When Oiler winger Raffi Torres agreed to return to the AHL
last week, it opened the door for speculation as to what other Oiler prospects
fans could possibly see in Edmonton this year.
There have been reports that offensive defenseman Marc-Andre Bergeron
is in negotiations to follow Torres’ example and sign a minor league
contract. However, the biggest news of
the week is that 2002 first round draft pick Jesse Niinimaki will join
the Road Runners for the rest of the AHL season.
As first mentioned on Halloween by Robin Brownlee in the
Edmonton Sun, the Oilers approached Bill Zito, Niinimaki’s agent, about the
chances of the Finnish center skating in Edmonton this year.
Due to the influx of NHL players to the top European
leagues, several key Oiler prospects have lost ice time or even roster spots on
their teams. The CBA issues in North
America have affected Dragan Umicevic, Jonas Almtorp, Kalle
Olsson and Fredrik Johansson just to name a few in Sweden
alone. In Niinimaki’s case it was Ilves
Tampere’s acquisition of Atlanta Thrasher center Patrik Stefan that saw his ice
time diminish and expedited this move to Edmonton.
Early on Thursday morning the Finnish club issued a statement
on its website confirming that Niinimaki had come to terms with Edmonton in
order to play in the American League.
It is expected that an official announcement from the Oilers will follow
by the weekend.
Niinimaki will be in Alberta this weekend and will have to
go to Calgary in order to complete his immigration paperwork before he can join
the Road Runners on their six-game, 14-day road trip. The 21-year-old should be with the club by the time they face off
in Houston on October 14th and he could step right in and play
without having to first practice much with the club.
“He’s in game shape so I think it’s just a matter of (coach)
Geoff (Ward) finding where he fits in to play,” said Kevin Prendergast the VP
of Hockey Operations of the Oiler organization. “Now that we’ve got the bad news on J.J. Hunter being out of the
line up it creates a spot for him, but it’s up to him to come in a show us that
he deserves it.”
Hunter was run from behind on the weekend by Syracuse
defender Zenith Komarniski and sustained a badly injured shoulder that early
reports indicate a possible 2-3 month layoff.
Hunter’s misfortune does provide the Road Runners with an opening for
Niinimaki although the two pivots play distinctly different games.
While Hunter is proving to be more than the checking forward
he has been pegged as, Niinimaki is a dynamic offensive player who is expected
to eventually play on one of the top two lines and generate a lot of
points. Unfortunately, Mike Bishai and
Jarret Stoll currently hold down those two positions and aren’t going to
willingly step aside for the new kid in town.
“Jesse’s got to come over here and learn the North American
style of game and obviously that is a big change for anybody coming over form
Europe being used to the bigger ice surface,” said Prendergast. “(Ward) will find a place for him to play,
I’m sure he’ll start on the fourth line and he’ll have to work his way up. The two guys at the top are our top
two guys so he’ll have to work hard to unseat them.”
Niinimaki is going to have to work even harder off the ice
to get into the condition the Oilers expect of him. While summer reports declared the 6’3 forward to be tilting the
scales at close to 200 lbs, those reports were completely false. In truth, Niinimaki is still on the light
side of 185 lbs, a full 15 pounds shy of where the club wants him to be before
considering the NHL.
“He’s one of those guys that we’ll have to push hard to get
him to be the player we think he can be but he has the talent to get there,”
Prendergast said. “He’s not as big as
we’d like at this time; he’s going to spend a lot of time with Daryl
Despite his less than imposing physical presence, Niinimaki
has a boatload of talent to showcase for Edmonton fans. He’s described as being a gifted playmaker
that uses his vision and soft hands together with his great speed and agility
to create offensive scoring opportunities for himself and his linemates. If there is a concern it will be with his
ability to survive initially in the very physical atmosphere of North American
“I don’t know if there’s a physical component to his game
yet, being in the Finnish league the way it is, but he’ll learn that very
quickly,” admitted Prendergast. “He has
that knack to get out of the way but certainly guys are going to take runs at him. It’s like that in the American League, they
know you’re a first rounder and they’re going to see what you’re made of. I think he’s got that type of personality
that he might get hit once but it isn’t going to happen very often because he’s
going to learn very quickly.”
The basic truth is that this is a key prospect in the Oiler
system and the club couldn’t sit back and watch the talented center regress due
to the NHL’s problems. Coming off a
lost year because of a destroyed shoulder, Niinimaki cannot afford anything
less than a year where he is getting a lot of ice time and is being challenged
on the ice.
Fans have every right to get just as excited about
Niinimaki’s arrival as they are about goalie Jeff Drouin-Deslauriers joining
the squad this year. Both are near the
top of the team’s prospect depth chart, but don’t expect that that will mean a
free ride once Niinimaki pulls on a ‘Runners sweater.
“He’s a first rounder and we went out on a limb to take him
and we feel he has a lot of upside but as far as getting preferential treatment
because he’s a first rounder, that isn’t going to happen.” Prendergast warned. “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 easy. He’s
played at an elite level in Europe so it’s not as though he’s coming down a
level but it is a different style of play.”
Edmonton fans will have to wait until Sunday November 21st
to get their first glimpse of Niinimaki in Road Runner silks. That is the first day back for the club and
they will host the St. John’s Maple Leafs in what is scheduled as an afternoon
tilt at Rexall Place.
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