OAKVILLE, ON. — “The Montreal Canadiens have announced today that they have traded forward Mike Riberio to Dallas for defenseman Janne Niinimaa.”
Oh dear God. Why, oh why, would this be a good idea for the Canadiens, Mr. Gainey?
With Saku Koivu, Tomas Plekanec, Steve Begin, Radek Bonk and Max Lapierre at centre ice, the Canadiens had room to make a deal and with a weak blue line, help was needed. The 26-year-old Ribeiro had led the team in scoring just two years prior, but numerous locker-room and off-ice incidents made him the expendable one on the Habs.
Ribeiro would play outstanding with the Stars, leading their team in points each of his first three seasons there. In only his second season with the club, he played in the NHL All-Star game and would go on to record 83 points in what would be his most spectacular season to date. After his career season, Ribeiro led the Stars to the Conference Finals, with 17 points in 18 playoff games before being eliminated by the much more superior team, the Detroit Red Wings.
Well, at least our defensive hole was filled, right? Niinimaa was a second round pick, so he must be good.
Niinimaa arrived in Montreal as an overpaid, underachieving defenseman. Traded multiple times over during his career for a bag of beans, his best days were far behind him and was no longer an offensive force on the back end. His 2005-06 season saw him reach just 16 points and a rating of minus-12. In his one and only year in a Habs uniform, Niinimaa would tally three points all season (zero goals) and finished a career worst minus-13 in 41 games, while he sat out in the press box for the other 41. Think about it, the team gave up a future All-Star forward as a Star for a lemon that only contributed to his team’s offensive output three times.
If this trade was done a few years prior, maybe it wouldn’t have looked so bad for the Bleu, Blanc et Rouge. Niinimaa made his debut with the Flyers in the 1996–97 NHL season, posting 44 points and a plus-12 rating, and being named to the NHL All-Rookie Team. The following season Niinimaa was traded to the Edmonton Oilers for Dan McGillis and Jason Beckett, both of whom did diddly-squat with the Flyers. He earned himself an All-Star appearance in the 2000–01 NHL regular season after recording a career high 12 goals and 46 points. Niinimaa instantly became the main man on the Oilers blueline, a place he would hold for six seasons until being traded to the Stars in 2003.
Niinimaa was used in many different types of situations with Edmonton. Whenever the club was on the power play or killing penalties instead, Niinimma earned himself a ton of ice time due to solid play in all three zones of the ice. However, the Oilers thought so highly of prospect Alexei Semenov that they traded Janne to the New York Islanders for two flops named Raffi Torres and Brad Isbister on forward. With Edmonton, Semenov never reached his full potential, recording only 12 points in three seasons, Torres spent most of his time in the penalty box and Isbister was gone after one season. Oh boy, the Oilers must have let a gem get away from them.
Looking back, it’s hard to find a real winner in that deal. Niinimaa was on the decline, and his career collapsed after the NHL came back from the 2004-2005 lockout. A member of Finland’s World Cup team in 2004, Niinimaa began the 2005-06 season with the Islanders but in early January was dealt to the Dallas Stars for John Erskine and a second round draft pick. His career got off to such a strong start, and the expectations of being a future Norris Trophy candidate were so high, that merely being a good NHL player wasn’t good enough. But throughout his career, calling him a good NHL player was a little much, and that especially became true after his time with the Canadiens.
At the age of 32, Niinimaa returned to Europe after a disastrous season with the Canadiens. He spent a two-year stint in Switzerland’s National League, spending one season apiece with HC Davos and the SCL Tigers, the first of which was stellar but the latter of which was limited to 20-games due to injury. In 2008-2009, Niinimaa signed in Sweden and won a championship with HV 71 Jönköping. Nevertheless, many felt as though the Finn’s career was winding down when he joined Lulea, a weaker Swedish club.
“Everything happened so fast,” Niinimaa told reporters in Montreal after signing overseas. “I don’t have any regrets, but I never really looked back. You just have to keep going. But of course there are special things that happened when I started out. To get advice from [former teammate] Paul Coffey, I mean, how could I not listen to what he said? He had so much knowledge to give. He was very generous with me, too.”
This could be it for the 37-year-old, however. He recently signed a deal with second tier Swedish club Asploven in the Swedish Elite League, Allsvenskan. The once highly-skilled talent had trouble regaining his form after the break in NHL action in 04-05, and has played in lower levels ever since. Bob Gainey’s trade record doesn’t include a ton of deals that currently still impact the team (however, they did get Josh Gorges and Max Pacioretty for Craig Rivet), but Ribeiro went from popular local player with tons of potential to virtually hated by almost all fans, so it looked like a good deal at the time. Who knows how well the trade would have turned out for Montreal if the deal was made in, let’s say, 2002?
Too bad we never got to see Niinimaa shine at the Bell Centre.
Follow me on Twitter, @StevenEllisNHL.
Highlights from Janne Niinimaa with Luleå Hockeyförening, a team in Elitserien (Swedish Elite League.) Video posted to YouTube by Holger Larsson.
Category: All Habs news