The Oilers Niinimaki dilemma

By Guy Flaming





The Niinimaki Dilemma

When the news reached the Edmonton public in early November
that 2002 first round draft pick Jesse Niinimaki was joining the local
AHL affiliate, it sent a jolt of excitement through the fanbase. The move was billed as an unseen piece of
Edmonton’s prospect puzzle finally making an appearance at Rexall Place. For their part, Oiler fans were excited to
see what the Finnish center was capable of with full anticipation that they
would see some highlight reel hockey in town again.

 

Disappointment wouldn’t be strong enough of a word.

 

You’ll remember that Niinimaki was the surprise pick of the
first round in 2002, with the Oilers going off the map to land the 6’3
middleman a couple rounds before most pundits predicted he would be chosen. At the time, the Oilers claimed they were not
the only team interested in drafting Niinimaki and that they felt if they
didn’t act quickly, another team would have stepped up with one of the
subsequent picks shortly after their turn at 15.

 

A few years later, even the player admits that he was
surprised to hear his name called out by GM Kevin Lowe that day. Interestingly enough though, Niinimaki also
believes that he would have been drafted by another team shortly after the
Oilers picked if Lowe hadn’t looked his way.

 

There were a couple teams I knew that were going to pick me in the first
round,” Niinimaki said before listing off a handful of teams including Ottawa,
who picked immediately after Edmonton at 16th, and the New York
Islanders who had the 22nd choice.
“There were four or five teams; I think San Jose was the only team I didn’t
have an interview with.”

 

Following the draft that summer, Niinimaki began the 2002-03 campaign
back in his homeland with Ilves Tampere.
It was his first full season with the pro club and by the end of the
year Niinimaki had totaled a respectable 17 points.

 

In the summer of 2003, the Oilers held their first annual Top Prospects
camp in Sherwood Park and brought in about 30 of their key draftees from around
the world, Niinimaki being one of the centerpieces of the event. While the weeklong sessions were meant more
for orientation to the organization and the city as opposed to evaluation, the
Finnish pivot displayed his enormous puck controlling and playmaking abilities. At that point, the future was still so
bright that the Oiler brass was wearing shades.

 

He was very
good at the rookie camp we had and now he’s back with his team back in
Finland. We talked to their coach last
week and Jesse is going to be a big part of their rebuilding, they went out and
signed some good players to play around him,” Kevin Prendergast said that
summer. “He’s just got to understand
that there are some things that he’s got to improve on from a mental and
physical stand point but from an ability to play the game, we certainly think
he should play for us, probably, within the next two years. By
the end of this year we’ll make a decision and he’ll probably be ready to come
over to North America next year. He’s
probably two years away from the NHL.

 

Remember, that was the summer of
2003.

 

Cue the train wreck.

 

After beginning the 2003-04
schedule off at a terrific pace, recording 6 points in 10 games, Niinimaki’s
world turned upside down in one fluke instant.
Chasing after a loose puck he was bumped by an opposing defenseman,
knocking him off balance and into the end boards. The hit wasn’t dirty and the impact into the boards was really
nothing out of the ordinary, but a one in a million angle or body position
resulted in an incredibly shattered shoulder that knocked Niinimaki out for the
entire season.

 

Extensive surgery was needed to
repair the joint as well as the various Latin-named bits and pieces in the
area.

 

With his season a complete wash,
Niinimaki and the Oilers began weighing their options on what would be the best
way to proceed to get the prospect back on track as soon as possible. At one point it appeared that the youngster
would leave Finland to begin rehab and training under the guidance of Daryl
Duke, the Oilers fitness guru.
Niinimaki did spent a couple weeks in the City of Champions last year
and it looked like spending the summer in Edmonton was but a formality. Upon his return to Finland, he hired a
personal trainer to help him begin the rehabilitation process.

 

Once he’s back to
90-95 percent we’re going to bring him back to train with Darryl Duke who’ll
sort of push him and we might consider having him over here next year,”
Prendergast said then, again stating the team’s desire to have Niinimaki in
North America for the coming season.

 

At some point over
the summer, the plans changed again. It
may have simply been someone foreseeing the CBA work stoppage or possibly
deciding that Niinimaki’s shoulder wouldn’t be ready for the more physical
North American game but regardless, as the 2004-05 season grew closer, it
became clear that the center was going to play for Ilves again.

 

That goes back to the injury; he basically
only played eight games all year and from our standpoint as a first rounder
we’d like to see him play more and get bigger and make a decision on him from
there,” Prendergast said in the 2004 offseason.

