At a massive 6’8, 249 pounds, defenseman Joe Finley was an exciting NHL prospect in 2005, his draft year. Committed to attend the National Collegiate Athletic Association hockey powerhouse, the University of North Dakota, the Washington Capitals thought highly enough of the Edina, MN, native to select him with the 27th pick of the opening round.
Four impressive years, one National Championship and a remarkable plus-61 rating should have propelled Finley into the pro ranks.
But even giants can be slayed.
Instead, three injury-laden seasons have kept the defenseman from earning everyday NHL ice time. Claimed off of waivers Monday from the Buffalo Sabres, the Islanders’ newest defenseman will attempt to rectify his NHL career.
Finley began his professional career in 2009 with the South Carolina Stingrays of the ECHL. Just 17 games into the season, he suffered his first major setback, an aneurysm in his left hand. Finley underwent surgery to relocate a vein from his wrist to his hand. He wasn’t allowed any physical contact for six months, ending the season just after it had started.
The following season, Finley was on track for a bounce-back campaign, starting the year with the Hershey Bears of the American Hockey League. A torn MCL forced him to the sidelines for three months before he returned to South Carolina to finish the season. Two years into his professional career, Finley had played just 51 games, while watching a lot more from the press box.
“It’s unfortunate, but it’s a part of the game,” Finley said. “I’m just happy to be healthy and have this opportunity. I’ve never considered myself injury prone, but I’ve been fortunate to put that behind me and continue to just learn the pro game and continue to be a solid defensive presence that I need to be,””
Eager for a new start, Finley signed with the Buffalo Sabres for the 2011-12 season and spent most of the year with Buffalo’s top AHL affiliate in Rochester. He played in 57 of the team’s 76 games and led the Americans in penalty minutes with 143.
Last year, the stay-at-home defenseman finally got his first taste of the NHL, playing five games with the Sabres. That stretch included a game against the Islanders in which he fought Matt Martin.
“He’s a tough, strong kid,” Finley said. “That fight was a little longer than I’m used to going but it was good. I’m excited to be on the same side as him now.”
Finley isn’t the only player on the Islanders roster who skated for the Sabres last season. Former Sabre Brad Boyes should help Finley get settled on Long Island.
“It’ll be nice to see a familiar face in the locker room when I get there tomorrow,” Finley said. “It will help ease some of the nerves.”
Finley has played in 35 games this season with the Rochester Americans and knows his conditioning will work in his favor early in the shortened NHL season.
“We’re in mid-season stride right now,” Finley said. “I just have to come and focus on working hard and fitting in.”
Finley hopes to make his mark on the Islanders blueline this season. He’ll join his new team at training camp on Tuesday, eager to take the next step in fulfilling the potential that made him such an exciting prospect.
“It’s fantastic,” Finley said. “It’s a great opportunity and I couldn’t be happier.”