Jan. 6, 2020: the day Sami Niku played his second NHL game of a season where he seemed a lock to be on the Winnipeg Jets’ blue line every night.
Niku’s Traversed a Rocky Road in 2019-20
Niku’s road back to the NHL has been a path filled with potholes one, to say the least. A big-league role was his to lose coming into a 2019-20 season in which the Jets had a trio of offseason defensive departures and suddenly, no Dustin Byfuglien.
However, things went sideways in a hurry for the fledgling pro. He was in a car crash on the first day of training camp. Then he pulled his groin and was limited to one preseason game as a result.
He was sent down to the Manitoba Moose to get back up to speed but due to the injury, only played three games in October. Meanwhile, the Jets and their patchwork defence stumbled to a 6-7-0 record.
Finally healthy in early November, Niku was a key contributor in helping the Moose rebound from a 1-7-0-0 start. He recorded three goals and nine assists in 13 games and posted an eight-game point streak.
By mid-month, many fans were clamouring for the Jets to “free Niku” and play him in favour of Anthony Bitetto, Carl Dahlstrom, and Dmitry Kulikov, feeling he deserved a shot and his skills could benefit the big-league club.
Related: Jets Need Niku Now
Some odd comments from head coach Paul Maurice that the organization “liked what he was doing so much there (in the minors) that there’s not a strong urgency” to call him up also rankled the “free Niku” crowd, believed him to be better than half the players on the Jets’ back-end. The fact the Jets were firing on all cylinders — they were in the midst of a 10-win November — was another factor that prevented the 2015 seventh-rounder from getting a call-up.
The window to call up Niku closed when he suffered an upper-body injury after taking a big check in a late-November game against the Milwaukee Admirals and was forced to miss another month.
After two games with the Moose at the end of December, he was finally called up after it was announced Nathan Beaulieu would miss at least a month with a lower-body injury. Against the Toronto Maple Leafs and Minnesota Wild last week, Niku was scratched in favour of Dahlstrom.
“It feels really good and I was excited,” Niku said Friday of the call-up. “I heard that Beau was hurt, so I was a little bit expecting they might call me up, but it’s a good feeling and nice to be back. It hasn’t been the year I wanted it to be, but it’s just bad luck and now I’m good to go again. I have to stay healthy and just play my own game.”
Did a Clash with Coaches Keep Niku Down?
An added wrinkle came out Monday that indicated another possible reason Niku was sent down and didn’t get called up even when making mincemeat of his minor-league competition.
According to a Finnish article by Tommi Seppala — an NHL correspondent for sports outlet Yle Urheilu — Niku had an altercation with assistant coach Charlie Huddy in the fall when he was asked to stay for extra work following a practice. The article was translated into English on Twitter by a Jets fan in Finland and quickly grabbed the attention of Winnipeg media members.
“There was a little confusion, which I later apologized for,” Niku said, before admitting his temper can sometimes get the best of him.
“Yes, that may be one of the reasons I was held down,” he continued. “Maybe they are trying to grow me this way, even though I actually feel like I’m an adult… things (get) harder when my emotions (get) the best of me and I have done some silly things.”
After Monday’s pregame skate, Maurice downplayed the issue and pooh-poohed the idea that Niku’s reassignment was any type of punishment. “There’s no controversy with him,” Maurice said. “He’s a good young player. All of them think they should be in the NHL at 14, and he’s going to be a good NHL player for the Winnipeg Jets for a long time. I like the guy.”
Niku Decent in 2020 Debut
Niku got his first chance since Oct. 8 — when he got called up for one game versus the Pittsburgh Penguins — to play “his own game” against the Montreal Canadiens at the Bell Centre Monday night. Skating on his offside on the third pairing alongside Bitetto, he logged a fairly quiet 13:21 in a 3-2 win.
“He skated well, he closed gaps, made a couple passes, threw a backhand sauce up the middle of the ice to them, but I liked his game tonight,” Maurice said after the contest. “I thought there’s potential for puck movement, I thought he was willing to go back and get it, and there was no red flags where you’re going ‘what is he doing in his own end’ you know?”
“I would say he went in there and held water,” Maurice continued. “And did a good job, so I will give him better marks than necessarily his play just because I think it’s difficult — that was a tough injury and he’s played a couple games, got a couple practices, so I was pretty pleased with him.”
Niku Should Finally Be Freed For Good
As Maurice said Monday morning, Niku is going to be a “good NHL player for the Winnipeg Jets for a long time.” That time should start now.
Barring another injury, there’s no excuse for Niku to not be in the lineup every game for the rest of the season. He is too good for the AHL and needs solid minutes in the NHL to further his development into a top-four defender.
As Niku said Friday, “My goal was to play the whole year in the NHL and it didn’t happen. But now I’m here and I just want to stay here and play as good as possible.”
He just needs the opportunity to achieve that goal.
The Jets are no longer exceeding expectations and are hanging onto the playoff spot they’ve possessed for most of the season by the skin of their teeth: they have just four wins in their last 10 and have allowed 40 goals in that span. Niku has huge upside and his ability to retrieve pucks and quickly move them through the neutral zone, his great speed, and ability to quarterback a power play could help the team in a big way as the back half begins. Look for his role to only increase from here on out.