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Solid Lightning camp spurs case for Jokinen at forward

Lightning forward Jussi Jokinen, in Tuesday’s preseason game action against the Rangers, is likely to get more of a look at center, which he said is his natural position.

DIRK SHADD | Times

Lightning forward Jussi Jokinen, in Tuesday’s preseason game action against the Rangers, is likely to get more of a look at center, which he said is his natural position.

TAMPA — Jussi Jokinen doesn't know what to think, and he is trying not to think about it.

The Lightning forward read and heard all summer about how he could be traded to help relieve the team's glut up front, and he didn't know if he would get a chance to prove how badly he wanted to stay.

Since he did not know where he stood, Jokinen made a stand.

"I've done a pretty good job of just blocking it away," he said of the rumors. "I concentrate on playing. The only thing you can do is play as good as you can."

And perhaps win a job.

Coach Barry Melrose said before Tuesday night's game with the Rangers at the St. Pete Times Forum that he spoke to vice president of hockey operations Brian Lawton about sticking with Jokinen.

"Jokinen has been great," Melrose said. "What can I say? He's been our best player for two games."

Lawton did not commit to anything, but said, "There's no need for Barry to put in a good word for Jussi Jokinen with me. Jussi has played excellent."

Jokinen had an assist in the 3-2 victory over New York and has a goal, a team-best four points, a shootout goal and is plus-3 in three games. He has played on the power play, the penalty kill and won 55.4 percent of his faceoffs.

Whether that is enough for a roster spot remains to be seen. If not, Jokinen, who will make $1.875-million, understands playing well is like advertising to other teams.

"Obviously, I'd like to stay here because now I feel we have a team that has a really good chance to go to the playoffs, and if we make the playoffs, win the Stanley Cup," he said. "That's why I want to stay here."

Jokinen, 25, of Finland came to Tampa Bay in February from the Stars in the Brad Richards deal. Playing mostly left wing with center Vinny Lecavalier and Marty St. Louis, he had two goals and 14 points in 20 games, but did not play with confidence.

That changed, in part, because of an experiment by Melrose, who moved Jokinen to center to better get the puck on his stick, and perhaps to see if he can be effective there if Lecavalier (shoulder) is not ready for the opener.

Jokinen said it is his natural position, and of the 160 games he played the past two seasons, about 70 were in the middle.

"At center I can play a bit more with the puck," he said. "And I can think a little bit more."

"He's got great hands," said Lightning defenseman Janne Niskala, who played against Jokinen in Finland's elite league. "Not the hardest shot, but good moves that work every time; a good skill player."

Center also comes with added defensive responsibilities in the slot, and Jokinen, who at 5 feet 11, 190 pounds, said he is in the best shape of his career, has been solid there as well.

He sold Melrose.

"I don't worry about what a guy makes. I don't worry about contracts," Melrose said. "I just go to battle for the guys I want on my team. Jokinen has been awesome."

But has he sold Lawton?

Asked if Jokinen had won a spot, Lawton said, "He's an NHL player. He always had a spot in the NHL. It's just a matter of what different options we've got as a club. In my opinion, you can't say it any more straightforward, he's been excellent. He really separated himself in the first two games."

And made Tampa Bay think.

Damian Cristodero can be reached at cristodero@sptimes.com.

Solid Lightning camp spurs case for Jokinen at forward 09/23/08 [Last modified: Wednesday, September 24, 2008 3:13pm]
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