Canadiens’ Niku Brings Offensive Touch They Need to Succeed

The Montreal Canadiens have been looking for a puck-moving defenceman ever since Andrei Markov left the team in 2017. This is not to say they don’t have any defencemen that can move the puck — they have several, just not one that can regularly step into a top-four position. They do, however, have one player quietly acquired this offseason that may be able to slide into a top-four role. That player is Sami Niku.

Canadiens Sign Niku

Niku was drafted by the Winnipeg Jets in the seventh round of the 2015 draft. In 2017-18, he had an exceptional season with the Jets’ farm team, the Manitoba Moose, scoring 54 points in 76 games, including 16 goals, and was second among defensemen in scoring in the American Hockey League (AHL). Niku won the Eddie Shore Award for the top defenseman, voted on by coaches, players, and media members from all 30 AHL teams. He split the following season with the Jets and Moose, scoring only three points in the NHL with limited ice time but had 12 points in 20 games with the Moose.

Sami Niku
Sami Niku now of the Montreal Canadiens (Photo by Minas Panagiotakis/Getty Images)

Niku again split the 2019-20 season between the Jets and their farm team and played only a total of 35 games between the two leagues. Again he excelled with the Moose, scoring 14 points in 18 games, but struggled with limited ice time in Winnipeg with only five points in 17 games. Last season, Niku stayed with the Jets but was limited to only six games all season; in the offseason, the Jets put him on waivers to buy out his contract. The Canadiens stepped in and signed him to a one-year, two-way contract.

Niku Struggled to Crack Winnipeg’s Lineup

Niku proved he was dominant at the AHL level, winning the top defencemen in his rookie year then averaging almost a point per game in each season he played with the Moose. The question is, why did he have such a hard time being a regular with the Jets? It’s not like Winnipeg had a stellar defensive corp, and many top defencemen on the team walked away due to free agency in 2019. The depth on their blue line was not that deep, so an offensive defenceman like Niku should have found a home with the club.

Related: Jets’ Sami Niku: From Asset to Expendable

Niku admitted in a Finnish interview that he had a hard time dealing with difficulties and had a terrible temper. One example of his spirit was getting into an argument with Jets defensive coach Charlie Huddy, who told him he would get cut from the team. Moose assistant coach Eric Dubois said Niku would become easily frustrated and quickly discouraged (Sami Niku: for the worse… or for the better?, La Presse, September 29, 2021). Canadiens forward Joel Armia thinks Niku is a good kid who needs some good coaching; he is an excellent skater and offensive defenseman who can add a lot to the Canadiens.

Canadiens Need More Offence From the Blueline

So far this season, the offence has been the main concern for the Canadiens, especially offence from the blue line. The Canadiens could have a puck-moving defenceman on every pairing; even before Niku was inserted in the lineup, the team had this ability. With players such as Jeff Petry, Brett Kulak, Chris Wideman and, to an extent, Alexander Romanov, that’s four of the six defensemen who can have good puck movement and transition. The issue was they weren’t deployed that way. With David Savard paired with Ben Chiarot, they had two stay-at-home defencemen on one line, resulting in five straight losses.

Winnipeg Jets Montreal Canadiens Game Four
The Montreal Canadiens celebrate an overtime victory as goaltender Connor Hellebuyck of the Winnipeg Jets skates by in Game Four of the Second Round of the 2021 Stanley Cup Playoffs (Photo by Minas Panagiotakis/Getty Images)

The defensive pairings were not solely to blame for the five straight losses, but they heavily contributed. In game six against the Detroit Red Wings, coach Dom Ducharme replaced Wideman with Niku. Ducharme also paired a stay-at-home defenceman with a puck-moving defenceman on every pairing — Niku was paired with Kulak, so that pairing technically had two puck-movers — giving the Habs transitional defencemen on every line. The result was the Canadiens’ first win, and Niku contributed with two assists. Was it a coincidence that the first win came when the defence had a transition defencemen on every pair? Maybe, but then again, perhaps it wasn’t.

Canadiens’ Niku Brings More Offense From the Blue Line

If you are unsure what type of game Niku brings to the Canadiens, think of Victor Mete, only Niku is better offensively and defensively. Niku, with more experience, can quarterback an NHL power play (PP); he has excellent offensive IQ and can transition the puck through all three zones. He has an average shot but is a slick passer and sees the ice well. Like most offensive-minded defencemen, he lacks some skill; he isn’t very great during inboard battles but does well in keeping the shooter to the boards or out of the slot. He makes his mistakes, and his positioning isn’t that great, but if paired with an excellent stay-at-home defenseman or Kulak, he will be fine on his end.

Brett Kulak, Montreal Canadiens
Brett Kulak, Montreal Canadiens (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

Niku is what he is: a great skater, a good puck handler and a great offensive mind. He is not the best defender but isn’t a liability in his end either. If you survived watching Erik Gustafsson in the playoffs, you’d find watching Niku pretty easy. Is he the answer the Habs have been looking for? He probably isn’t top-four material, but he is an improvement on the PP. With the news that Joel Edmundson is returning soon, the blue line will get a bit crowded, and someone will have to be moved either to the Laval Rocket or out of the organization altogether. Right now, Wideman is the odd man out, but Romanov is exempt from going on waivers. So there will be a tough decision to make when Edmundson does return.

With Niku in the lineup, the Canadiens are 2-1. Without him, they are 0-5. No, it’s not all because of Niku, but it is also something that shouldn’t be ignored. If he is over his attitude issues and concentrates on being the best player he can be, he should succeed with the Habs. If he doesn’t, then with a one-year contract, no harm, no foul. The team lets him go at the end of the season, and hopefully, Mattias Norlinder will be ready to step in.

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