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The current edition of the Oilers is less likeable than some previous incarnations, but it isn’t without players I genuinely like following. Ales Hemsky feels like an obligatory choice, but I seriously considered him – for a thousand reasons, but especially for the special moments. The most fantastic was the Patrick Stefan whiff on an empty net, followed by Hemsky’s goal seconds later (aided by another candidate, Marc-Andre Bergeron, who would both giveth and taketh away), but for my money nothing equaled those two goals that put away Detroit - one a beautiful passing play with Sergei Samsonov, the other a Ryan Smyth-ian goalmouth jam. Shawn Horcoff’s hustle and work ethic appealed as well, and admittedly, I’ve always had a soft spot for the long-shots who end up contributing far more than they were originally projected to. Doug Weight jumped to mind too; a sublimely talented playmaker with just the right amount of grit and attitude, I nearly wrote this article about him. For all the offence, what I remember most about Weight was the sight of 6’4" Bryan Marchment turtling after Weight took umbrage to a dirty hit, and then Weight wailing on him anyway.
When I really got thinking about it, the list got really long, actually. The imperviousness to pain demonstrated by Mike Grier, Jason Smith, Ryan Smyth, Steve Staios, and Igor Ulanov made them easy to love. It was easy to remember the best in flawed but occasionally dynamic talents like Marc-Andre Bergeron, Dean McAmmond, and Marc Pouliot because I always pulled for them. Patrick Thoresen, Ty Conklin and Kyle Brodziak were unheralded but passed flashier prospects through hard work. Rem Murray never quit, no matter what kind of odds he faced, while Georges Laraque personified giving back to the community. Quality two-way players like Marty Reasoner, Radek Dvorak, Fernando Pisani, and Mike York deserved consideration. Then again, I couldn’t forget the goaltenders; from playoff hero Curtis Joseph to the (once) quietly efficient Tommy Salo to Dwayne Roloson, the list just seemed to get longer. Roloson stood out in particular, for both talent and personality – his stop on Cheechoo in 2006 exemplified the former, while the way he shook off his helmet, or batted pucks down the ice, or simply refused to quit as Craig MacTavish sent him out again and again in 2008-09 showed the latter.
Despite a long list and some great memories, in the end I didn’t choose any of them, instead picking a heart and soul defenceman with an even mixture of talent, heart, and chaos: Finland’s Janne Henrik Niinimaa.
Steve Tambellini’s mantra since being hired as general manager has been consistent: the Oilers need to be bigger, stronger, more aggressive, and if not more cultured, at least differently-cultured. It’s a mantra that led him into chasing Chris Neil and Derek Boogaard, and the mantra that has given glimmers of hope to men like Steve MacIntyre, Jean-Francois Jacques, Jason Strudwick, and Ryan O’Marra. It’s easy to forget now, but there was a time when the Edmonton Oilers valued the ability to play hockey over the ability to play the body, and they occasionally took advantage of teams that had the opposite mindset.
Janne Niinimaa was the product of such a transaction. A second round pick in 1993, Niinimaa had joined the Philadelphia Flyers as a 21-year old rookie in 1996-97, scoring 44 points and a plus-12 rating in the regular season before following with a 13-point performance in that year’s playoffs. That performance earned him a spot on the NHL’s All-Rookie Team. He followed it up with 34 points and a plus-6 rating through 66 games in 1997-98, and was widely viewed as one of the NHL’s most promising offensive defencemen.
However, this being the Bobby Clarke Flyers, Niinimaa was promptly dealt to Edmonton in exchange for Dan McGillis, a slightly bigger, slightly more physical, slightly older, and somewhat less talented defenceman, along with the inevitable draft pick.
Niinimaa instantly became a fixture at the top of the Oilers’ defensive depth chart, a place he would hold from the moment he joined the team until he was sent away at the 2003 deadline. In 1997-98, Niinimaa, Boris Mironov, and Roman Hamrlik played far more minutes than the rest of the defence, and eventually the other two would both be sent away for young players, leaving Niinimaa to play more and more minutes. Between 2000 and 2003, Niinimaa led the team in minutes played – in 2000-01 he topped 25 minutes per game, in 2001-02 he cracked the 26-minute mark, and in 2002-03 he set a career-high with 26:47 played per game. The worse the team got, the more they leaned on Niinimaa: at even-strength, on the power play, killing penalties. It didn’t matter; in any situation, it was Niinimaa who got the call, Niinimaa who stepped in and handled the number one role.
Of course, Niinimaa wasn’t the perfect number one; both his offence and his defence had flaws. He earned his nickname ‘Spaz’ thanks to the occasional highly visible gaffe, and for a guy who collected as many minutes as he did, he was never able to put up the points the way others were. Then there were his head-high point shots, which sent men like Smyth scrambling for cover.
But Niinimaa played a lot of tough minutes for a lot of bubble teams, and only once in his time with the Oilers was he a minus player. He was durable; in the season he joined the Oilers he played 77 games and in the year he left he dressed for 76, but in the four years in between he never missed more than one game in a season. He played through pain, he played a lot, and as a rule, he played very well.
In the end, he treated the team better than the team treated him. Niinimaa played through injury in 2002-03 – setting a career-high in minutes – but was sent away at the trade deadline by Kevin Lowe, who cited those injuries and the resultant slip in Niinimaa’s play as a contributing factor to the trade (the key factor: Alexei Semenov’s readiness to replace Niinimaa on the blueline – how I wish I were making that up). Niinimaa, in tears, told reporters he thought he’d be rewarded for helping the team, but instead he was dealt.
Lowe was right of course; bizarre statements aside (in a trade that netted Brad Isbister’s 23 points and a 21-year old fifth overall pick named Raffi Torres, Lowe cited Isbister as the key to the deal) Niinimaa was on the decline, and his career collapsed after the NHL came back from the lockout. Age, injuries, and changes in the game eventually pushed him out of the NHL, but not before the player who had been a minus player just once in eight seasons managed a -25 performance over 104 post-lockout games.
But that’s not how I remember Niinimaa. To me, he’ll always be the player who took on more and more responsibility while the defence corps around him got less and less skilled, the player who did everything he could to help his team win, and who genuinely loved playing for Edmonton. That last year, which perhaps best exemplified what he did for the Oilers, might have earned him a trade from the organization, but that’s not what it earned from me.
He earned my respect, and my gratitude.