Former Columbus Blue Jacket and Arizona Coyote Markus Hannikainen is headed home to Finland and to the club he grew up with. Seemingly unable to find a new NHL contract, Hannikainen has signed with the KHL’s Jokerit of his hometown of Helsinki. The veteran forward appears to be fully committed as well; the team has announced that Hannikainen has returned on a “long-term” contract. The 27-year-old has spent the past five seasons in the NHL and AHL but previously spent six years with Jokerit at various levels of Finnish hockey.
Were it not for the flat salary cap and the current lull in the NHL free agent market, perhaps Hannikainen may have been able to find another contract in North America. However, his return overseas should not come as a surprise as his career appeared to be trending in that direction. A hard-working, two-way winger whose defensive zone ability far exceeded his point totals – even as a younger prospect – Hannikainen finally broke out offensively as a pro after leaving Jokerit to join the Liiga’s JYP in 2014-15. He turned that success into an entry-level deal with Columbus, the first of three contracts he would sign with the club over three years. Hannikainen even played in four games with the Jackets in his first season in North America. As the years went on, Hannikainen began to carve out a regular role for himself in Columbus – or so it seemed. Even as his games played jumped four to 10 to 33 and finally to 44 (and a full season in the NHL) in 2018-19, the forward’s role with Columbus was always limited to meager fourth line minutes and very little offensive opportunity. As a result, the Blue Jackets did not hesitate to leave Hannikainen in the AHL this past season when they were able to upgrade their forward corps. After months without an NHL appearance, Hannikainen was traded to the Arizona Coyotes in February and the ’Yotes also opted to leave him in the minors. A two-way contract this off-season would not have been out of the question for the veteran, but between his limited NHL results and lack of offensive ability he was always going to have to prove himself in the AHL to get back to the top level.
Instead, Hannikainen has decided to return home where a guaranteed role is waiting and where he can maximize his offensive potential. While Hannikainen has a long history with Jokerit, this will be his first experience in the KHL after the club shifted leagues during his NHL absence. The level of competition should be higher this time around, but the experienced winger has several NHL seasons to his credit now as well. He also joins a talented team whose roster includes a laundry list of NHL vets including recently re-signed leading scorer Brian O’Neill and the likes of Nicklas Jensen, Jordan Schroeder, Jesse Joensuu, Iiro Pakarinen, Henrik Haapala, Saku Maenalanen, Peter Regin, Viktor Loov, Alex Grant, and Anders Lindback. The rich get richer with the addition of Hannikainen to a team that should compete for years to come in hope of winning their first Gagarin Cup.