for two weeks here and now my friends are coming in soon, so it's good now," Pitkanen said. "Usually I just stay home and relax with TV."

As far as relaxing on the ice is concerned, he's still very much the student.

Pitkanen, who has contributed 4 goals and 15 points and is a plus-7, was terrific at the start -- very solid in his end while frequently showing flashes of the blue-line scoring threat everyone expects him to be, and a knack as a first-unit power-play quarterback that one day soon he'll have to be.

In recent weeks, however, the learning curve started to catch up with him. Just prior to Christmas, Flyers general manager Bob Clarke said of Pitkanen, "We've seen all the good parts, but we're seeing some of the lackadaisical stuff right now. The coaches have been trying to get him going and he keeps falling off."

So Hitchcock sat Pitkanen, and he literally got sick over it -- flu symptoms turned one healthy benching into a week of missed games. But it never hurts to sit back and think things over, even if you're sneezing all over yourself the whole time.

"Part of Joni's situation is that the tactics that he used to defend with (in Finland), they don't work here," said Hitchcock. "When it gets to be where people are taking advantage of him in that area, rather than try to work through that in games, we'll stop and give him a couple of days to try to work with it in practice."

That doesn't mean Pitkanen is going to be a frequent press box occupant.

"From our standpoint, he is a necessary element," Hitchcock said of Pitkanen. "He's very important on the power play, he's very important four-on-four. He's a guy that's just going to get better."

Other rookies to watch

Matthew Lombardi
Center
Calgary Flames
Profile
2003-2004 SEASON STATISTICS
GM G A PTS +/- PIM
40 8 10 18 8 16
Matthew Lombardi, Calgary Flames: Don't tell anyone from Edmonton, but this diminutive yet potentially dynamic center has a chance to become a focal point of future Battles of Albertas. Lombardi was twice drafted -- first in 2000 by the Oilers (215th overall), who were unable to sign him, then by Calgary in 2002 (third round, 90th overall). His draft status improved considerably after he was named to the Memorial Cup all-tournament team that year after scoring 130 points as a fourth-year junior in the riotous Quebec Major Junior League. The Flames seasoned him for one impressive year in the American League before recalling him. By the new year, the allegedly 5-foot-11, 190-pound Lombardi was their fourth-leading scorer. With eight goals and 10 assists he has flashed both playmaking and scoring muscles. But with extensive experience in major junior, Lombardi is also at the center of a youthful movement of Flames players who are practiced at the art of checking and defensively-responsible play. That's why this club stormed through December looking like a playoff contender.

Eric Staal
Center
Carolina Hurricanes
Profile
2003-2004 SEASON STATISTICS
GM G A PTS +/- PIM
43 8 11 19 -1 22
Eric Staal, Carolina Hurricanes: His team has the image of a gray Ron Francis, a timeworn Rod Brind'Amour and Jeff O'Neill fighting uphill battles on a nightly basis. However, Staal has joined his linemate wingers Josef Vasicek and Erik Cole as the forward hopes for a post-labor war Carolina reconstruction period. An impressive rookie not so long ago himself, Cole is struggling to score now, but Staal has picked up some of the load. Powerful on the puck, he's registered eight goals and 19 points to become the 'Canes' second-leading scorer. Not bad for a 19-year-old who surprised some people by saying that he had one wistful eye on Team Canada's World Junior team. Asked if he wished he'd been allowed to play with them, Staal said, "Probably in a little way. I had an opportunity last year, and they didn't really give me a chance. It was tough to swallow, and after that, I wanted to prove why they should have taken me." Staal said being cut from the team last year inspired him to a terrific second half of the season for Peterborough, elevating his status to the point of the 'Canes taking him second overall in the June draft.

Marc-Andre Bergeron
Defense
Edmonton Oilers
Profile
2003-2004 SEASON STATISTICS
GM G A PTS +/- PIM
28 4 7 11 1 18
Marc-Andre Bergeron, Edmonton Oilers: Look, there's this Bergeron kid named Patrice who rightly had created much more of a rookie stir in Boston. But this other Bergeron toiling on a strangely weakened Oilers blue line might turn out to be as much of a find in Edmonton as the much-younger Patrice is in Beantown. At 23, Edmonton's Bergeron has been around. He put in four years as a defenseman in the QMJHL, which is prolonged endurance of offensive assault. Then there were two years in the AHL, and five regular-season and one playoff game for the Oilers last season. Maybe it took them a while to see past Bergeron's look -- he's listed at 5-9 and 190, but looks even more firepluggish than that. Yet in a season where Eric Brewer has been falling flat and thus the Oilers are again looking for someone capable to infusing some firepower from the point on the power play, Bergeron started out strong, looking like a real alternative and averaging about 18 minutes a game. He's leveled off some lately -- as the whole Oilers team has -- but still had four goals and 11 points in 28 games through January 11.

Michael Leighton
Goaltender
Chicago Blackhawks
Profile
2003-2004 SEASON STATISTICS
GM W L T SV% GAA
25 5 13 5 .898 2.86
Michael Leighton, Chicago Blackhawks: What could be more of a nightmare than waking up in the NHL and finding yourself in net behind the porous ... well, just poor Blackhawks? Actually, Leighton likes it just fine, and the Hawks feel the same way after he to home NHL defensive player of the week honors. With the ink still wet on his resume, however, Leighton was treated to a 4-3 overtime loss to the Vancouver Canucks on New Year's Eve. But he still made 25 saves, further solidifying himself as the Hawks' new starter in goal. The first sign of that came last season, when Leighton registered a shutout in a scoreless tie in his NHL debut. But his confidence really grew on Dec. 23, when he made 22 saves to earn his second shutout, a 3-0 victory over the then-red hot St. Louis Blues. Alas, Leighton's stats reflect the team. He's 4-11-5, despite respectable 2.69 GAA and .903 save percentage numbers for one of the league's worst defensive teams. But after an eye-opening year for the Norfolk Admirals in the AHL, Leighton, 22, is now one of the few bright spots for the Blackhawks.

Nathan Horton
Center
Florida Panthers
Profile
2003-2004 SEASON STATISTICS
GM G A PTS +/- PIM
44 10 6 16 -3 43
Nathan Horton, Florida Panthers: He had a slow start, not scoring a goal for the first month of the season. Slowly, he made his own way. And after coach Mike Keenan was replaced, his offensive development spiked. Horton, the third overall pick in the draft last June, is looking every inch like the kind of player that Rick Dudley can build a draft-master resume around. Entering the Panthers' trip through Western Canada over the weekend, Horton had scored four goals in five games, three of them against the Philadelphia Flyers, one of which was on a penalty shot, making the 18-year-old the youngest player to score one. What really excites observers about the 6-foot-1, 200-pound Horton, however, is the poised posture and mature sense of calm with which he plays. He is a model for advocates of throwing top prospects right into the NHL.

Rob Parent of the Delaware County (Pa.) Times is a regular contributor to ESPN.com.