Flyers' Niinimaa Traded To Edmonton In Return, The Flyers Received Dan Mcgillis, A Young Defenseman. They Also Obtained Dave Babych From Vancouver.

Posted: March 25, 1998

The Flyers gave up yesterday on Janne Niinimaa, the young Finn they had promised to mold into the NHL's next great offensive defenseman.

General manager Bob Clarke sent Niinimaa, 22, to Edmonton for Dan McGillis, 25, and a second-round pick in this year's draft. McGillis is a 6-foot-2, 225-pound defenseman.

When Clarke traded for Paul Coffey two Decembers ago, he said that Coffey, the highest-scoring defenseman in history, would teach Niinimaa how to be a whiz at skating with the puck and would instruct him on the finer aspects of the power play.

Now, instead of skating the puck out with explosive speed, the Flyers will pass it out. The timing of the trade is interesting in light of the concern expressed this week by coach Roger Neilson that the Flyers couldn't seem to skate the puck well out of their own end on the power play.

``With Niinimaa, you give up passing and power-play stuff,'' Clarke said. ``But McGillis had 10 goals. We know he can score. He doesn't skate as good as Janne, but he's more physical and plays better defense.''

Yes, McGillis hits. The Flyers handed out a chart yesterday showing that McGillis leads the NHL in hits with 281. However, it's generally acknowledged among NHL statistical crews that the Edmonton crew has problems.

That same crew awarded 100 hits in a game against the Flyers this season. The Flyers' coaching staff openly joked after the game that there weren't even 20 hits, let alone 100. Edmonton, which skates and skates, supposedly had 60 hits in the game. The Flyers thought they had maybe 10, at best.

Is McGillis physical? To a point. In the two years he's been in the NHL, he hasn't had a fight. And in 73 games last season, McGillis had just four roughing minors.

``Hitting is a big part of my game,'' McGillis said. The Flyers ``have a physical presence on the ice, and I hope I can fit into that.''

The trade implies that Luke Richardson, a free agent from Edmonton who signed last summer, has not provided the physical presence in front of the net that the Flyers expected.

Edmonton general manager Glen Sather was said to be extremely pleased with yesterday's deal. He now has Roman Hamrlik, Boris Mironov and Niinimaa rushing the puck - which is a lot of speed and talent.

``I was surprised,'' Niinimaa said of the trade. ``I didn't expect this to happen. You have to accept that as part of the game, and life goes on. . . . They've got a lot of talent on Edmonton.''

Does Clarke envision McGillis as the next Rich Pilon?

``We felt that in the division we're in, we're going up against big teams like the Devils and the Islanders, who just got bigger, and we thought we needed to get bigger on our blue line,'' Clarke said.

Clarke said Niinimaa had taken steps backward defensively this season and wasn't skating well with the puck. That's not unusual for European defensemen in their second year.

Unlike the Islanders, who haven't given up on Bryan Berard despite an awful sophomore season, the Flyers gave up on Niinimaa, who led all Flyers defensemen this season in assists with 31 and in points with 34.

Last season, Niinimaa was second on the defense with 44 points and first among all NHL rookies in assists with 40, in power-play assists with 23, and in power-play points with 24.

McGillis has 10 goals and 25 points. He carries a wicked shot on the blue line and played on the Oilers' first power-play unit, at the left point.

Is McGillis a better fit with the Flyers than Edmonton? Yes. Still, he's not Pilon, a guy who instills fear around the NHL.

Clarke said he talked to Mike Milbury, the Islanders' coach and general manager, ``five or six times'' about a deal for Pilon and couldn't reach one. Reports in New York said the Islanders were prepared to trade Pilon to the Flyers, with Scott Lachance, for Niinimaa. Clarke denied that.

McGillis' pro-rated salary will be $83,231 (U.S.) for the rest of the season and $525,000 next year.

Whatever happened to getting a right wing - namely, Mike Gartner of Phoenix or Dino Ciccarelli of Florida?

``We talked to both clubs, and there was nothing we could put together,'' Clarke said. ``Because of injuries to Phoenix, they're playing for a playoff spot. They couldn't move Gartner. Florida didn't have anything we wanted where we wouldn't have to give up much for.''

So instead of a forward, Clarke picked up another defenseman in Dave Babych, 36, of Vancouver, an 18-year veteran, along with the sixth-round pick the Flyers dealt to Vancouver in February for Mike Sillinger. In return, the Canucks got a third-round pick from the Flyers in this year's draft.

Translation: The Flyers got Sillinger for free and Babych for a third-rounder.

Babych has missed 23 games - a fourth of the season - with back and hip injuries. He is sound fundamentally, but it's a gamble that he'll go through a stretch run without getting hurt.

Babych has a good slapshot. He played in 49 games for Vancouver without scoring a goal and had nine assists. Outside of that, Babych provides veteran experience.

He is the Flyers' ninth defensemen.

Babych, one of only three Canucks to play 1,000 games in Vancouver, has a year left on his contract, at $1 million.

If the Flyers didn't think Babych had one more season left, ``we wouldn't have traded for him,'' Clarke said.

The Flyers will assume the prorated $139,000 portion of his contract.

Babych, a first-round pick by Winnipeg in 1980, has played his last seven years with the Canucks. During his career, he's been with just three teams - the Jets, the Hartford Whalers and the Canucks.

``I play good, solid defense and can help out on both sides of the rink,'' Babych said. ``I'm a bigger guy, and I think moving the puck is one of my strengths. I get things done when there is chaos around.''

He'd better. There could be even more chaos in the Flyers' end now.

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