Rich Hofmann | Flyers willing to remain patient with Pitkanen

Posted: March 21, 2007

'JONI PITKANEN seems to be a hot topic right now," Paul Holmgren was saying last night. On Monday, the Flyers' general manager, along with coach John Stevens and some others, participated in a town-hall meeting with a group of season ticketholders. Pitkanen, the star-crossed young defenseman on this last-in-the-NHL team, was oft-discussed.

"Our season ticketholders are pretty sharp, and I understand why they wanted to talk about Joni," Holmgren said. "We talk about him [internally] all the time. We recognize what people are saying.

"But the upside is there, and we're willing as an organization to live with the ups and downs."

Last night was typical. Pitkanen leads the Flyers in giveaways this season, and there were four more in the team's 4-1 loss to the Florida Panthers. His turnover in the game's final 75 seconds led to the fourth Florida goal.

But there were little plays with the puck, and now-and-again displays of speed, and this one shot in the third period on Florida goaltender Ed Belfour that was quick and hard and smart.

And the pendulum swings.

You remind yourself he is still only 23.

"Sometimes we play better, then we go down," Pitkanen said. "It's been an up-and-down season."

And personally?

"It has been a disappointing season for me, like everybody," he said. "You're last place in the league. It's not good enough . . . When you win games, everybody looks better. When you lose games, everybody looks bad."

He is elusive on the subject of his play, but English is still very much Pitkanen's second language. He is from Oulu, Finland, paired now on defense with another player from Oulu, Lasse Kukkonen. It is actually the sixth-most populated city in Finland, with about 130,000 people. But it is up there, way up there, almost to the Arctic Circle. As Holmgren said recently, "He was basically living with the reindeer."

"He's really a naïve kid," the general manager said. "He's a loner in a lot of ways. We're doing what we can to get him more in with the group, but he is a loner. And he's still very young . . . There's more there.

"You look at Joni last year, before he got hurt [and underwent sports-hernia surgery], he was great. This year, he's sometimes up, sometimes down. I'd like to think that last year was the Joni who we're going to see."

But in a season when the whole team hit bottom, right from the start, Pitkanen has just been one of the fellas. He is a minus-25 for the year. That he has been pretty much an even plus-minus player for the last 2 months does indicate a bit of stability after a wretched start.

But, as Holmgren said after the first intermission, "That's a function of the whole team playing better. Let's face it - everybody was playing pretty badly at the beginning of the season. Things have stabilized a lot. But we're still a young team and we make mistakes. Look at the first period tonight and you see [goaltender Martin] Biron has stood his ground and given us a chance."

The Flyers were pretty bad last night overall, kind of dead. That has not been their usual lately. It's funny. They've played better and looked better since about Feb. 1, but they still don't win all that much. In that time, they're third-to-last in the NHL in points - which is better than last, granted, but it's still third-to-last.

They have a long way to go after their sudden crash, and Pitkanen will have to be a part of the rebound. The Flyers really have no choice but to wait. He has shown the ability to generate offense from the back line, which might be the most sought-after commodity in the new NHL, and that just isn't something on which you can give up. This year - four goals, 35 assists - has been a disappointment, but not a total disaster. Thirty-five assists are 17th in the NHL among defensemen.

Pitkanen said, "I think my strength is offense," and he also said he understood the coaches really would like him just to turn it loose more often.

"We tell him all the time just to skate, just to take the puck and go," Holmgren said. "He's still a good defender, he really is. It's the things we want him to do in the offensive zone that leave us a little flabbergasted, I guess. We think he could be more creative. We think he could shoot the puck on the net more. I really think he's a work in progress.

"But because of his age, because of where he's from, because of his naiveté, because of his shyness, we're going to continue working with him. He's a confident kid, in his own way. He's really hard on himself on the one hand, but when you point out a mistake to him, he's the first one who wants to get out there and rectify it. He's really good in that regard."

A young player's progress isn't always linear, and everybody gets that. Still, even if nobody wants to acknowledge it, the waiting for Joni Pitkanen must make all of them nervous, at least a little. *

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