Recently we’ve begun commemorating the 20th anniversary of the Columbus Blue Jackets’ debut by revisiting memorable players and moments throughout the first two decades of franchise history. This trip down memory lane continues with the debut of a new series today, looking at the best Jackets to come from various countries.
Notwithstanding the overtly American branding of the team, there have been a number of milestones set by Europeans. The first draft pick was Czech defenseman Rostislav Klesla. The first all star was Norwegian forward Espen Knutsen. Jarmo Kekalainen is the first European-born general manager in the NHL.
In honor of Jarmo, let’s start with...
Finland is a country of 5.5 million people in northern Europe, bordered by Sweden and Russia. Though the population lags behind the other hockey powers, the Finnish men’s national team has still held its own on the world stage. They’ve earned medals 14 times at the World Championships, and their victory last summer was their third gold medal there. At the Olympics, they’ve won two silver medals and four bronze, in 14 total appearances. There have been a total of 227 Finns to have played in the NHL.
Top Three Finns in Blue Jackets History
Bronze Medal: Fredrik Norrena
Stats: 100 GP, 35-45-11, .899 SV%, 2.79 GAA
While Norrena played 100 games over parts of three seasons, his spot on the list is earned mostly by virtue of his debut season in 2006-07. He was a late bloomer in NHL terms, not getting drafted until he was 28, and not signing his ELC until he was 32. He was then traded by Tampa Bay to Columbus along with Fredrik Modin for Marc Denis. Norrena was meant to be the backup to former 8th overall draft pick Pascal Leclaire in net, but due to injuries he ended up being the primary netminder. In that season, he played 55 games, going 24-23-3 with a .904 save percentage and 2.79 goals against average. The raw numbers don’t look impressive now, but he was a steadying presence as the team adjusted to the arrival of coach Ken Hitchcock. The other four (FOUR!) goalies won just nine games, collectively.
He returned to a backup role in 2007-08, going 10-19-6 in 37 games, with a 2.73 GAA and .896 SV%. He played just eight games in 2008-09 before being waived to make room for eventual Calder Trophy winner Steve Mason. At that point he returned to Europe, where he played until his retirement in 2014.
Silver Medal: Markus Nutivaara
Stats: 244 GP, 17 G, 43 A, 60 P, +25, 50.1 CF%, 15:55 TOI
In five years, Nutivaara has gone from a final round draft pick to a key member of one of the best and deepest defensive corps in the league. He was a surprise addition to the roster at the start of the 2016-17, and was partnered with Ryan Murray on the third pair as the Jackets went on to their most successful regular season.
Nuti’s role expanded in his second season, as he went from a stay-at-home defenseman to one who could contribute in the offensive zone as well.
Last season, Nutivaara averaged over 21 minutes per game in the first games against the Lightning in the playoffs, before a cheap shot from Nikita Kucherov ended his season. This season, those injuries hindered him in the first month of the season, then a new injury kept him out for November and December. Hopefully he and Murray can again form a strong third pair in this coming postseason.
Gold Medal: Joonas Korpisalo
Stats: 127 GP, 60-43-14, .908 SV%, 2.80 GAA
Like Norrena, Korpisalo was a pleasant surprise in his debut season. Unlike his countryman, a seasoned pro at the time, Korpisalo was just 21 years old when he was called upon to fill the skates of Sergei Bobrovsky in 2015-16. He played 31 games as the fill-in starter and put up great numbers: 16-11-4, .920 SV% and 2.60 GAA. He then returned to the Lake Erie Monsters and helped them win a Calder Cup (though he was replaced halfway through the playoffs by Anton Forsberg).
Halfway through 2016-17 he took over as Bobrovsky’s backup, a role he’d fill for the next two and a half seasons. Unfortunately that role did not suit him as well, as he only averaged 20 games played per season, with a .899 SV% and 3.06 GAA.
Once given the chance to be the primary goalie again this season, Korpi seized the opportunity. He went 19-12-5 with a .911 SV% and 2.60 GAA, along with two shutouts. He was especially on fire in December, with a 6-0-3 streak in which he allowed just 1.7 goals per game and had a .942 SV%. He was named to the Metropolitan Division All-Star team, though that news came after a knee injury that sidelined him until late February.
This series is about players, but the Finn with the biggest impact on the franchise is clearly Kekalainen. His tenure as GM has been the most successful - though to be fair his predecessors set that bar really low. The Jackets have qualified for five out of eight postseasons in his tenure, including the last four. He tapped his countryman Ville Siren to lead the scouting department, where they have uncovered late round gems like Nutivaara.
The third-most experienced Finn in Jackets history was center Lasse Pirjeta, who played 108 games in parts of the 2002-03 and 2003-04 seasons before being traded to Pittsburgh. He scored 13 goals and 18 assists here.
Markus Hannikainen played 91 games in a Jackets uniform over four seasons. He only scored eight goals and seven assists and did not get called up this season before getting traded at the deadline.
Petteri Nummelin was a third pairing defenseman in the inaugural season.
The rest, aka “Let’s remember some guys”
Hannes Hyvonen (RW, 36 games in 2002-03); Sami Lepisto (D, 19 games in 2010-11); Jussi Jokinen (C/W, 14 games in 2017-18); Tomi Kallio (RW, 12 games in 2002-03); Lauri Korpikoski (W, 9 games in 2016-17).
Who is your favorite Finn?
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