When you think about the Philadelphia Flyers and their draft history, you probably think about their lack of homegrown defensemen. But a name you probably forget came through the pipeline is Joni Pitkanen. The Finland native and Flyers draft pick quietly, successfully, patrolled the Flyers’ blue line for three seasons.
Drafted fourth overall by the Philadelphia Flyers in 2002, Pitkanen came to North America for the 2003-04 campaign knowing very little English. Fellow Flyer and Finn Sami Kapanen translated for him. He was a highly touted prospect for his size (6’3, 215lbs) as well as his skating and talents with the puck in the offensive zone.
He found immediate success on the powerplay during his rookie season, finishing the year with 17 of his 27 points coming with the man advantage, which was tied for second in the league amongst rookies. He finished seventh in Calder voting in 2003-04.
Pitkanen was one of many Flyers prospects to be apart of the stacked Philadelphia Phantoms 2004-05 team who won the Calder Cup during the NHL lockout. He registered six goals and 41 points and a whopping 105 penalty minutes in 76 games and added another seven points in 21 playoff games.
When the NHL resumed for the 2005-06 season, Pitkanen had the breakout campaign everyone was hoping for. He was once again a force on the powerplay, scoring five goals and 19 points. In total, he scored 13 goals and 46 points in just 58 games, missing 24 games with a sports hernia from late November to Early February. Pitkanen was 15th in Norris Trophy voting in 2005-06, and may have had a better chance at securing the award had his injury never happened.
Pitkanen returned to Philly for the 2006-07 season, but with the rest of the team struggling through the worst season in franchise history, he was not immune to the struggles. He did finish the season with an acceptable 43 points in 77 games, but only produced four goals, a career low at that point. Pitkanen did have a late-season resurgence when the Flyers acquired and paired him with fellow Finn and former Kärpät defense partner Lasse Kukkonen for the last 20 games of the season.
During the summer of 2007, Pitkanen requested a trade out of Philadephia, a wish that was granted on July 1, 2007 when he was dealt to the Edmonton Oilers along with forward Geoff Sanderson in exchange for future captain Jason Smith and Joffrey Lupul.
Pitkanen had a career-worst season in Edmonton with a mere 26 points and was dealt to the Carolina Hurricanes the following summer. He did enjoy a bit of a career renaissance with the Canes in 2008-09 and 2009-10, the latter of which tying his career high in points with 46. He by far led all Canes skaters in ice time with a whopping 1,944 minutes, over 400 higher than second place Ray Whitney.
Just 22 games into the 2012-13 season Joni Pitkanen suffered a gruesome injury when he broke his heel after getting tied up in an ugly check into the boards on an icing call. He would miss the next two-and-a-half seasons trying to recover but would ultimately never play an NHL game again. Due to his injury, and many others before him, the NHL installed a no-touch “hybrid” icing rule which is based on the player’s race to the puck, not who touches it first after it crosses the goal line.
Pitkanen made his return to professional hockey in February of 2016 when he signed a contract for the rest of the season with his hometown Kärpät. He played three games before officially announcing his retirement from hockey on February 25, 2016.
Finding consistency was his biggest issue in the NHL, but Joni Pitkanen was someone who team’s could trust with heavy minutes and big roles. He may never have quite achieved the hype he had entering the draft, but did play a respectable 535 games with 282 points, both numbers that would’ve been better had his career not come to an end prematurely.
By: Dan Esche (@DanTheFlyeraFan)