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Resurgent former NHLer Niinimaa leading Lulea

by Bill Meltzer
Sometimes, the long and winding road of a hockey player's career brings him full circle. Over the course of his 17-plus years of playing professional hockey, defenseman Janne Niinimaa has evolved from a baby-faced but brash wunderkind playing alongside players he once idolized to a grizzled veteran who has seen and done it all. When the 35-year-old signed a contract with Luleå HF of Sweden's Elitserien this offseason, many observers questioned how much he had left in the tank.

It turns out Niinimaa is far from finished, despite back problems that have forced him to miss three games. Through the first 19 games of the Elitserien regular season, the Finnish blueliner, who has dressed in 16 games, has tallied 14 points, one fewer than David Rundblad (Skellefteå AIK) and Magnus Johansson (Linköping HC) for the league scoring lead among defensemen. In addition, his plus-7 rating ranks in the top 10 among all players in the league.

Even more important, Niinimaa's play has been a major factor in why a Luleå club that was initially projected as a bubble playoff team at best currently sits in first place in Elitserien, seven points ahead of second-place Skellefteå AIK. In addition to Niinimaa's resurgence, the club has benefitted greatly from the rise of long-time minor-league forward Pär Arlbrandt. After scoring 16 goals and 37 points for LHF last year, the shifty 5-foot-7 left wing has averaged nearly a point per game this season (10 goals, 18 points) and ranks third in the league in scoring, behind SAIK's Joakim Lindström (11 goals, 25 points) and Mikko Lehtonen (12 goals, 23 points).

Lulea is 13-4-2 record, including a perfect 9-0-0 at home. With goaltenders David Rautio (1.60 goals-against average, .929 save percentage, one shutout in 10 starts) and Anders Nilsson (1.98 GAA, .905 save percentage, three shutouts in nine starts) splitting time in net, the club has allowed a league-low 35 goals while scoring 52. Niinimaa, who long has balked at his reputation as an offensive defenseman with defensive liabilities, has emphasized his desire to be a complete player.

"The biggest thing is always to make sure you take care of your end of the ice," he said. "It's always good to score points, but you have to think about the team first. It's not about statistics."
Niinimaa has had something of an uneven career. Despite playing in an NHL All-Star Game and being an All-Rookie Team selection, there was a widespread perception that he was an underachiever for much of his career. It got off to such a strong start, and the expectations of being a future Norris Trophy candidate were so high, that merely being a good NHL player wasn't good enough.

By the age of 23, Niinimaa had accomplished just about everything a young hockey player from Finland could dream of. He captained his country's junior national team. He became a starter on a deep Finnish Elite League team. He won the Finnish championship with Jokerit Helsinki. He soon became a starter on the Finnish national team, beating out former NHL defenseman Peter Ahola in the process. He won a World Championship gold medal (he was the youngest member of the 1995 team). He played in the 1996 World Cup of Hockey. He was named to the NHL All-Rookie Team in 1996-97. He played in the 1997 Stanley Cup Final with the Flyers. He even won an Olympic medal, taking bronze in 1998. Along the way, he fulfilled another childhood dream by getting to play alongside his childhood idol, Paul Coffey.

After so much early success, there was nowhere to go but down.

"Everything happened so fast," Niinimaa said. "I don't have any regrets, but I never really looked back. You just have to keep going. But of course there are special things that happened when I started out. To get advice from Paul Coffey, I mean, how could I not listen to what he said? He had so much knowledge to give. He was very generous with me, too."

Niinimaa's prosperous rookie NHL campaign ended on a sour note, as the Flyers were swept in the Stanley Cup Final games by the Detroit Red Wings. Although Niinimaa arguably was the Flyers' best blueliner throughout the 1997 Stanley Cup Playoffs, his run is remembered most not for all the good games he had, but for the fact that he got burned badly one-on-one by Darren McCarty on what turned out to be the Stanley Cup-winning goal for the Red Wings.

After experiencing a remarkable level of team and personal success in a short period of time, the fourth game of the 1997 Stanley Cup Final marked the beginning of bittersweet times in Niinimaa's professional career, a roller-coaster ride that continued for over a decade. In his second NHL season, Niinimaa fell out of favor in Philadelphia and was traded to the Edmonton Oilers for Dan McGillis

He spent parts of six seasons in Edmonton, and while he never lived up to the lofty expectations that were placed on his shoulders early, he did produce an All-Star season in 2000-01. From there, Niinimaa became a journeyman player. He had a strong 2003-04 season with the New York Islanders. However, after spending the 2004-05 lockout campaign with Kärpät Oulu (his hometown team in Finland), he had a subpar return to Long Island and finished the season with the Dallas Stars. The next season, he was a part-time player for the Montreal Canadiens.

At age 32, Niinimaa returned to Europe. He spent a two-year stint in Switzerland's National League, spending one season apiece with HC Davos and the SCL Tigers, the first of which was stellar but the latter of which was limited to 20 games due to injury. Last season, Niinimaa signed in Sweden and won a championship with HV 71 Jönköping. Nevertheless, many felt as though the Finn's career was winding down when he joined Lulea.

Now he's been a major part of the club's upswing. The city of Luleå is Sweden's northernmost major city, and has much in common with Oulu, Finland, which is near Niinimaa's hometown of Raahe. What's more, the Luleå HF hockey team has a long tradition of Finnish standouts, a history that Niinimaa has thus far helped to continue. Moreover, one of Lulea's most famous alums, Mikael Renberg, is one of Niinimaa's closest friends in the sport and a player he credits with helping him during the early part of his career.

Niinimaa is hopeful that the autumn years of his career are just as successful as the early portion. If his back holds up and Lulea continues playing the way it has over the first two months of the regular season, there is no reason why he cannot be part of another team that makes a deep run in the Swedish playoffs. Meanwhile, he's enjoying his elder-statesman status and on-ice success with Luleå.
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