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Switzerland: Sinking Lakers turn to Niinimaa, Brendl

by Bill Meltzer
In the midst of a month-long slump that has seen the club plummet to the basement of the 14-team Swiss National League, the Rapperswil-Jona Lakers have opened their wallet to bring in a pair of veteran former NHL players: Finnish defenseman Janne Niinimaa and Czech forward Pavel Brendl.

The Lakers, who finished 13th last season and have not made the playoffs since 2007-08, have lost seven in a row and nine of their last 10 games, dropping from fifth place to last in the process. During their current swoon, Rapperswil has been shut out three times, managed three or more goals on only two occasions and has been outscored overall 34-14.

The Rapperswil-Jona Lakers have signed former NHL player Janne Niinimaa to help turn their season around. (Photo: Getty Images)
Brendl, 31, started the season in his native Czech Republic with HC Pardubice. In six Extraliga games before transferring to his new Swiss club, Brendl had five goals and eight points. The well-traveled former WHL scoring sensation and NHL player with the New York Rangers, Philadelphia Flyers, Carolina Hurricanes and Phoenix Coyotes has spent most of the past three seasons in the KHL.

Since leaving North America in 2007, Brendl has bounced around the various European leagues. He has scored 30 or more goals three times but has not found a long-term home on any team. The Lakers will be Brendl's seventh team in the last five-plus seasons. Dating back to the 2007-08 season, Brendl has played for two teams apiece in Sweden's Elitserien (former top league club Mora IK and Brynas IF) and the KHL (Torpedo Nizhny-Novgorod and Neftekhimik Nizhnekamsk), with a brief but productive 16-game stint in Finland's SM-liiga last season with KalPa Kuopio. 

Brendl has played in Switzerland before -- he had a four-game tour of duty with NLB (minor league) club HC Thugau during the NHL work stoppage of 2004-05. That season, Brendl's rights were held at various junctures by five different European clubs, although he suited up for three teams that season.

As with any team that brings in Brendl, the Lakers are willing to trade off the player's notorious lack of commitment to defense for his ability to put pucks in the net, especially on the power play. The anemic Lakers offense has mustered a league-worst 43 goals to date (1.72 per game). The second-worst offensive team in the league, eighth-place EHC Biel, has scored 50 in one fewer game. Meanwhile, the Lakers have also allowed a league-worst 85 goals (3.27 per game).

Niinimaa, 36, has primarily been known as an offensive-minded defenseman over the course of his career. Over the last two seasons, he enjoyed a renaissance in Sweden. In 2009-10, he was a blue-line mainstay for a championship-winning HV 71. Last year, Niinimaa got off a tremendous start for Lulea HF, playing a key role in the team's outstanding first six weeks of the season.


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Through the first 19 games of last season, the Finnish defenseman, who dressed in 16 games, tallied 14 points, one fewer than David Rundblad (Skelleftea AIK) and Magnus Johansson (Linkoping HC) for the league scoring lead among defensemen. His plus-7 rating ranked in the league's top 10.

Niinimaa soon succumbed to back problems, which forced him to the sidelines for a portion of last season and reduced his effectiveness when he returned. Although he finished the season strong, the back issues continued over the summer. Nevertheless, Niinimaa was highly sought by teams all over Europe, with Lulea and other teams competing for his services. He suited up in a pair of games earlier this month with a minor-league club (Kiekko-Laser Oulu) in his Finnish hometown. Pronouncing himself healthy and ready to play, he signed this week with the Lakers.

The revamped Rapperswil club, which also features former NHL forward Stacy Roest (last season's league scoring champion) and defenseman Derrick Walser, returns to action on Saturday. The Lakers face a tall order in looking to snap their losing streak -- their opponent will be powerhouse SC Bern. The second-place team is now coached by former Ottawa Senators forward and Team Finland mainstay Antti Tormanen, who succeeded Canada's Larry Huras after starting the season as his assistant.

Fribourg holds narrow lead

HC Fribourg-Gotteron currently holds first place in the National League. Both Fribourg and Bern have compiled 51 points to date, but the former has a game in hand as well as a superior goal differential. Fribourg has benefited from having four of the top 12 scorers in the league.

One of the emerging young stars in the league, shifty Fribourg forward Andrej Bykov, has emerged as a premier playmaker. The 23-year-old ranks second in the league scoring charts with 28 points (5 goals, 23 assists). He has already matched his point total from all of last season. Although born in Russia, Bykov holds Swiss citizenship and wears the red and white in international competition.

The primary beneficiaries of Bykov's passes have been one-time Minnesota Wild prospect and Team Switzerland regular Julien Sprunger (14 goals, 27 points) and former Los Angeles Kings forward Pavel Rosa (9 goals, 23 points). In addition, the deep Fribourg attack includes the likes of veteran forward Benjamin Pluss (10 goals, 24 points), former NHL forward Simon Gamache (7 goals, 15 points) and newly arrived longtime HC Lugano and SC Bern star Christian Dube (2 goals, 12 points in 15 games).

The league's leading scorer to date is EV Zug forward Damien Brunner. Through 23 games, the 25-year-old veteran of seven National League seasons has racked up 16 goals and 31 points. Brunner has been one of the league's top scorers the last few years, ranking eighth overall last year.

If Brunner and Bykov finish the season in first and second place on the scoring charts, it would be the first time since 2001-02 that a Swiss player has finished as the league scoring champion or runner-up. The feat was last accomplished by left wing Martin Pluss (then with the Kloten Flyers, now with SC Bern), when his 55 points were good for the runner-up spot to Dube's 59 points for Lugano.
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