From Finland to Philly? Antero Niittymaki may arrive in 2002-03

By Al Alven

With the NHL trading deadline having passed over a little over a week ago, the hockey world has had ample time to ponder what has unquestionably become one of the league’s biggest annual “events”.

Who were this year’s big winners and losers? What team got the best bargain and which ones made the biggest sacrifices? Which teams are now best equipped to take a run at Lord Stanley’s silver chalice this spring?

While these questions can only be answered over time, one individual quietly emerged from deadline day as a potential long-term winner. If you haven’t heard of Antero Niittymaki, keep the name under your hat. Chances are, you’ll be hearing plenty from him in the near future.

A 1998 sixth round draft selection of the Philadelphia Flyers, Niittymaki became the organization’s top goaltending prospect with the trade of Maxime Ouellet to Washington (as part of the package sent to the Capitals for Adam Oates).

Up until now, Niittymaki’s future with the Flyers had been clouded by his supposed rank on the organizational depth chart. After all, just about everyone in the hockey world had Ouellet listed as Philadelphia’s top prospect at any position. Many still feel that Ouellet is the top goaltending prospect in all of hockey. After an up-and-down season with the Phantoms, all of this is now a mute point (at least from the Flyers’ standpoint).

Now, the doors of opportunity have swung wide open for Niittymaki. All that stands in the way of his North American arrival is his name on the dotted line of a contract.

Surely, the Flyers would love to see Niittymaki wearing the orange and purple of the AHL’s Philadelphia Phantoms come October. Part of the reason the Flyers’ brass was comfortable in dealing away Ouellet lies in the organization’s high regard for the Scandinavian netminder. Throw out the “win now” theory. Adam Oates or not, competent NHL organizations do not deal away top goaltending prospects without ample backup (pardon the pun, if that is one).

Niittymaki’s Philadelphia arrival might have come sooner had it not been for Finland’s mandatory military service commitment. If you recall, Teemu Selanne’s NHL debut was delayed for the same reason (he was 22 when he broke in with the Winnipeg Jets in 1992). At the time he was drafted by the Flyers, Niittymaki had one year of service to complete.

Born in Turku (Finland’s oldest city) on June 18, 1980, Niittymaki was the 168th overall selection at the 1998 NHL Entry Draft. The 6-1, 175 lb. netminder recently wrapped up his third season with TPS Turku of the Finnish Elite League, posting an impressive 1.70 goals against average in 27 games. He possesses an excellent glove hand, and his supreme lateral movement is instantly noticeable. Niittymaki has also worked hard on his weaknesses, including a tendency to allow soft goals on his stickhand side.

Two seasons ago, he took rookie of the year honors while leading his hometown team to a league championship. In games played during the 1999-2000 season, Niittymaki posted a 23-6-2 record along with three shutouts, a 2.15 GAA and a save percentage of .929. He was even better in the playoffs, posting a 6-1 record in eight appearances, a 1.72 GAA and a .944 SP while leading Turku to a league championship.

Niittymaki got his first taste of major international competition when he represented Finland at the 1999-2000 World Junior Championships in Manitoba, Canada. He was inconsistent at best while splitting time with New Jersey Devils’ prospect Ari Ahonen, but seemed to get more comfortable as the tournament went on.

The Finnish sensation fell victim to the dreaded sophomore jinx (yes, that thing applies in Europe as well) in 2000-01, losing his starting job to veteran Fredrik Norrena. However, while he suffered from inconsistency throughout the season, Niittymaki was far from terrible. In fact, had Norrena not had such a brilliant season (he went on to lead TPS Turku to its second straight league title), Niittymaki may have had the opportunity to get his game back on track (a broken thumb in December of 2000 didn’t help matters either).

As it was, ala Brian Boucher last season, Niittymaki was stuck behind a quality veteran and was unable to play himself out of his funk. He did not appear in a single playoff game in 2000-01. To his credit, however, Niittymaki returned with a vengeance this season. The Flyers’ front office has been impressed by the young goaltender’s resiliency and is very pleased with his development to this point. Niittymaki’s apparent emergence has served as an organizational safety net of sorts, giving the Flyers the insurance they needed to part with Ouellet at the deadline.

Still, the price the team paid to get Oates from the Capitals was a steep one. Goaltenders are a tricky breed in many, many ways. Projecting their development is always a risky formula. Just as the winners and losers of this year’s NHL trading deadline may not be decided for years to come, the future of Antero Niittymaki (and Maxime Ouellet for that matter) remain as undecided as the daily outcome of the Pennsylvania Lottery.

However, one thing is for certain in this equation. Though it would’ve been hard to figure even two weeks ago, Niittymaki is now the Flyers’ top goaltending prospect. The trade of Ouellet has opened a door that may or may not lead to future NHL stardom for the young Fin, but the opportunity is now available to him. What he does with it remains to be seen.