 

Niinimaki began the
year as a top two-line center, but when Ilves signed Patrik Stefan of the NHL’s
Atlanta Thrashers early into the schedule, the Oiler prospect’s ice time began
diminishing rapidly. After 18 games,
and 8 points, Niinimaki and the Oilers reached an agreement that would see the
21-year-old join the AHL’s Edmonton Road Runners for the remainder of the
2004-05 season.

 

For two weeks Niinimaki
practiced with the injured Road Runner players in Sherwood Park while the team
was away from Rexall Place. Skating
with J.J. Hunter, Brent Henley, Dan Baum and the Oiler’s Marty Reasoner was a
good warm up for the newcomer and he impressed his new teammates.

 

“That kid’s got skill!
He’s just a pure skilled hockey player and I think he’s going to do very
well,” Henley praised. “With his
experience in the Finnish League, which is pretty much on par with the AHL, I
don’t think he’ll have trouble at all and I definitely see him being an NHL
player. He’s really strong on his
skates and you can’t play that well in that league and be weak.”

 

Niinimaki made is
North American professional debut on November 17th in a road game
against the Hamilton Bulldogs. He did
not record a point in the game, something he and the fans would need to get
used to.

 

The Road Runners
have a lot of players to pick from on a nightly basis, 26 at the moment, which
is three or four more than most other AHL squads are carrying. Because of that, and partly because they
wanted to acclimatize him slowly, the Runners coaching staff made Niinimaki a
healthy scratch for most of November and December. That shouldn’t have come as a surprise to anyone, because the
Oilers said from the outset that the Finn was not going to get opportunities
handed to him.

 

“As far as getting
preferential treatment because he’s a first rounder, that isn’t going to
happen,” Prendergast told Hockey’s Future in November. “He’s going to have to unseat the guys
playing ahead of him and that’s a coaching decision for Geoff Ward. We’re going to look at him and bring him
along at our pace now. He’s got a road
ahead of him, this isn’t going to be an easy go for him.”

 

On November 23rd, a home
contest against St. john’s, coach Ward not only gave Niinimaki the green light
to suit up but also sent him out as his first sniper when the game went to the
shootout round after overtime had settled nothing. In what can best be described as a major league goal, Niinimaki
beat the Leafs goaltender with an amazing deke that revealed an ability
probably not found on more than a couple other Road Runner players.

 

That was an easy decision,” said Ward after the game in regards to his
choice to go with his newest player.
“He’s a skilled hockey player and I think he showed a pretty good move
on the goal.”

 

After the first round of the
shootout, the game was still tied so Niinimaki was given a second opportunity
but failed when he tried to get too fancy and lost control of the puck.

 

I have four or five moves and the one I chose for the second try was a
big mistake because the ice was pretty bad,” he sighed later.

 

With the Runners still holding down top spot in their division, it was
continuing to be difficult for Niinimaki to earn a regular starting job on the
roster, but he wasn’t yet to the point where he was too frustrated.

 

“Everything is
new,” Jesse reasoned. “I have to get
used to the guys in practice, the systems we use here are so different then we
use in Finland. The forecheck is a lot
more here, the ice is smaller and that makes the game much different. Of course I have to earn my ice time and so
I have to play well so I get to play more and more, but let’s see what
happens.”

 

As the season continued and the pressbox seat became even
more familiar, a visible difference could be seen in Niinimaki’s demeanor. The smiling youth had become more subdued
and by the time Christmas came around, Niinimaki still had not played his tenth
AHL game. Still he would not admit to
regretting his choice to leave Finland.

 

It’s too early to say that; it’s only been three weeks with the team,”
he said on December 20th.
“Of course I want to play as much as I can, but let’s see what
comes. They just want me to play the
way I can.”

 

What the coaching staff wanted to see from Niinimaki in practice was a
more driven player than what had shown up to that point.

 

He’s got to get in a little bit better condition and we’ve
talked about that,” Ward’s explanation began.
“He’s close that way and I think he’s pretty comfortable in our systems
but when he’s got the opportunity to play he’s got to show that he’s making a
positive impact on the game. It’s a
two-part process; he’s got to bring more and show us a bit more that he wants
to compete, have more passion when he plays and we have to keep teaching him
how to do that by showing him video of himself and of other guys on the team
and how they play so that he can make the comparison. He’s a talented player, but right now he’s a guy trying to break
into the lineup at our deepest position, which is center.”

 

As January calendar pages gave way
to February, Niinimaki had played in just nine games and only recorded his
first goal, and point, in a 2-1 road loss to San Antonio. Prior to his most recent appearance, a game
against Grand Rapids, the center revealed to Hockey’s Future that he was
battling with a lack confidence stemming from his injury-shortened season
coupled with the current campaign’s lack of productivity.

 

With his father in town from
Finland to watch, Niinimaki dressed and played a regular shift against the
Griffins, but had a very disappointing night.

