could have stayed with the HPK team in Finland, but the 6-foot-1, 197-pound Saskatoon Blades defenseman decided to take a different developmental path.
“I wanted to see how good I really am,” Niemi told NHL.com. “I hear the best players play in the WHL. I have a friend who played in Red Deer, and he told me this is the best league you can go and play in.”
So Niemi packed his bags and left his home and family in Hameenkyro, Finland, for Saskatoon and the Western Hockey League. It was a successful journey, to say the least.
Niemi led WHL rookie defensemen with 14 goals, and was third with 34 points, in addition to wining the hardest-shot competition at the CHL Top Prospects Game. He also earned the No. 25 ranking among North American skaters from NHL Central Scouting. Not bad for someone who’s only been a defenseman for about four years.
"I had speed and I could skate forwards and backwards,” Niemi said. “So, when I was 13 or 14, my coach told me that I have to be a defenseman. The first time that I heard that, I just left the rink and I said, 'I'm never going to play with you again.' I was so mad. I loved scoring goals, and when you're on defense, you have to defend."
While it wasn’t a transition he didn’t particularly enjoy, it’s one that has gone smoothly.
"Jyri is adjusting well to the North American game,” said NHL Director of Central Scouting E.J. McGuire. “He has good poise and stickhandling ability from the back end. He quarterbacks the power play, with a heavy shot from the point. He has an offensive flair to his game and is an entertaining player to watch.
"More dependability in the defensive zone will guarantee that he projects into a No. 3 or 4 defenseman in the League, with the potential to be a 1-2 defenseman."
Niemi said the transition from Finland to the WHL wasn’t difficult and his English skills already were good, but there were some on-ice differences.
“Some things took a while, but it wasn’t that big of a deal for me,” Niemi told NHL.com. “It was just some game stuff that I had to get used to. Mostly defending. In Finland we defend man against man, but here we defend zone. That was the biggest adjustment for me.
“There is so much more speed over here than in Finland. The physical play is a lot harder than Finland. The players are bigger, stronger, faster. The whole league is really different than the league back home.”
During his meetings with teams at the NHL Scouting Combine, Niemi said he received praise for his willingness to travel to North America in his draft year.
“There aren’t that many players from Europe willing to come over here and play here,” Niemi said. “I think they appreciate that I came over here. They said they thought it was a great decision for me to come over here and play in the WHL.”
Contact Adam Kimelman at email@example.com.