May 2010

IF the NFL can award the 2014 Super Bowl to a cold weather venue, then the New York Rangers and the New York Islanders can make a trade. The Blueshirts acquired 19-year0old defenseman Jyri Niemi from the islanders in exchange for a 2010 sixth round draft pick. The trade is the first one between the two New York teams since November 14, 1972 when the Rangers sent RW Ron Stewart to the Islanders for cash.

The 6-foot-3 and 210-pound blueliner was the Islanders third round draft pick (72nd overall) in the 2008 NHL Draft (three spots ahead of Rangers third rounder Evgeny Grachev). The Islanders were forced to deal Niemi because they were unable to sign him and would have lost all rights to him as of June 1. Perhaps the Islanders were concerned about signability because Niemi was a second round selection of SKA St. Petersburg in the 2009 KHL Junior Draft

Niemi has signed an entry level contract with the Rangers and is expected to participate in the Rangers’ annual Prospect Development Camp that will follow this year’s Draft.

Back in 2008, NHL’s Central Scouting rated Niemi as the 25th best North American skater.

Central Scouting’s Director E.J. McGuire said of Niemi, “Jyri is adjusting well to the North American game. He has good poise and stickhandling ability from the back end. He quarterbacks the power-play, with a heavy shot from the point. He has an offensive flare to his game and is an entertaining player to watch.”

McGuire continued his assessment of the Hameenkyro, Finland native, “More dependability in the defensive zone will guarantee that he projects into a number three or four defenseman in the League, with the potential to be a one-two defenseman.”

Niemi, who turns 20 on June 15, spent the last three seasons playing with the Saskatoon Blades of the WHL. The defenseman has battled various injuries that limited him to 159 games (29 goals and 66 assists) in Junior career. During his draft season of 2007-2008, Niemi battled wrist and foot issues and eventually has hip surgery – which might have caused him to drop into the third round.

While Niemi might have problems with the injury bug, he has no problem showing off a blistering slapshot. He won the hardest shot competition at the 2008 CHL Prospect Game (97 mph). Prior to joining Saskatoon, Niemi played for HPK Hameenlinna in Finland’s Junior League.

He is no stranger to international hockey as he has represented Finland in various international tournaments including captaining Finland in the U-20 World Junior Championships.

The International Scouting Service (ISS) rated him as the 65th best player. Here is what they wrote about him in their 2008 Draft Preview.

“Niemi is an offensively gifted d-man who has a canon for a shot. He put up good numbers for Saskatoon and moves the puck well. He is a power play specialist but is improving in 5 on 5 play as well. Players are starting to shy away from getting in to the path of his slap shot that has become even more accurate. Needs to add some toughness to his play and consistency in the d-zone. His passing ability is improving as well.”
The youngster still has some work to do on the defensive end, but he does have a bit of an excuse. Much like Rangers rookie defenseman Matt Gilroy, Niemi began his career as a forward before being shifted to defense – a switch that was explained in his Central Scouting report.

“Four years ago, my coach told me to be a defenseman because I was big, could skate backwards and forwards – he told me that I’m a new defenseman. As I heard it and left the rink, I thought, ‘no way’.”

The official New York Rangers press release included the following statement from their newest blueliner.

“This has been a great day for me,” Niemi said in a phone interview from Finland on Tuesday night. “This is something that I’ve been looking forward to for years — to get a chance to be part of an NHL organization, and I couldn’t be more happy right now. I’m just looking forward to joining the team and meeting all the guys.”

While one defenseman joins the Rangers organization, another one is departing after one year. Finnish blueliner Ilkka Heikkinen signed with HC Sibir Novosibirsk of the KHL. Reports say the Rangers were offering a two-way contract, but Heikkinen had expressed his desire to return to Europe rather than spend another season in the AHL.

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On Wednesday the New York Rangers confirmed hockey’s worst-kept secret – The Hobbit is coming to Madison Square Garden as the Blueshirts signed RW Mats Zuccarello-Aasen to a two-year contract worth $900,000. Ranger fans will have to add MZA to their lexicon much like they added MDZ for Michael Del Zotto.

