Niinimaki wants another chance

SCOTT ZERR -- Edmonton Sun

, Last Updated: 2:27 PM ET

A year since being a first-round pick of the Edmonton Oilers, Rob Schremp has become the club's No. 1 future prospect - and he may just find a home in the NHL this fall.

But three years since he was the 15th overall pick in the NHL Entry Draft, Jesse Niinimaki has stumbled almost as fast as Schremp has ascended.

The only time Niinimaki's name was heard last season was when anyone in town talked of failed Oiler first-round selections joining the list of dubious choices like Jason Bonsignore, Alexei Mikhonov, Jani Rita, Michael Henrich, Michel Riesen, Scott Allison and Jason Soules.

After a failed campaign with the Road Runners last year, during which he managed only one goal in 24 games and was a regular healthy scratch, Niinimaki is begging for another chance.

"Last year was so bad for me that I'm a little bit embarrassed," confessed Niinimaki. "Now I want to show everybody that I really can play."

The culture shock and the inability to raise his level of play combined to frustrate both the Oilers and their prospect.

"I did not feel very comfortable on the ice and I didn't feel any more comfortable off the ice," said the 21-year-old. "I learned so much in six months. I had to learn about things like work ethic and what I have to do to improve.

"Everyone has their own opinion. I want to show them they were wrong and make them forget about last year."

Niinimaki went back to Finland after the AHL season and began a gym regimen with Calgary's Ville Nieminen.

Since coming back to Edmonton he has put in daily workouts over the summer with Oilers conditioning consultant Daryl Duke and bulked up to 205 pounds - which has Kevin Prendergast expecting more from his 2002 pick.

"We feel next year is going to be the year for him. We think there's a big upside to him," said the Oilers' director of hockey operations.

"We knew we needed to have some patience with Jesse and I don't think we've got anything to be ashamed of."

Prendergast suggested the Oilers may take a serious run at getting Mikhonov out of Russia in 2006, although the winger is getting big-time coin playing at home. Dragan Umicevic, a sixth-round pick in '03, is a shooter on the horizon to come across the ocean next season along with Swedish hopeful Mikeal Svensk, a 212-pounder known for his physical play.


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