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Isles have high hopes for WHL pair

Tuesday, 08.05.2008 / 9:00 AM / Prospects

By Adam Kimelman - NHL.com Deputy Managing Editor


The New York Islanders' Travis Hamonic will provide the defensive compliment to their offensive blueline prospect Jyri Niemi.
The best defensive pairs complement each other. Ideally, one has a strong offensive upside, while the other is responsible defensively.
 
Usually it takes a lot of time for a team to develop a pair with that kind of chemistry. In Travis Hamonic and Jyri Niemi, the New York Islanders are hoping to put the process into fast-forward.
 
Hamonic, a 2008 second-round pick (No. 53), and Niemi, taken one round later (No. 72), arrived on Long Island for their first NHL prospect camp as complementary pieces.
 
While they may complement each other, it wasn't until the Islanders held their prospect development camp in July that the two were able to begin complimenting each other.
 
Niemi's Saskatoon Blades and Hamonic's Moose Jaw Warriors met six times during the 2007-08 Western Hockey League season, so most of their contact had been pushing, shoving and the odd face-wash.
 
"This is the first time I've ever formally met him beside some talk with him on the ice," Hamonic told NHL.com. "Sometimes there's a little chirping. It's nice to finally put a face to a guy on the ice and see how they are."
 
What they are is a potential top pairing for a club that has committed to a youth movement.
 
Niemi, a 6-foot-2, 192-pound native of Finland, made his debut season in North America a good one. He led WHL rookie blueliners with 14 goals and was third with 34 points, and he registered the hardest shot at the 2008 Canadian Hockey League Top Prospects game.
Niemi moves well for a big player, and his booming shot certainly made an impression opposing players.
 
"Niemi has a big shot," Hamonic said. "We're in the same division out there (WHL), so it was something I had to deal with on a regular basis. He's a big guy, physical. I know he's a defenseman, but he's an offensive guy, too. You've got to be really aware of him when he's on the ice, especially on the power play with that big shot."
 
Hamonic found out the hard way just how hard Niemi's shot is.
 
"Earlier in the season I was in front of the net on the penalty kill and he was back at the (blue) line, and my job basically was to block his shot," said Hamonic. "I came out and took the shot off the inside of the arm, so I teased him a little about that the other day, said his shot wasn't too hard." The bruise on Hamonic's arm, though, told a different story.
 
But contact is something Hamonic doesn't mind. The 6-foot, 192-pounder had 22 points and led the Warriors defensemen with 101 penalty minutes in 61 games.
 
"I talked to his coach at Moose Jaw (Dave Hunchak), and he told me that Travis missed a month of the season with a broken jaw, but actually finished the game in which he suffered the injury," said Peter Sullivan, who scouts the WHL for NHL Central Scouting.
 
"He's a great stay-at-home defenseman," Niemi said. "Makes great decisions with the puck, doesn't do anything stupid. Just a good defensive defenseman."
 
"I think the thing with me and Jyri is we're both Western league boys," said Hamonic. "He's a European, but he came over and adapted very well. The big thing with us is I skate very well and so does he. He's got a little more offensive punch to the game, but me, on the other hand, I'm more of a defensive, shut-down kind of guy. When you have a guy that's pretty good offensively, he complements well with a defensive guy. And you kind of that trust that he can go and I'll be there to cover him up."
 
That's just the kind of partnership the Islanders are hoping for -- maybe as soon as the 2008-09 season. The club has committed to building for the future around their young players, and GM Garth Snow has said he'll take the best players into the season, regardless of how old or experienced they might be.
 
"It'll be a competitive training camp, for sure," said Snow. "No player is guaranteed a spot. If that player comes in and opens some eyes, that player will be on the team."
 
Contact Adam Kimelman at akimelman@nhl.com.



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I came into a team that had 65 points, that was at the bottom of the basement, a team that everybody wrote off as never going to be good. My goal is to go from the very bottom to the very top.

— Forward Brandon Dubinsky on signing a six-year contract extension with the Columbus Blue Jackets