If what Damien Cox wrote in the Toronto Star (3/23/10) is true, then the Rangers beat out a group teams including the Atlanta Thrashers, Chicago Blackhawks, Dallas Stars, Edmonton OIlers, and Detroit Red Wings. Swedish newspaper Aftonbladet reported that the Boston Bruins and Toronto Maple Leafs expressed interest as well.

Aftonbladet said that Rangers President/GM Glen Sather spoke with MZA in late March and invited him to visit New York to better acquaint himself with the team. In response to Sather’s interest Mats responded, “I was speechless…I’m not used to this. It’s a really big deal…. I want to go to a club that can have patience with me and believe in me. ”

The 22-year-old native of Oslo, Norway does not have your prototypical NHL body (5-foot-7 and 170 pounds on a good day), but he does possess, what Larry Brooks of the NY Post called, “world-class skills”. MZA represented Norway at the 2010 Winter Olympics Games and scored one goal and two assists in four games. As a member of the U-20 and U-18 teams, he has played 22 games and scored four goals and 12 assists.

The Rangers could not announce the signing of the Swedish Elite League (SEL) superstar until the World Championships were completed – as per the NHL’s deal with the SEL, according to Brooks. MZA lit up the SEL to the tune of a league-leading 64 points (23 goals and 41 assists) in 55 game with Modo while racking up an impressive 62 PIM for someone of his size. For his efforts, MZA won the Guldhjälmen Award as the SEL’s Most Valuable Player. In his first year with Modo, MZA scored 12 goals and 28 assists in 35 games with 38 PIM.

Among his teammates in Sweden were former Rangers Markus Naslund and Niklas Sundstrom. According to Brooks, Naslund once again came through for the Rangers. After opening salary cap space with his NHL retirement, Naslund helped out the Blueshirts by recommending Zuccarello-Aasen to the Rangers.

While Zuccarello-Aasen can play both wings, his biggest contribution might come on the point on the power play as that was his big selling point when talk of him signing with the Rangers first surfaced.

Of course, the inevitable comparisons to Fabian Brunnstrom were made in the press. Brunnstrom made a big splash when he signed with the Dallas Stars as a free agent prior to the 2008-2009. The much sought after Brunnstrom made history when he became the third player in NHL history to score a hat trick in his first game. However, it has been all downhill since. In 99 NHL games, Brunnstrom has scored 19 goals and 21 assists.

Gabe Desjardins of developed a formula that translates points from other leagues into an NHL Equivalency. Using Desjardins’ formula, Zuccarrello-Aasen’s 99 points in 83 SEL games would translate into about 70 NHL points.

In comparison, Brunnstrom played only one year in SEL (54 games) and scored 37 points – which translates into about 29 NHL points.

Granted, player outcomes are decided on the ice and not on paper based on mathematical formulas. However, it seems that MZA comes to the NHL with a better statistical resume than Brunnstrom. At the very least, the Rangers het a third or fourth line forward who pays for himself by injecting some life into the Blueshirts inconsistent power play.

Rangers Assistant GM/Assistant Coach Jim Schoenfeld offered his take on MZA after scouting him during the recent World Championships. MZA tallied three goals and an assist in Norway’s six games.

“I wanted to get a good look at him,” Schoenfeld told Andrew Gross of “He didn’t disappoint.”

If Zuccarello-Aasen’s stellar play in the SEL does translate into NHL success, then Brooks is correct when he wrote “… the greater challenge would then fall to Blueshirts’ equipment manager Acacio Marques (an Iona College graduate like myself), who would then have to figure out how to sew the player’s name on the back of his uniform.”

Here is Mats Zuccarello-Aasen’s scouting reports from

Assets: Fantastic technical skills and great passing ability. Can finish with aplomb. A magician who can do spectacular things with the puck. Great vision and can man the power play point. Defensively responsible and doesn’t mind heavy traffic.
Flaws: Size and strength. Not a great physical player.

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