In 2002 the Oilers went well off the board when they surprised everyone and drafted Jesse Niinimaki 15th overall in one of the more shallower drafts in NHL history.
The draft was highlighted by Columbus selecting Rick Nash 1st overall, Atlanta (now Winnipeg) selecting Kari Lehtonen 2nd and Florida selecting Jay Bouwmeester 3rd overall. After that the rest of the draft produced mostly depth and character players like Scottie Upshall (6th – Nashville), Eric Nystrom (10th – Calgary), Boyd Gordon (17th – Washington) and Jarret Stoll (36th – Edmonton), just to name a few. You can see the complete list at HockeyDB.com.
Former GM and now Team President Kevin Lowe was rumoured to be shopping the 14th pick the Oilers possessed after missing the playoffs after a 92 point season and a 38-28-12-4 record.
“It’s ironic, then, that GM Kevin Lowe is considering trading Edmonton’s first-round pick this year, something the franchise has never done before. Lowe thinks the draft is shallow and he might use the club’s first choice as a bargaining chip to try to land a proven scorer.” – Rob Tychowski, The Hockey News “Draft Preview”
It’s the same year the Oilers missed the playoffs despite Tommy Salo having one of his best seasons as an Oiler with a franchise record 15 shutouts to go along with a 30-win 2.22 GAA and .913SV%. Hometown boy Mike Comrie also led the Oilers in scoring with 33 goals and 60 points.
— David Staples (@dstaples) October 9, 2012
2002 Draft Day
Holding the 14th pick and with Petr Taticek, Martin Vagner, Chris Higgins, Jiri Hudler and Denis Grebeshkov still on the board the Oilers elected to trade the pick to Montreal for the 15th pick and 245th pick. Montreal would use the pick on Higgins and the Oilers would draft Niinimaki and Tomac Micka.
Jonathan Willis of the Edmonton Journal did an accurate job describing the situation in his Cult of Hockey blog in October 2012.
“Jesse Niinimaki was a serious stretch as the 15th overall pick. A point-per-game guy in Finnish junior (which is an inferior league to North American major junior), Niinimaki sat 50th on Central Scouting’s European skaters list, and 84th overall according to The Hockey News. But the Oilers didn’t like the long-term upside of the other talent available, and so they gambled on the big Finnish center.” – Jonathan Willis, Edmonton Journal
What made Niinimaki so tantalizing to NHL scouts including then-head scout Kevin Prendergast was the center’s 6’2 198lbs frame along with his tremendous puck control and playmaking ability. His stats as a 17-year-old seemed underwhelming with 2 goals and 6 points in 16 games playing for Ilves Tampere of the SM Liiga, but scouts were convinced his game could grow with some polishing.
— Jonathan Willis (@JonathanWillis) October 9, 2012
Remember this is the same time team’s were looking to go off the board and grab the guy no ones looking at hoping he turns into something, just like how the Islanders thought when they surprised everyone and took a little known college kid in Rick DiPietro 1st overall in 2000. The problem though, what if your wrong? Then it’s a swing and a miss.
You can’t miss in the first round, it sets your organization back a few steps every time you do. The Oilers missed in the first round not to Niinimaki’s fault but because the Oilers scouting staff and management overvalued his talent. But they weren’t the only ones as Ottawa and the NY Islanders were keen to make the same splash as the head scout Kevin Prendergast was when he brought Niinimaki’s name to Lowe.
“There were a couple teams I knew that were going to pick me in the first round,” Niinimaki said before listing off a handful of teams including Ottawa, who picked immediately after Edmonton at 16th, and the New York Islanders who had the 22nd choice.
“There were four or five teams; I think San Jose was the only team I didn’t have an interview with.”
– Jesse Niinimaki, interview with Hockey’s Future
Other players available at the time were Alex Steen (24th – Toronto) and Cam Ward (25th – Carolina).
Fans Can’t Blame Niinimaki
A year removed from his draft year and coming off 4 goal 17 point performance in his first full season in the SM Liiga, the Oilers brass trotted out Niinimaki for his first rookie camp in Sherwood Park with the organization alongside 2003 1st rounder Marc-Antoine Pouliot
“He was very good at the rookie camp we had and now he’s back with his team back in Finland. We talked to their coach last week and Jesse is going to be a big part of their rebuilding, they went out and signed some good players to play around him. He’s just got to understand that there are some things that he’s got to improve on from a mental and physical stand point but from an ability to play the game, we certainly think he should play for us, probably, within the next two years.
By the end of this year we’ll make a decision and he’ll probably be ready to come over to North America next year. He’s probably two years away from the NHL.”
– Kevin Prendergast, former Head Scout of the Edmonton Oilers
Niinimaki would join the Oilers organization after playing parts of the next four seasons with Ilves Tampere alongside future NHL’ers Ville Leino (Detroit, Philadelphia, Buffalo) and Ville Koistinen (Nashville, Florida).
Fans were excited to see what their new import from Finland could do, expectations of being a 1st round selection if you will, expectations that were far out of out reach for the then 21-year-old. Magnify that by the fact Niinimaki had missed a large chunk of the 2003-04 season after reconstructive surgery on his shoulder and was just trying to get his game back.
Niinimaki would naturally struggle in his short 24-game stint on the Oilers farm with the Edmonton Roadrunners during the lock-out. With 1 goal, a -6 rating and being moved up, down, in and around, Niinimaki left at the end of the 2004-05 season never to return to Edmonton or the NHL.
Fans can’t blame Niinimaki. The Road Runners at the time at 26 players rotating in and out of the line-up and didn’t know what to do with half of them, some of them truly should have been assigned to the ECHL. He was a healthy scratch for almost all of November and December and his only goal in the AHL was a shootout winner when he was given an opportunity to actually play.
Niinimaki just wasn’t a 1st round player in any other draft year but because of how shallow the class was, he ended up being one. Niinimaki as a 3rd round player as projected wouldn’t have disappointed the fan base or earned the embarrassment of being named #6 on a list of Edmonton Oiler “Busts”. For what it’s worth Niinimaki has realized some of his potential in the past few seasons when healthy for Ilves Tampere. Healthy being the emphasis.
You Can’t Miss In The 1st Round, Don’t Gamble!
You can’t label a bust without accurately pointing out the disappointing lack of scouting done by Prendergast in the early 2000’s. Prendergast liked to take chances and it cost the Oilers dearly in terms of their prospect pool and future. Aside from Ales Hemsky (13th – 2001), the Oilers under Prendergast would go on to take gambles on Niinimaki, Marc-Antoine Pouliot (22nd – 2003), Devan Dubnyk (14th – 2004) and Rob Schremp (25th – 2004).
Jesse Niinimaki was ranked in the 70s when the Oilers took him 15th in 2002. Usually “off the board” picks don’t pan out.
— Jason Gregor (@JasonGregor) June 30, 2013
The gamble on Pouliot was if he could take his game to the next level. The gamble on Dubnyk was if he could utilize his size to be a dominant goaltender at the pro level. The gamble on Schremp was if his high-octane offense could translate as his defensive game grew. All of these gambles backfired on the organization. Barry Fraser also struggled at the draft for the Oilers as their scout. The Oilers developed very few NHL’ers during this time and throughout the 1990’s.
So if you don’t have a solid player development system, don’t try to gamble on a first round pick. Sometimes what you see is what you get. (see: Jason Bonsignore, Opportunity Lost)
It’s a lesson that’s still being re-learned to this day, don’t overvalue a player especially in the first round.