 

“I was so bad,” Niinimaki
managed to say with red eyes, choking back his emotions. “Everything was so wrong, I don’t know… I
don’t know.”

 

When asked about Niinimaki’s
performance on the evening, Ward chose his words carefully. “He does some really good things with the
puck but there are areas of the game he’s still trying to learn,” he said. “How you rotate into the defensive zone, how
hard you play on special teams, things like that but he’s making strides
forward so we just have to stay patient and keep working with him.”

 

Fans are split down the middle on
their opinion of the situation and what they think should be done for the
benefit of the team and the player. On
one hand the league is supposed to be developmental, but on the other, it needs
to foster a winning environment and have each player earn their ice time.

 

It’s not hard to tell which side of
the argument the Oilers and Road Runners are on but in Geoff Ward’s case as
coach of the AHL club, he’s damned either way.

 

“It’s true, we really have to look
at two things,” Ward agreed. “One, ‘do
you make your team better?’ We have to make sure we’re accountable to our team
and the players on it that we make ourselves into the best team as
possible. Two, we’re also accountable
to make individual players better so you do have to make sure you’re
paying attention to both things and try to marry those two concepts together so
that guys buy in. Goals you set should
be congruent so that they work together and if you do that, then both things
create a team energy that you can count on in situations.”

 

“We do pay attention to both things
and Jesse’s not any different than any other young player,” Ward
continued. “They make mistakes and
that’s why they’re here! We have to
work with them, reinforce the positive things and show them the correct reads
that they have to do to make the mistakes disappear.”

 

Back in October during training
camp and before Niinimaki was even in the picture, Kevin Lowe declared his
philosophy when it came to balancing development with winning.

 

(The AHL) is no
different than the NHL; you have to win games,” began the Oilers GM. “Ward’s a good coach and he’s got lots to
work with here so we’re going to be very competitive before it’s all
over.”

 

“Our mandate has
not been to allow a young guy to make a lot of mistakes over the winning
element because we think the winning is as important as the gratuitous
development,” Lowe continued. “There’s
probably more emphasis on winning this year than in other years. In my mind, winning is

development. You have to learn to win
and in order to win you have to be able to make plays at the right time.”

 

Sources within the
organization have told Hockey’s Future that the only obstacle standing between
Niinimaki and more ice time is Niinimaki himself. They want him to play with more assertiveness, a hunger and a
passion that they simply aren’t seeing in practice.

 

Part of the problem
has to be the shoulder that clearly prevents Niinimaki from playing as
naturally as he did prior to the injury.
In a quiet and informal demonstration, Niinimaki showed the difference
in the range of motion that exists from his healthy side to the one that was
reconstructed and the disparity is startling.

For a player who depends on his agility and stickhandling prowess, to be
so limited in his physical abilities cannot be understated.

 

One Oiler insider
went so far as to suggest that this season should be considered a write off for
Niinimaki, and that it should be simply viewed as rehab.

 

“This summer is
going to be incredibly important,” the source said.

 

I don’t
think the clock starts to click on this kid until next year because of where he
is right now,” agreed Prendergast. “If
the NHL was going right now there would be more ice time for him with the Road
Runners. He’s going to need the summer
to get into the right situation. From my standpoint, I’m not worried about this
kid now because I knew we just needed to get him here so we could get our hands
on him.”

 

Niinimaki has spent an exorbitant amount of time in the gym
with Daryl Duke and has added a dozen pounds of muscle to his frame since he
arrived in Edmonton in November. Now
tilting the scales at 192 lbs, one has to give credit to both Duke and
Niinimaki for devising a regiment that has done what the last few off seasons
in Finland have failed to do; bulk him up.

 

While Niinimaki
isn’t sure what his plans are yet for next season, he has not ruled out staying
in Edmonton or a return to Europe, although Sweden interests him more than
heading back to Finland. If the NHL and
its players were active next fall, Niinimaki might have more opportunity to
play with the Road Runners because Jarret Stoll, Raffi Torres and possibly
another forward or two would move up to the big club. There are also veteran players on the current roster that may not
be resigned because of the rookie crop on the way including Marc-Antoine
Pouliot
, Zack Stortini, J.F. Jacques, possibly Matt Greene

as well as a European or two.

 

At this point the
only thing that is certain in regards to this entire ‘Niinimaki
Scenario’ is that in the four drafts since the scouting reigns switched from
Barry Fraser to Kevin Prendergast in 2001, no Edmonton pick has been more
controversial or second guessed by outsiders.
Time will tell if the Oilers were right or, if after a serious injury,
they’ll be panned for another 90’s-like first round bust.

 

“(This year) is an eye opener for him, he now knows what it
takes,” said Prendergast, ”We’ll know what kind of hockey player we have in
September when he comes back.”

 

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