TAMPA — Johan Harju has proudly watched one of his best friends, fellow Swede Linus Omark, get regular ice time with the Oilers.
"He should be in this league. He deserves it," Harju said.
Now, it appears Harju, 24, after spending most of the season with AHL Norfolk, will get his shot with the Lightning. The rookie, called up Friday for the fourth time this season, is expected to play center or wing on the fourth line and get opportunities on the power play with Ryan Malone out six to eight weeks.
After spending his whole career in Europe, Harju admitted it has been an adjustment playing the North American style, on smaller rinks with less space, but feels more comfortable and confident this time around. And if Saturday's game against the Hurricanes is any indication, Harju has made significant improvements.
"Harju played very well — very, very well," Lightning coach Guy Boucher said of the 6-foot-3, 210-pounder who had two shots in 7:51 of ice time (3:53 on the power play). "I was impressed. He's got a lot of speed, got a great shot, and I thought he battled hard physically.
"And that's the one thing I thought he didn't have before. He had the speed, had the shot. He was smart. But he had to learn the North American fighting game, and his fighting level was a lot better than it was."
Harju, a sixth-round pick in 2007 , is known for his offensive abilities, including what Boucher calls a "tremendous shot."
"His shot is lethal," Boucher said. "He can score goals."
Harju has done just that for the Admirals, leading them with 18 goals in earning a spot in the AHL All-Star Game. But as he has found out in eight NHL games this season, in which he has a goal and an assist, there's not as much open space as in Europe, "where you can pick up speed and skate all over."
"The biggest thing is the pace of the game and smaller rinks and the physical game," said defenseman Victor Hedman, who last season had to make a similar adjustment coming from Sweden. "You have to move your feet all the time and look for those open areas."
But while at Norfolk, Harju also focused on improving defensively, both in positioning and awareness, knowing that's what it takes to play in the NHL.
"I don't expect more of him offensively. I expect more defensively," Boucher said. "That's something that he should have learned down there (in Norfolk). And I'm sure he did. So he's probably more reliable, and I won't be scared to put him on. Usually, that's the biggest issue. When guys come up, they're in shape enough. They've got enough skill. Usually, they're strong enough. It's just defensively they're all over the place.
"They don't realize that in the NHL, it's not a developmental league. It's a performance league. And when those guys come up, if they don't have at least a decent amount of defensive skills or awareness, you can't put them on."
Though this season has been a roller coaster for Harju, he downplayed a report out of Sweden last month that he was unhappy and planned to "go home" after this season.
"A couple of guys from my hometown in Sweden (were) working for a newspaper," Harju said. "And they understood me wrong. I am having a fun time here and love to play here."
And now Harju is getting his chance.
Joe Smith can be reached at email@example.com.