BY TRAVIS BETTS
Jesse Joensuu is hungry for a second chance in the National Hockey League.
The Pori, FIN native, who scored nine points (six goals, three assists) for the Islanders in 42 games in 2010-11, acknowledged a difficult reality during training camp last season. Faced with the prospect of starting the season in the American Hockey League and once again working his way back to a supporting role on Long Island, Joensuu elected to play in Europe. As a top-six forward with With HV71 of the Swedish Elite League, he posted 29 points (13 goals, 16 assists) in 50 games last season.
While the decision cost Joensuu a chance at playing time in the NHL, the Islanders second round (60th overall) selection in the 2006 NHL Entry Draft was looking at the big picture.
“In Sweden I was able to play big minutes in a big arena almost every night,” Joensuu said. “I wanted to play on a team where I could win and I could develop myself as a better hockey player. I felt Sweden and HV71 was the best place for that, and I think it was the right decision. I really enjoyed playing there and I thought I became a better player in many areas.”
While many players who play between the NHL and AHL find success overseas and stay there, favoring the opportunity to be the big fish in a smaller pond, Joensuu wants no confusion: his goal all along has been to play in the NHL.
“It was tough, because that was everything that I had been aiming for, to play in the NHL,” Joensuu said. “When you decide to play in Europe, you usually shut the door on coming back. Usually you don’t get a second chance.”
Islanders Head Coach Jack Capuano met Joensuu as a teenager in 2007 when they were both in Bridgeport. Capuano remembers Joensuu trying too hard as a young player to figure out his role on the ice.
“Early on when I had Jesse in Bridgeport he tried to do too much,” Capuano said. “Year by year in Bridgeport he got better and better and understood what this role was on his hockey team.”
Capuano acknowledged that while Joensuu has not taken the conventional path to the NHL, getting extra playing time in Sweden may have been the best thing for the 24-year-old forward.
“It’s very important for each player to do what is best for his own development,” Capuano said. “There’s a lot of times that players play different roles. You could be a top scorer in the American Hockey League and come up and not play that role in the NHL.”
Following last season, Joensuu represented Finland at the IIHF World Championships in May. He posted five points (two goals, three assists) in nine games, helping the Finns to a bronze medal. Both goals came in an elimination game against the United States, where he scored the game-winning tally with only nine seconds remaining in regulation.
“Being able to play well against the U.S. and score those two goals – I mean, that gives you a huge confidence boost,” Joensuu said. “That also gives you a feeling that you want another chance to prove yourself.”
Joensuu was a different player with Finland; his confidence and poise on the ice was apparent and he seemed to finally embrace his size and strength both in the corners and in front of the net. Following the tournament, the Islanders signed Joensuu to a contract extension, giving the forward a second chance with the club.
Capuano said a recent conversation he had with Joensuu gave him the strong feeling that his new and improved player is in the right place, mentally and physically, to make the transition back to North America.
“I just talked to him a couple of weeks ago, once we signed him, and he’s very excited to come back,” Capuano said. “I think when you're 19 or 20 years old, sometimes it’s tough to change your game. To me he is in the right frame of mind. He knows what he has to do with our organization and that’s to be physical, use his size and get to those areas of the ice that we need him to get to.”
The Islanders bench boss added Joensuu has “bought in” and that the two are on the same page now.
“When he and I first started there we had different opinions on how he needed to play, but from talking to him recently, he gets it now,” Capuano said. “The first thing he said to me was ‘I understand now what you were trying to say and what you were trying to preach.’ So we both have a clear understanding of how he needs to play.”
Joensuu knows that once training camp opens in September, the pressure will be on to prove to the rest of the coaching staff that he has grown as a player and to earn a spot in the Islanders lineup.
“There’s a lot of young guys coming up to the NHL trying to make the team,” Joensuu said. “I’m not in the same position as some of the 18 and 19-year-olds who teams expect more out of than players my age and in my situation. At the same time, I feel much more confident, much more mature and much more ready to play in the NHL. I’m prepared to take the next step and become an NHLer full-time.”