With the news that Joe Morrow will be out two to three weeks with a lower-body injury he suffered during a third-period scrap with the Colorado Avalanche’s Matt Calvert on Thursday, the Winnipeg Jets called up Sami Niku prior to their upcoming three-game road trip.
That was the wrong choice. They should have looked no further than Tucker Poolman.
Poolman’s Play Steady and Heady
The 25-year-old Poolman has playing heady hockey for the Manitoba Moose. In fact, he’s flat-out been their best defender over the past month. He’s logging big minutes in all situations — even strength, power play, and penalty kill — he’s making calm, collected, and correct reads with the puck, and he’s putting himself in good positions without the puck. Poolman is currently riding a seven-game point streak, is up to 16 points in 27 games, and is among the Moose leaders with a plus-six rating.
Last season, Poolman bounced between the Jets and the Moose regularly. However, between the two levels, he only suited up for 41 total games and spent too much time in the press box.
Just ahead of warm up here at Bell MTS Place between Manitoba & Chicago the Jets announce they have recalled Sami Niku. I thought it would have been Poolman. Good news for the Moose as the D core has been playing very well and he's been a big part of that. #AHL #MBMooose
— Dave Minuk (@ICdave) February 16, 2019
When assessing Poolman’s 24 Jets’ contests in 2017-18, THW’s own Rob Mahon noted, “when Jacob Trouba hit the shelf with injury, it forced the Jets to throw Poolman into the deep end a bit (and) he never really looked out of place.” Indeed, Poolman’s Corsi and Fenwick numbers at even strength were solid, at 53.3 percent and 51.8 percent, respectively. While he only put up two points, he helped keep the boat well afloat, so to speak.
Poolman likely would have already gotten a recall or two this season — especially when the Jets’ defensive depth was tested in early December with injuries to Morrow, Dmitry Kulikov, and Dustin Byfuglien — but he was dealing with a concussion that sidelined him between Nov. 23 and Jan. 12. Those call-up opportunities went to Niku, Cameron Schilling, and Nelson Nogier instead.
Since January, Poolman has played consistently — really, for the first time since turning pro. He’s played 15 games since Jan. 12 and should have been given this latest opportunity.
Niku Needs More Development Time
Calling up Poolman would have also allowed Niku to log the minutes he needs to truly develop.
The slick and dynamic 22-year-old seventh-round pick has suffered a similar fate this season as Poolman did last season – he’s spent a lot of time with the Jets, but not a lot of time actually playing for the Jets.
The left-handed blueliner, who won the Eddie Shore Award as the AHL’s top defenseman last season, has spent a few months with the big club, but has been limited to just 11 games and an average time on ice of 12:28. Prior to his most recent reassignment on Feb. 12, he was a healthy scratch for seven straight games. As a result of spending much of his time watching his Central Division-leading squad from up high, he’s only logged 20 games with the Moose. Last season, he played in all 76 of the AHL’s club’s contests.
While Niku is still one of the Jets’ top prospects and will be ready for full-time duty sooner than later, his skills are not up to NHL snuff just yet. In the games he’s gotten into, the 6-foot-1, 176-pound Finn has frequently looked physically outmatched and has been victimized for a number of high-danger chances. After one particularly rough game, he even said “I wasn’t good. That’s all. I did everything wrong,” and “I didn’t move. My passes weren’t there. I did nothing.”
Poolman More Prepared for Potential Spotlight
Dmitry Kulikov has been hampered with a minor upper-body injury for about a week and has missed the Jets’ past four games, but is reported to be healthy and ready to go. He’s the obvious choice to replace Morrow as Tyler Myer’s third pairing partner — the two have plenty of history and play their best hockey together.
This doesn't sound mad to me. Poolman is a slightly more established, slightly more veteran player who has scored 10 points in 14 games since returning to the Moose this January from a concussion. Niku getting big minutes in the AHL sounds sensible to me, too. https://t.co/nF09fKAW6q
— Murat Ates (@WPGMurat) February 15, 2019
Hence, Niku is likely bound for the press box. Calling him up again, only to not let him play, is doing him a disservice. The best thing for his development right now is to be logging big minutes for the Moose and continuing to learn at that level.
While disrupting Poolman’s groove wouldn’t have been ideal either, he has the age and maturity to handle it, as well as the age and maturity to handle being thrust into duty at a moment’s notice. The 2018-19 regular season is in its dog days, where everyone is tired, beat up, and worn down. It will only take one more injury — one that, as happened to Morrow, can occur even in a game’s dying seconds — before the Jets need another D-man to step up.
Losers of three of their past five, they need someone ready to jump straight into the action without missing a beat or having to navigate a learning curve. Niku is not that guy right now — Poolman is. He should have been given the opportunity to show it.