By Dan David, newyorkrangers.com
Nearly 38 years had passed since the New York Rangers had made their last player trade with the Islanders in the Isles' expansion season of 1972-73, so one could only imagine that it would take a very important opportunity for the Blueshirts to agree to a deal with the Islanders again.
On Tuesday, that historic opportunity arrived when the Blueshirts obtained defenseman Jyri Niemi
from the Islanders in exchange for a 2010 sixth-round draft pick.
|Jyri Niemi's lifelong desire to play in the NHL drove him to leave Finland for Western Canada, looking to gain more attention by playing in North America. |
The Islanders had less than a week left to sign Niemi, a third-round draft choice in 2008, before the blueline prospect would re-enter the NHL Entry Draft pool. With time running out, Niemi was traded to the Blueshirts, who promptly agreed to the terms of his first NHL contract.
"This has been a great day for me," Niemi said in a phone interview from Finland on Tuesday night. "This is something that I've been looking forward to for years -- to get a chance to be part of an NHL organization, and I couldn't be more happy right now. I'm just looking forward to joining the team and meeting all the guys."
In Niemi, who turns 20 on June 15, the Rangers have added a pro-ready prospect ranked No. 25 by NHL Central Scouting in his draft year. At 6-foot-3, 210 pounds, he has the size to be a great physical presence, and with three WHL seasons and two IIHF World Championship tournaments under his belt -- including a run as Finland's captain in 2010 -- he has proven himself against both North American and international competition.
Growing up in Finland, where he played for the HPK Hameenlinna junior team, Niemi set his sights on the NHL rather than the Finnish league. In 2007, with his draft eligibility a year away, he opted into the Canadian Hockey League Import Draft, where he was selected 13th overall by the Saskatoon Blades of the Western Hockey League.
"(The NHL) was the biggest reason for me to go and play in the WHL," Niemi said. "My goal has always been to play in the National Hockey League, and I felt that was the best way for me to get there -- by playing in the WHL."
Playing in Saskatoon, Niemi quickly emerged as a top NHL prospect with 14 goals and 34 points in only 49 games as a rookie. He was named to the CHL Top Prospects Game, and won the CHL's hardest-shot competition with a 97 mph blast. That big rookie year led to a No. 25 ranking from Central Scouting and a No. 44 ranking from The Hockey News in its 2010 Draft Preview issue.
The scouting report on Niemi was that he was a very poised player with strong stickhandling ability and a knack for quarterbacking the power play. Central Scouting's E.J. McGuire described Niemi by saying that "He has an offensive flair to his game and is an entertaining player to watch."
Projected to be drafted as high as Round 2, Niemi went to the Islanders 72nd overall in 2008. He attended the Islanders prospect camp that summer before returning to Saskatoon, where he registered 25 assists and was a plus-19 in a career-high 60 regular-season games and another six assists and plus-5 rating in six playoff games.
"I think I'm always going to be defensively responsible, but I can also be an offensive threat at some point," said Niemi. "I can shoot the puck really well, so I think those are my biggest assets as a hockey player."
Niemi's offensive ability might stem from the fact that he played forward until he was 14. This past season, he battled injuries, playing only 50 games, but still managed eight goals, 29 points and a plus-9 rating for Saskatoon, where one of his fellow defenseman was Rangers prospect Sam Klassen
. In fact, Klassen was Niemi's first defense partner in Saskatoon.
The big shot is Niemi's trademark, but his captaincy of Finland's World Junior team and his obvious hunger to win are valuable traits that come naturally to a player who makes it a point to achieve the goals he sets for himself, even when requires him to cross an ocean and adapt to a North American style game.
Indeed, the NHL dream that drove Niemi to come to Western Canada and spend three years in the WHL is now closer than ever for the young Finn who is expected to be up at the MSG Training Center for both this summer's prospects camp and the Rangers' main training camp in September.
"The Rangers are one of the best organizations in the NHL and they have been around for a long, long time," said Niemi. "I just couldn't be happier to be part of the organization."