RALEIGH — New Carolina Hurricanes defenseman Jani Hakanpaa is 29 years old and has played professional hockey for 10 seasons. But that decade as a pro — which included stops with two Liiga teams in his native Finland, time with three AHL franchises and a two-game stint in the ECHL — has amounted to just 47 NHL games, 42 of which came this season with the Anaheim Ducks.
So it was understandable that the first reaction from many when word that former first-round pick Haydn Fleury had been traded to the West Coast for Hakanpaa and a 2022 sixth-round pick was uncertainty.
With NHL teams only playing divisional opponents this year and Hakanpaa logging just five games last season with the Ducks, the 6-foot-5, 218-pound defender has played against just nine of the league’s 31 teams. Even the most all-consuming NHL fan — or in my case, hockey journalist — wouldn’t have much of a book on Hakanpaa.
It only took watching Hakanpaa’s first two shifts of his final game with the Ducks — Sunday’s 4-1 loss to the Avalanche — to witness him live up to his reputation as a punishing blueliner who ranks third in the league in hits this season.
Hakanpaa came around the back of the Anaheim net alongside Colorado’s Nazim Kadri and delivered a shove that knocked the Avalanche center right off his skates and to the ice.
“I want him to play the way he plays. … That’s what he does, then you better do that here,” Hurricanes coach Rod Brind’Amour said following Hakanpaa’s first practice with the team on Wednesday. “We got him here because of that, and we don’t need him to do anything differently. We know what he’s about.”
The addition of Hakanpaa and the trade that brought forward Cedric Paquette to Raleigh on Feb. 13 give the Hurricanes two former fourth-round picks who have carved out a career by being physical on the ice — an element the Hurricanes have lacked.
“I’m just gonna bring a tenacity of playing hard, be hard to play against out there, be really solid on the back end,” Hakanpaa said. “Get that physicality up. I guess that’s what I’ve been trying to try to do and what I expect of myself in games. So I’ll try to bring that.”
One person who knows what to expect of Carolina’s latest addition is countryman Sebastian Aho, who was teammates with Hakanpaa on the 2015-16 Karpat team that won the Liiga championship.
“He’s a team-first guy,” Aho said. “He does everything for the team. Hard-working, honest player. Big, strong, fast and a great guy. So it’s great to have him here.”
Aho was also able to give Hakanpaa a quick rundown of the Hurricanes.
“We used to play together back home in Finland, and he said a lot of good things about this team,” Hakanpaa said. “He said it’s a really good group of guys, hard-working team. So it’s an honor for me to be here and be part of this great hockey club.”
With Hakanpaa in the fold, the Hurricanes finally have the option of having all six defensemen playing on their natural sides, and Brind’Amour had him teamed with rookie Jake Bean on Carolina’s third defense pairing during Wednesday’s practice.
While Hakanpaa has never played against the Hurricanes, he said he watched them a lot during last year’s postseason because of all the talent on defense.
“It’s going to be nice to get to play with them and be around those guys every day,” he said. “And maybe I’ll even learn something from them, try to pick their brain to maybe get something going my way too and learn from those great players. It’s going to be great to get out there with those guys.”
He will also be jumping into a playoff race — the Ducks have the league’s third-worst record; Carolina the NHL’s second-best. And while the Hurricanes are all but mathematically assured of reaching the postseason, the team is still fighting for the top spot in the Central Division and preparing for the postseason.
“It gives you that little boost when you get to a great team like this that has a good chance to go a long way,” Hakanpaa said. “So you know you want to make sure you come in right off the bat hot and work hard and try to help the team right off the get-go here.
“Honestly, just do anything to help the team win some hockey games down the stretch here. So it’s nice. Everybody in this in this business to win, so to have that chance here, it’s unreal.”