A devastating injury ended Joni Pitkanen’s career far too early, but in his prime years with the Hurricanes he was an elite all-situation defenseman known for playing big minutes, smooth skating, and skilled puck movement.
Drafted fourth overall by the Flyers in the 2002 draft, Pitkanen started his professional career in the Finnish SM-liiga in his hometown of Oulu, and joined the Flyers for the 2003-04 season. Unable to speak English when he arrived in the U.S., his Finnish teammate (and former Hurricane) Sami Kapanen served as his translator and taught him the language. Pitkanen spent three seasons with the Flyers and flourished there. He played with the Flyers affiliate Phantoms during the 2004-05 lockout, helping them win the Calder Cup. For the two seasons following the lockout, Pitkanen ranked in the NHL’s top 25 for defenseman scoring, led the Flyers in ice time, and was a standout on the power play. In the summer of 2007, Pitkanen was part of a trade package to the Edmonton Oilers in exchange for Jason Smith and Joffrey Lupul. He signed a one-year deal with the Oilers, scored 26 points in 63 games, and was traded to the Hurricanes on July 1, 2008 in exchange for Erik Cole, signing a three-year deal shortly thereafter.
Pitkanen played 266 games for the Canes across five seasons, scoring 26 goals and 116 points, and leading the franchise in ice time per game (25:06). His 46 points in 2009-10 was a franchise record for a defenseman at the time (since surpassed by Justin Faulk’s 49 points in 2014-15), and his 27:22 average time-on-ice was best in the NHL.
Quiet by nature, Pitkanen developed a comfort level in Carolina with fellow Finns Tuomo Ruutu and Jussi Jokinen, the latter with whom he had played junior hockey. It showed when the two took the ice together, displaying an almost telepathic ability to read and connect on the ice. Perhaps their greatest display of chemistry took the national spotlight when Joni’s perfectly-timed pass found Jussi for a quick snap-wrister past Martin Brodeur for the game-tying goal in Game 7 of the Canes/Devils opening round series in 2009.
Watching Joni Pitkanen on the ice was like watching a thoroughbred race horse. His skating stride was effortless. He moved quickly and economically, which allowed him to play big minutes while barely breaking a sweat. He was positionally sound, and much like a chess master was able to think one or two moves ahead, anticipating the course of action, and able to recover quickly if the play strayed from the plan. Players and coaches commented that he had encyclopedic recall of games and was able to remember details of every shift he played.
Pitkanen’s Hurricanes career (and most likely his hockey career) ended in tragic fashion as he shattered his heel in a collision along the end walls in a game against the Washington Capitals on April 2, 2013. He was trying to touch up on an icing call, and after a race to the puck cause him to hit the boards at full speed, the NHL and players agreed to implement a hybrid icing rule. While he hopes to some day play competitive hockey again, today he continues to recover and rehabilitate and has begun light skating with the local junior team in Oulu.
Written by Jamie Kellner. You can find Jamie on Twitter=@jbkellner and her Canes photos at jamiekellner.smugmug.com.