When the Devils signed Ilkka Pikkarainen, I had two thoughts in my mind: He was still in the system? and How does he play hockey? My limited knowledge based on hearsay of Pikkarainen was that he was a gritty, agitating winger down in Albany. In the Devils' announcement of the signing, Lou highlighted his "size, strength, and toughness," which confirms part of what I originally thought of the player. As far as his role on the team is concerned, Lou has stated via Gulitti that Pikkarainen was signed to play in New Jersey. This led me to think that you have to pencil his name in the New Jersey Devils line up along with Rod Pelley.
Anyway, other than Gulitti and Chere both reporting that Pikkarainen signed a 1 year contract for the league minimum ($500,000), there isn't much else out there regarding what to expect from the right winger. So being nothing more than a Devils fan, I sought out to find someone who supported HIFK Helsinki. Someone who has seen him play over the last 3 years he spent in the SM-Liiga. I was able to get into contact with Patrik Sjögren, the Operations Manager of the HIFK Fan Club, a supporter's group of HIFK Helsinki. He offered a detailed summary of the player's time in Finland, from his perspective as a supporter of HIFK. Patrik's views are a good overview potential benefits - and problems - Pikkarainen could bring to the Devils.
Patrik began his message noting how much he has changed since going to North America to play hockey the first time. Remember, Pikkarainen was drafted from HIFK, played one more season there before coming over for 3 seasons in the AHL with Albany. He's not unfamiliar with how the game is played here. As one may expect, Patrik did recognize how Pikkarainen improved in those three years with Albany.
First, I was quite disappointed that "Piku" had to return back after the first time. Games in Albany however refined all his skills, seeing him back here he had more strength and aggression, skated faster and had the never-ending hunger for scoring goals.
I think Pikkarainen held his level in all categories, and took a step up as an annoying agitator. After some success with scoring, he became more confident with his shots and kept on trying to score with every opportunity. All the goals were a result of solid finishing, he wanted to get a hard shot out of every attack. This is the biggest approvement he gained with River Rats, and it has stayed as his sharpest strength. Yet he’s also a very physical player, propably top-2 with hits as well. IFK as a team praises the physical canadian-style play (since Carl Brewer), body-checks get the same applause as common goals, and Ilkka got a nice share both ways -throwing the big hits and scoring. Will be missed as a profile-player, being just the type IFK is considered to be.
While Pikkarainen wasn't anything close to a big scorer in his career, his numbers according to Hockey DB show that he has improved his production since his three years in Albany. It's very good that Patrik pointed out his shooting. Should Pikkarainen get a spot on the fourth line, he's only going to see about 8-10 minutes a game. As a result, he's not necessarily going to have a lot of opportunities on offense. That he shoots hard and has the desire to do so will be useful for the few shooting opportunities he would get in a game. I'm not saying he's going to be a goal scoring machine, but he may be able keep the opposing defense and goaltender honest.
As expected, though, Pikkarainen is a physical agitator. Per Patrik's comments here, this endeared him to the HIFK fans and in conjunction what Lou pointed out about him when he was signed, I would expect him to continue playing that style. It could very well be what keeps him in New Jersey. I can already imagine the Devils throwing out a mean line of Leblond, a center to be named later, and Pikkarainen to really rough up the opposition. Not every night, but I can see the benefit against a few teams here and there.
However, with being physical and an agitator, it comes with a price. Patrik's description of Pikkarainen's time in HIFK becomes more sobering and a lot less complementary at this point:
During the last two years he developed a weakness with his mental discipline. Every now and then he had the off-nights when Pikkarainen didn’t want to give his best. The plays were sloppy, he didn’t concentrate to make effective decisions. These nights we saw Evil-Ilkka, who let out his temper with stupid penalties harming the team. He had no respect for other players, and other players, referees and public didn’t have the respect for him either. There were couple incidents as spearing or cheap-shots, and lots of misconduct penaltys – going the both ways. Pikkarainen got the same treatment he had delivered, and quite usually these were one sided bursts of violence. Eventually this happened so often that Ilkka lost his status as a fan favourite, since too many times Ilkka got ejected off the game by himself, when the team needed to come back from behind. Some times the opponents closed the game, while Ilkka was serving his major penalty. This is something very unnecessary, as all of the penalties were pure personal frustration apart from the game. In the Finnish SM-League we have cumulative system for misconduct penalties, and Pikkarainen climbed the latter with steady pace. Finally he was suspended for the last three games, giving absolutely nothing at the moment of truth when IFK was eliminated from play-off relegation. This side of his alter ego won’t be missed by anyone.
Oh dear. This is exactly what I didn't want to read! And the fans even have a name for this "alter ego!" Aaaah!
The key to being an effective agitator, I would think, is to keep as calm as possible when the opposition reacts and clearly, Pikkarainen couldn't do that! The player did rack up the minutes with HIFK with 389 minutes in 144 games and according to Patrik, he took far too many at exactly the wrong time. If you hated Bobby Holik taking dumb calls that hurt the team last season, then this certainly is troubling to read! Pikkarainen has a reputation for hurting his team's cause! And throw on that little comment about "on some nights he didn't want to give his best" and you're already groaning/rolling your eyes/head-palming.
That all said, this all should not doom Pikkarainen - just concerns. While he's probably not going to learn any new tricks at age 28, he can certainly stand to learn and understand the concept discipline. You're not going to last long in New Jersey without it and for his own career's sake, I hope Pikkarainen understands that. "Evil-Ilkka" will be kept in the press box or in Lowell or on a plane back to Finland should he arrive while representing the New Jersey Devils.
So what to expect? Well, from what I read, it's a real mixed bag here. Physical/agitating play, a hard shot, and damaging on-ice discipline issues really seem to be the traits that stick out from what Patrik has seen in 3 years of the player. Hopefully, only those first two traits stick out in preseason as he competes for a spot. Even then, I would still pencil him in only for a fourth line position. But I'm a little less enthused about him, to say the least! Still, let's see what he does in preseason before bemoaning the signing.
Again, big thanks to Patrik Sjögren, the Operations Manager of the HIFK Fan Club for these comments. Check out the club if you're planning to visit Helsinki and see a hockey game, or if you need a SM-Liiga team to support.
What do you all think of Pikkarainen now that you've read Patrik's comments? Does it change your opinion of the player? Do you think he can be of use to New Jersey knowing what Patrik has seen?