|Petteri Nokelainen was the Islanders' top pick (16th overall) in 2004, but he played only briefly because of a knee injury. (FILE/BRIAN WINKLER/GETTY IMAGES)|
Cast away from the island
Nokelainen glad to reach mainland
WILMINGTON - The kids had their day alone yesterday at the start of Bruins training camp. The rookies, a few of them even looking old enough to shave (important to clarify: shave is not a term for cheating in this usage), scurried onto the Ristuccia Arena ice at 1:30 p.m. with skates sharpened, eyes wide open, and dreams even wider.
Yes, there are jobs available on the 2007-08 varsity roster, but not many. Maybe one, two . . . three, if a rook allows his dream to wander off to the phantasmagorical.
Roster rookie No. 62, Milan Lucic, prefers to stick to method rather than muse over the math.
"To be perfectly honest," said the broad-shouldered Vancouver Giant, a 19-year-old winger who was the MVP of last spring's Memorial Cup tournament, "I haven't looked [at roster possibilities] too much. My focus is, just do what I can to get some heads to turn my way - you know, show what I can bring to the table.
"If I'm going to push it to the next level, then this is where I have to prove that I'm ready."
Petteri Nokelainen is a first-week Bruin, but not truly a rookie. His first visit to the NHL came in September 2005, more than a year after the Islanders selected him as a heralded 16th pick overall in the 2004 draft.
Much has happened to Nokelainen since that first camp, and too much of it better suited for the pages of a Gray's Anatomy text than the daily sports page.
"Jumper's knee is what they call it," said the 21-year-old Finnish forward, explaining his agonizing case of patellar tendinitis that led to roughly a one-year detour in his career. "I made the [Islander] team my first camp, played in 12 games . . . and then it started . . . I couldn't walk. I couldn't even get down the stairs in the morning."
Rest didn't do the trick. Shock-wave rehab, submerging his knee in water for sci-fi treatments, didn't help. Five months of mostly conventional rehab got him back in the game, but only briefly.
"It actually got worse," he recalled, sitting yesterday morning in the Bruins' locker room. "So finally, that spring , I had the surgery. Easy to say now that it was stupid to wait the six months, but . . ."
According to Nokelainen, doctors told him that spring it would take nearly a year for the knee to be pain-free and sturdy. Which is why, he believes, he showed up for his second NHL camp last fall and failed to deliver the goods.
"I showed up, basically after 11 months of doing nothing," he said, tracing his protracted dormancy to the onset of knee woes late in the fall of 2005. "How could I be in good shape? I had to learn to be an athlete again. So from a physical and mental point of view, it was tough."
Nokelainen, acquired by the Bruins Tuesday in a swap that sent prospect Ben Walter to the Islanders, never factored in last year's Islander camp. Assigned to Bridgeport (AHL), he played in 60 games, and only late in the season began to show signs of getting his game back. He finished with 16 points, and returned to Finland for the offseason while Bill Zito - agent for the likes of Tim Thomas, Hannu Toivonen, and Tuukka Rask - tried to find a team that would offer his client a fresh start.
The Bruins, who didn't have a first-round pick in '04, parted with Walter and a conditional draft pick, one that could turn into a second-rounder in 2009 if, frankly, Nokelainen turns into the force he was projected to be as a teenager.
The knee, Nokelainen says, is back to normal. In fact, he arrived here over the weekend after spending all of June, July, and August working out daily with a Finnish club, SaiPa Lappeenranta, which might give him a half-step advantage now, at least in the early stages of camp.
"I feel so much better now," he said, noting his odyssey of the last couple of years. "You appreciate going on the ice and not being in pain.
"It's definitely 100 percent. I am one happy man."
When he's on his game, according to a number of sources, the 6-foot-1-inch, 200-pounder can be a bit of a porcupine to knock off the puck, and he can deliver mean hits. His skating (a bit below average) and his hands (see skating) project him to be more of a third- or fourth-liner. It's his grit and puck-protection skills that make him potentially attractive on a club that coach Claude Julien promises will be tough to play against.
"I'm not [Teemu] Selanne . . . not a pure goal scorer," Nokelainen said, chuckling over a locker room visitor's comparison to his countryman, Selanne, sure to be a first-ballot Hall of Famer. "For me, I love the way guys like Tuomo Ruutu and Rod Brind'Amour play - that physical aspect to their game. They are great players. I hope someday that I'd be there with those guys."
Dreams. If Nokelainen could raise his game to Ruutu-Brind'Amour standards, then second-year general manager Peter Chiarelli will have made himself a sweet deal. Other clubs were interested in acquiring him, said Nokelainen, but all along he was hoping to come here, in part because of his relationship with Rask, a longtime pal and teammate from their days together on Finnish junior national squads.
"I'm not a fighter," said Nokelainen, asked what defines his physical game. "I just always, always finish my checks. After that, I wouldn't mind if I scored a couple of goals out there."
Nokelainen will be on Causeway Street late this morning, reporting with the vets, while the rookies toil on and dream the dream here in suburbia. All of 15 NHL games' (one goal, one assist) experience rated him an express ticket to mingle with the varsity. The best of the frosh, maybe a half-dozen, will stick around next week, too, some of them destined for at least an exhibition game or two.
A decade ago, P.J. Axelsson was among the wide-eyed wonders who showed up here looking for a chance. He was joined that first day by the likes of Joe Thornton and Sergei Samsonov, the latter of whom was named the NHL's rookie of the year the following spring.
"It was a nervous time, for sure," said Axelsson, recalling what it was like to arrive from Sweden in September '97 not knowing what NHL future he had, if any. "But it was a lot of excitement, as well. Definitely nervous. I'm sure that's how these kids feel. You want that chance to play in the best league in the world. My chance came at a good time - there were a lot of new guys . . . me, Batesy [Shawn Bates], Joe, Sammy . . . Cameron Mann, too, I think.
"As a kid, you come in, and all you can do is work hard and hope that leads to something."
Axelsson, 22 at the time, found out at the end of training camp that he made the cut. First-year coach Pat Burns stopped by his locker at the end of the day.
"It's not like you can ever relax," said Axelsson, now with 647 NHL games gone by. "He put up the final [roster], and Pat came over to me, patted me on the shoulder, and said, 'Don't be too sure about your spot.' My English wasn't so good then, so I'm sure all I said to him was, 'Yeah, OK.' "
A new season is here, and new chances await. Who among them will feel that wonderful, if not so reassuring, pat on the shoulder?
Kevin Paul Dupont can be reached at email@example.com.