Edmonton Oilers prospect Jesse Niinimaki isn't waiting for Gary Bettman and Bob Goodenow to swap ink on a new collective bargaining agreement before he gets a jump on next season.
Like many players, Niinimaki, who spent last season with the Edmonton Road Runners of the AHL, is gearing up for the 2005-06 campaign with the expectation owners and the NHLPA will put the finishing touches on a new CBA any day now.
Niinimaki arrives in Edmonton today to begin several weeks of workouts with fitness consultant Daryl Duke. Niinimaki's mandate is the same as it's been since the Oilers selected him 15th overall at the 2002 Entry Draft, the six-foot-two, 187-pound Finnish centre needs to get bigger and stronger.
Along the way, the hope is he'll get tougher and more confident, too.
"It's all off-ice training," assistant GM Scott Howson said yesterday.
"We just figure it's part of the process we began last season to get him acclimated to North America and have a closer watch on his training. We want him to gain strength."
Niinimaki, 21, who left Ilves Tampere of the Finnish Elite League 18 games into last season and inked an AHL contract with the Oilers on Nov. 4, tallied just 1-0-1 in 24 games of limited duty with the Road Runners.
Aside from some brief flashes in his first pro season on this side of the Atlantic, Niinimaki made little impact with the Road Runners, but the Oilers are giving him the benefit of the doubt that a season-ending shoulder surgery with Ilves in 2003-04 played into that.
"It's no surprise to us the condition he was in after having surgery," said Howson.
"Him coming over again now is a positive. This is something that he's choosing to do because he thinks it's going to benefit his career."
Niinimaki has bulked up a bit since draft day, edging over the 190-pound mark with Duke's help last season, but he's still got a neck like a stack of dimes and pipe-cleaner arms.
His conditioning also needs work - a specialty of Duke, a tough taskmaster and former kickboxing champion.
Duke figures the pencil-necked pivot should bend the beams at something approaching 200 pounds. Niinimaki is naturally slight of build, much like Ryan Smyth, so he'll never be a 220-pound bruiser.
"I don't know if I see him ever being over 200 pounds. Jesse and Ryan are in the same boat as far as that goes," Duke said. "There was a time when Ryan was just striving to get to 190 pounds.
"You don't have to be a bodybuilder type. You have to consider each player's natural build, but there's an opportunity to build muscle and strength if you go about it the right way."
RUNNING AND WEIGHTS
Niinimaki's regimen with Duke will not only include running and time in the weight room, but sparring sessions and bag work at the Panther Gym.
Duke won't try to turn Niinimaki into a face-washing ruffian, but there are benefits, aside from conditioning, that come with having a clue about how to give and take a punch.
"When you do a boxing workout, you use the whole body," said Duke.
"When you throw a punch and do everything right, you're using everything.
"You work on your footwork, your reflexes and lateral movement.
"Boxing has a way of giving people confidence, whether a player is a fighter or not. I've found over the years it has that effect.
"I've seen younger players go from unsure kids to confident young men."