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Original Issue

Busting Out Considered a flop his first four years, Olli Jokinen of the Panthers is finally playing like a No. 3 draft pick

The long-suffering hockey fans of South Florida took their hats
off to Olli Jokinen on Dec. 4, then flung them onto the ice. The
littering was in celebration of Jokinen's first NHL hat trick, a
tribute that would have touched the snub-nosed, baby-faced
Panthers center more if he actually had scored a third goal. He
did fire the puck into an empty Carolina Hurricanes net in the
last minute of a 4--2 victory, but he had been three feet
offsides when he took the pass, and the referees immediately
waved off the would-be score. Jokinen was philosophical after the
match, realizing it is better to be a stride ahead of the play
than five years behind it.

Until this season Jokinen, the third player taken in the 1997
draft and later traded twice by age 21, appeared to be a classic
bust. He even pondered returning to his native Finland early last
season. "I figured that maybe I could go home and build my
confidence," says Jokinen, who had been dealt by the Los Angeles
Kings in 1999 and the New York Islanders in 2000. "Maybe after a
few years I'd come back and try the NHL again." Sixth in the
league in scoring with 30 points through last Saturday, Jokinen
is back without having left.

His metamorphosis can't be categorized simply as a breakout
season. Jokinen's 15 goals and competent if not overwhelming
defensive play have drawn comparisons to the formidable work of
Boston Bruins center Joe Thornton, who was the first player
drafted in 1997. But the analogy is woefully inexact because
Thornton has been steadily ascending to stardom while Jokinen has
emerged from a vacuum. Jokinen never had more than 29 points in
any of his four full seasons; he equaled that total last week, in
the Panthers' 26th game. He had scored four winning goals in his
first 314 NHL games; he has three in his first 28 this season,
for a team with only nine victories.

The vagabond Mike Keenan, who is coaching his seventh NHL team,
specializes in projects, from Chris Pronger in St. Louis to
Thornton to Jokinen. The formula is familiar: Keenan takes a
young, indisputable talent, challenges him to improve his
fitness, rewards him with ice time and leavens the mix with what
Panthers third-liner Peter Worrell calls an "Iron Miking," a
tirade that embarrasses the player. Jokinen received his within
10 days of Keenan's arrival in Florida last December. After the
first period of a game against the Hurricanes, Keenan spent 10
minutes dressing down Jokinen in front of teammates, saying those
scouts who had raved about him as a junior were wrong.

"The message was that I wasn't ready to play," Jokinen says. "You
can take it two ways, and I took it the right way. Mike didn't
play me the first 10 minutes of the second period, but the last
30 minutes I was out every second shift. That might have been the
turning point."

In his first 102 games with Florida, Jokinen had six goals and 11
assists. Under Keenan he had 24 goals and 34 assists in 84
matches. The 6'3" 205-pounder also dropped five pounds and
reduced his percentage of body fat from 11.5 to 8.5 in the past
year. "You could see you were dealing with a different person in
training camp," Keenan says. "It was like he had rehearsed for
this. He came back more gregarious, more self-confident. He got
some positive feedback in terms of ice time, and he's taken off
from there." Jokinen, who was named an alternate captain before
the start of the season, is a candidate to fill the vacant
Panthers captaincy.

"You're looking at a happy guy," Jokinen said last Thursday after
practice, the morning of his 24th birthday. Indeed, the only one
miffed in his family was his wife, Katerina, who had visited the
Panthers' arena boutique the previous evening to buy a few of her
husband's number 12 jerseys to send to friends in Finland as
Christmas gifts. The shop was out of them. "When you score only
nine goals [the previous season]," Jokinen says, "there's not a
lot of demand for your number."

COLOR PHOTO: ELIOT J. SCHECTER/GETTY IMAGES COACHABLE The turnaround by Jokinen can be attributed in large part to tough love from Keenan.

Sudden Impact

Olli Jokinen had not scored more than 29 points in an NHL season,
but he matched that number in only 26 games this year. Here are
his stats for his first four NHL seasons.

Season Team Games Goals Assists Points

1998--99 Kings 66 9 12 21

1999--00 Islanders 82 11 10 21

2000--01 Panthers 78 6 10 16

2001--02 Panthers 80 9 20 29