Had you asked any knowledgeable hockey person to name their three rookies prior to this season,chances are Tuomo Ruutu would have been among them. Quite simply, he had wowed hockey people everywhere since he was drafted in the first round by the Chicago Blackhawks in 2001. However, it’s now the middle of February and so far Ruutu has but 9 goals and 17 points. Put that together with a team worst -24 on the plus/minus scale and the one can only wonder what went wrong.
It wasn’t like that for the Chicago forward coming up through the Finnish junior leagues. Playing for the HIFK Helsinki juniors in 1998-1999 the young Ruutu tallied 9 goals and 20 points in only 25 games. He followed that up the next year with 11 goals and 27 points in 35 games with the same club and received a one game call-up to the big club. 2000-2001 saw him move permanently to the SM-Liiga with Jokerit Helsinki. In his first season with the big boys, the center put up 11 goals and 22 points in 47 games. His draft year saw much of the same with the totals this time being 7 goals and 16 assists for 23 points in 51 games. It was in his third campaign in the SM-Liiga, once he was returned to HIFK, that he really turned it on with 12 goals and 27 points in his first 30 games. Unfortunately it was at that time that he blew out a knee and missed the rest of the year. However, Chicago would sign him to a contract in the summer of 2003 and pencil him into their starting lineup for that season.
Ruutu’s first year back from his knee surgery would start out nightmarishly slow for him and as late as November 22nd he totaled 1 goal and 1 assist for the season. During that time he would play with a variety of linemates, mostly though he’d play on the third or fourth line with players like Ryan Vandenbussche, Travis Moen, Ville Nieminen, and Scott Nichol. True there was a stretch in there where he did play with the now traded Steve Sullivan and Brett McLean but for some reason the line didn’t click. His shifts with the bottom six forwards of the Chicago rotation would continue until mid-January when Coach Brian Sutter decided to try him with Kyle Calder and Tyler Arnason. A couple days later Alexei Zhamnov replaced Arnason and to date that is the line he has been playing on. That he is playing with more talented players is evident by the fact that in the last month he has totaled 4 goals and 2 assists, his most productive month to date.
Ruutu’s game starts with his aggressiveness in taking the body. He is probably one of the hardest and most frequent hitters the Blackhawks have. This, however has had its downside as well as its upside as Blackhawks writer Bill Placzek states that “Early on when he was playing with Vandenbussche and Moen, he wasn’t tempering his aggression,” and consequently “was not able to get back into the play” after a big hit. When he began playing with better linemates, “he started picking his spots when to be physical (better),” Placzek points out.
Still, for a player as skilled as Ruutu it is surprising that he has not done more offensively this season. He is getting his opportunity on the powerplay as he averages 3:19 of powerplay time per game. Much of that, explains Placzek, is due to the fact that he is “playing Brian Sutter’s style which curtailed much of the creativity his Finnish league experience allowed him.”
That is indeed is unfortunate for Ruutu and Blackhawk fans. There is no doubt that Tuomo Ruutu is a talented forward who can carry a team offensively when the need arises (see the 2001 World Junior Championships when Mikko Koivu was injured on the eve of the first game). It would be a shame if the unimaginative schemes of his coach shackled him into being a third line checker when he is capable of so much more.