The Winnipeg Jets sent Sami Niku down to the Manitoba Moose of the American Hockey League at the beginning of the season to get him up to speed after a nagging groin injury limited him to one preseason game.
The conditioning stint was the right move, as it’s allowed Niku to play big minutes and get his confidence back. Confidence is something he’s got in spades — his play down on the farm proves he’s back up to speed.
The Jets need to call him up ASAP.
Niku’s Been Busy After a Slow Start
The injury kept Niku — who would have been a lock to make the Jets out of training camp if not for it — out longer than most anticipated. He was largely a spectator in October, playing just three Moose games before being shut down again for five as his team suffered through a six-game losing streak and won just one game all month.
However, since returning to the lineup on Nov. 2, the 2015 seventh-round sleeper pick has been nothing short of fantastic. The Moose are 4-1 since then, and he’s been a big reason why.
As of Monday morning, Niku has three goals and six assists for nine points in eight games. He’s also riding a five-game point streak.
He’s outclassing his competition and making things look pretty easy. He even played a trio of games with fellow Finn Ville Heinola before the Jets opted to send their 2019 first-round pick back to Europe rather than keep him within arm’s reach of the organization; the two were electric together.
Jets Need What Niku’s Got
Niku has nearly singlehandedly changed the Moose’s special team’s fortunes. Before he came back into the lineup, their power play was operating at an abysmal 3.6 percent “efficiency.” In the five games since, they’re operating at 46.6 percent and have scored seven goals.
Niku’s slick puck-moving skills, vision, and ability to quarterback a power play are some of his biggest assets. He’s not overly physical or big, but he is an intelligent defender with great wheels (and a great flow, to boot.)
He would certainly help the Jets’ fortunes, including on the man advantage, where head coach Paul Maurice has recently shaken up his personnel due to lack of success. Although Luca Sbisa has been decent since being picked up on waivers, Nathan Beaulieu has returned after missing a month, and Neal Pionk has been excellent, the Jets’ blue line is still very much a work in progress and allows a lot of chances on a lot of nights.
Dmitry Kulikov, especially, has struggled lately. He’s playing around 20 minutes a night but isn’t really suited for the workload and that’s shown in recent games. When he plays with Josh Morrissey, he hampers the latter’s effectiveness.
Conditioning Stint Should End Soon
Anthony Bitetto and Carl Dahlstrom are playing more respectably when they draw in, too, but they are short-term patches, not long-term solutions.
Niku, on the other hand, has been a big part of the Jets’ blue-line blueprint for two seasons now. He played 30 games last season and, while by no means set the league on fire, improved as he went along.
It’s tough to see the conditioning stint lasting much longer; some fans believe the Jets are simply being stubborn by keeping him out of the lineup and point to Tucker Poolman — who has been quietly solid this season — as someone else who just needed to be given an opportunity. Niku spending more than a couple more games with the Moose would lend credence to that theory.
Niku has nothing left to prove in the minor leagues; he was lauded as the AHL’s most outstanding defenseman in his rookie 2017-18 season has more than 100 games of experience at the level now.
He needs NHL experience to continue his development so he can be all he can be. The Jets certainly stand to benefit from the skills he has right now. The reassignment last month made sense, but for both his sake and the team’s, he should be making the jump back to the bigs soon and for the last time.