Flyers sign top prospect Pitkanen

By Al Alven

Joni Pitkanen, considered by many to be the best young defensive prospect in the world, is now officially under contract to the Philadelphia Flyers.

The 19-year-old Oulu, Finland native signed a three-year entry level contract on July 15th, according to the Flyers official website. As per team policy, financial terms of the deal were not disclosed.

However, various reports out of Finland claim that the deal is worth as much as $11 million with incentives. By all accounts, Pitkanen’s base salary will be $1.185 million per season, which is the maximum amount allowed for players drafted in 2002.

“Joni is probably rated as the best young defenseman outside the NHL,” said general manager Bob Clarke in making the announcement. “He was one of the earliest draft picks that we have had in a lot of years. We think that he has a chance to be a terrific player for us.”

The Flyers selected Pitkanen with the fourth overall pick in last year’s entry draft, after Clarke pulled off a blockbuster deal with Tampa Bay. The Lightning, in desperate need of immediate roster help, dealt the pick to Philadelphia for the rather modest package of Ruslan Fedotenko and a pair of second round draft selections.

Prior to the 2002 draft, the 6-3, 202 lb. Pitkanen was rated as the top prospect amongst European skaters by the NHL’s Central Scouting Bureau. Only forward Rick Nash (Columbus), Kari Lehtonen (Atlanta) and Jay Bouwmeester (Florida) were selected ahead of him last June.

However, many scouts and experts acknowledged then that Pitkanen could possibly turn out to be the best player from his draft class. The young defenseman has drawn comparisons to such NHL stars as Brian Leetch, Nicklas Lidstrom and Phil Housley for his puck-carrying and skating abilities, not to mention his superior mobility and keen sense of awareness in the offensive zone.

Pitkanen possesses a nasty physical edge and a willingness to hit and dig for pucks in the corners (aspects that are not present in any of the aforementioned players’ games) which makes him all the more intriguing as a prospect. On paper, at least, he appears to have all of the tools necessary to become an elite defenseman in the NHL one day.

Pitkanen is expected to make the Flyers roster as a top-six defenseman out of training camp next season, though he will have to fend off the likes of Jeff Woywitka (also entering his first professional season), Dennis Seidenberg and Jim Vandermeer to do so.

In 2002-03, Pitkanen further cemented his status as one of the best prospects on the planet by capturing the International Ice Hockey Federation’s (IIHF) Directorate Award as the top defenseman at the World Junior Championships in Nova Scotia, Canada.

For the tournament, Pitkanen registered six points and a plus-4 rating in seven games (while averaging roughly 28 minutes per contest), en route to helping Finland to a bronze medal.

Contrary to some reports, Pitkanen’s overall play with his regular SM-Liiga (Finnish Elite League) team was not nearly as dominant as it was during the WJCs. Still, he had a decent season overall for Karpat, tallying 20 points (5 goals, 15 assists) in 35 games.

There were times this past season where Pitkanen struggled quite a bit, but that is nothing to be unexpected for a teenager playing against veteran professionals. His best stretch with Karpat came immediately after his return from Nova Scotia, but his season was eventually ended thanks to a torn meniscus in his left knee.

In February, Pitkanen underwent arthroscopic surgery for the second time (he had the procedure performed on his right knee last summer to repair a similar injury). He seemed to recover well and actually participated in full-contact practices late in his team’s playoff run. However, Pitkanen was not cleared to return to the lineup, and Karpat wound up getting swept by Tappara in the SM-Liiga finals.

Obviously, the condition of Pitkanen’s knees will be a major source for concern in the coming months and years. However, both the player and the Flyers organization as a whole appear to be confident that the recent surgeries will have little or no affect on Pitkanen’s game as he prepares to embark on his pro career.

Of course, only time will tell for sure on that front. For now, at least, the focus for Pitkanen and his new team is on nothing but the immediate future.

“We are hopeful that he can make the Flyers [this season],” explained Clarke. “He has been playing against older players in Finland for the last three years, so he shouldn’t be physically intimidated [as he enters the NHL].”