Jesse Niinimaki, 15th Overall
Entering the 2002 NHL Entry Draft, Kevin Lowe was looking to trade up, and he had some assets, the chief of which were the 14th overall pick, and forward Jochen Hecht. As has been mentioned before on this blog, USA Today reported that the Tampa Bay Lightning turned down an offer of Jochen Hecht and the 14th overall pick for the 4th overall pick, instead taking Ruslan Fedotenko and two 2nd-round picks.
On June 9, 2002 John Christie of Hockey’s Future reported that Lowe was considering trading his first round pick, either to move up or for an established player, as the Oilers, like many teams, were unhappy with the depth of the 2002 draft. Still, Christie listed 6 players that might be available and of interest to the Oilers in the 14th spot- Petr Taticek, Denis Grebeshkov, Eric Nystrom, Martin Vagner, Johnny Boychuk, and Kirill Koltsov.
On June 16th, Christie wrote more about the upcoming draft, saying the Oilers were "85%" likely to make a trade of some sort. Despite this, he updated the list of players the Oilers might be thinking about at 14th overall, and he divided them into skill players and "safe" players.
Skilled: Taticek, Jakub Koreis, Jiri Hudler, P-M Bouchard, Alexander Semin, Vagner, Koltsov, and Sergei Anshakov
Safe: Eric Nystrom, Dan Paille, Ben Eager, Boychuk, and Rob Globke
Finally, on June 30th, we got to find out what actually happened, again courtesy of Christie:Kevin Lowe tried to trade up in the draft. He coveted one of Jay Bouwmeester, Joffrey Lupul or Scottie Upshall (all native Edmontonians). All three Edmontonians were gone in the first seven picks.
When it came time for the Oilers to make their selection, Bouchard, Taticek, Nystrom and Semin had all been selected. Not terribly fond of the players remaining, Lowe dealt the 14th pick to Montreal for the 15th and an 8th round draft choice. The Canadiens selected Chris Higgins.
At 15th overall, the Oilers selected Jesse Niinimaki, an off the board selection who the Hockey News had ranked 85th overall. Christie reports being told by one scout that another NHL team would have selected him late in the first round, but without knowing specifics, it’s difficult to judge the veracity of that quote.
One thing that’s important to remember about Niinimaki is that injuries may have played a significant role in stalling his development. While the immediate assumption of most (including myself) is to say the Oilers were reaching and missed badly, and that may be correct, it is possible that Niinimaki was a significantly better prospect before his big injury. Niinimaki’s 2002-03 season wasn’t great, but it wasn’t bad either, as he played a significant role on Ilves Tampere in the Sm-Liiga. In 2003-04, he played only ten games, breaking his shoulder, and at the time he had 6 points. But 2004-05 is really the season that killed Niinimaki’s chances as a prospect. He played 24 AHL games, and played very few minutes, only recording a single point before returning home to Finland. One suspects he would have been in the ECHL if it hadn’t been for his draft pedigree.
The Oilers chose not to sign Niinimaki to an entry-level contract by the summer of 2006, and received a compensatory draft pick from the NHL. Because Niinimaki was selected 15th overall, they received the 15th selection of the second round- the pick they used to select Jeff Petry.
Among players the Oilers could have selected between this pick and their next one at 31st overall, Daniel Paille and Alexander Steen stand out as players they could have used. Cam Ward was also selected in that span, and although I’m definitely not a believer in him as a starting net-minder (consistently ugly save percentage), history might have played out differently if he’d been chosen.
All in all, this was a bad selection, but a forgivable one, in a draft where the Oilers didn’t believe (with good reason, in most cases) in the other players available. Perhaps the biggest mistake the scouts made was undervaluing Chris Higgins, who the team could have had at 14th.