Tuomo Ruutu’s 2001-02 season

By Pekka Lampinen

Tuomo Ruutu’s season came to an abrupt and unpleasant end last spring. His knee was broken in the last period of the final game of the playoff series in which his team Jokerit was eliminated. The injury made him miss the U-18 World Championships and hurt his chances to be picked early in the upcoming NHL draft, but in July he was back on the ice as a future Blackhawk. He suffered another setback in the form of a concussion in a preseason game, but recovered in time for the regular season.

As usual, Jokerit had made several acquisitions in the offseason. Despite that nearly all the forwards with a bigger role than Ruutu were gone, they were replaced with other proven players and Ruutu found himself centering the third line again behind national team centers Petri Pakaslahti and Antti Aalto. As many of his teammates recovered from their injuries in the following weeks, Tuomo was moved to the left wing in the exceptionally deep Jokerit roster, with his brother Mikko as the new center and players like Jussi Pesonen, Tomek Valtonen and Sean Bergenheim on the right wing. Ruutu’s improved playmaking skills earned him a spot in one of the powerplay units, though.

The everyday SM-Liiga routine came to a temporary end in the Christmas break. Ruutu participated in the WJC for the second time, and this year he got the A to decorate his jersey. Team Finland was defeated by the Swiss in the first game, but then they got their game going and advanced from one victory to another until the semifinals. Despite having tallied only three points at that point, Ruutu was worthy of praise by being downright hyperactive on the ice, checking this, blocking that. Everybody seemed to fall in love with his game. However, his zero points against Russia was one point too little, and Finland’s hopes for gold were gone. In the bronze game “the Lionettes” arose from the smoking ruins to beat Team Switzerland 5-1. Ruutu led the way by scoring the first two goals and returned home with a bronze medal.

WJC: 7/7 GP, 4 G + 1 A = 5 P, 10 PIM, +3 (team +14)

Jokerit was already back in action by the time Ruutu returned, having played three games during his absence. He caught up with the pace and played the same as usual when Jokerit was in a winning streak before and after the Olympic break. In a game against TPS, Tuomo received a two-game suspension for charging Peter Schaefer. A home advantage all the way through the playoffs was on a silver platter for the team, but they ended the regular season with six consecutive defeats and finished third. Doomsday prophets crawled out of their caves as Jokerit would face Kärpät, the same team that miraculously handed Ruutu and his teammates their summer vacation tickets last year, in the quarterfinals.

Regular season: 51/56 GP, 7 G + 16 A = 23 P, 69 PIM, +19 -16 = +3 (team +58)

Ruutu accumulated three assists in the first two games against Kärpät, but the team couldn’t return from Oulu with a chance to end the series. Kari Lehtonen replacing Jamie Ram between the pipes turned the tide back to the favor of Jokerit, and Kärpät was beaten in four games. Jokerit walked out of the semifinals victorious as well, after HPK had fallen in an extremely even and exciting series, also in four games. In the first game of the SM-Liiga finals Ruutu got his sixth playoff assist when he helped to tie the game to 4-4, but soon after he dealt a hit too hard in the wrong place. The Tappara forward Marko Ojanen was rushed to the hospital, having hurt his neck against the boards. Ruutu headed for the shower and observed the next two games from the press box. He returned for the last game of the season to lift the SM-Liiga champion’s trophy, the Canada Bowl, above his head. Jokerit got their first championship title since 1997 games 3-1 and Ruutu ended his season as a Finnish champion.

Playoffs: 10/12 GP, 0 G + 6 A = 6 P, 29 PIM, +4 -2 = +2 (team +16)

The berserk warrior got a truckload of recognition when he was ranked the best drafted prospect outside of the NHL in the Hockey News. You would expect such a player to be somewhat more than a third line grinder, wouldn’t you? That says a lot about the size of the fight in the dog in question as well as his season being a disappointment to stat watchers. Not knowing what happens beyond the statistics usually makes you unable to criticize a player, but this time the right conclusions can be drawn from the numbers.

How come a player so highly touted for his dedication to defense can have such a flat plus/minus rating in relation to the rest of the team? The amount of goals scored on even strength against Ruutu is no higher than against his teammates. Have a look at the other side of the coin. Regular season: 23 points, 19 plus markings. Playoffs: 6 points, 4 plus markings. The obvious conclusion is correct: Ruutu’s lines were anything but fruitful when it comes to production. Jokerit didn’t establish any regular lines until the playoffs, and whatever combinations Ruutu played in didn’t work that well. Players like Antti Törmänen and Jussi Pesonen can skate and shoot, but they were hopelessly inept at feeding Ruutu. In turn, Ruutu couldn’t get himself the necessary space to make the decisive pass. The WJC was no different: Team Finland suffered from the lack of quality wingers, and Tuomo’s linemates Tuomas Pihlman and Joni Yli-Torkko got only one point each in the tournament, excluding the game against the pushover Team France. Because of all this, as well as the splendid rookie season, he couldn’t increase his production from last season.

Throughout the season Ruutu’s effort seemed a little inefficient. He would bring the puck to the offensive zone, make a pass, and after an eventual turnover go wrestle in the corners, then returning to the bench. On powerplay the same kind of work yielded results, of course. The skill is still there though, and experience should take the unnecessary time- and energy-consuming movement out of his game.

Naturally, the Hawks would like to see the gritty and versatile forward in North America next season. Fortunately for them, Ruutu’s contract with Jokerit has expired, and this postpones the deadline for signing him from May 15th to July 15th. While Ruutu would seem to have all the options in the world, he still has to go through at least 180 days of military service at some point of his life, and few people want to fulfill the obligation at an older age. The list of Finnish prospects leaving for the NHL before the service is also rather discouraging: Aki Berg, Miika Elomo, Olli Jokinen.

All in all, the biggest monster lurking in the hallway to a bright future for Ruutu is stagnation. He has played in a more or less defensive role for two years now, and his options for next season offer pretty much the same. Pakaslahti and Aalto don’t seem to be going anywhere, and they are still too good centers for Ruutu to overthrow, especially with the taxing military service on his back. In a weaker SM-Liiga team he could surely center a first of second line, but the threshold for making a career sidestep seems too high. In Chicago he would stand no chance of making the top lines, but the AHL would be a good place to hone his offensive skills. On the other hand, a year riding buses around North America sounds very unappealing when he could be getting over with the military service back home instead.