Sami Niku hasn’t played very much for the Winnipeg Jets in his time as an injury replacement. Don’t let that fool you, however. He’s a rare and vital piece for their future on the back end. The unlikeliest of future studs, Niku has evolved from a seventh-round pick in 2015 to one of the Jets’ most promising young players. Every season since he was drafted, he’s risen up the ranks to become their best young defensive prospect.
Now, with the Jets poised to be buyers for a major piece or two at the trade deadline, his name has popped up in the rumor mill. You could argue no player is truly untouchable, but Niku should be very close. When it comes to acquiring rental players, Niku’s name should be a non-starter. His name will certainly attract interest, but he’s a player the Jets can’t afford to be flippant with. After all, his talent and his position are crucial to them.
Some may wonder what makes a former seventh-rounder who has just twelve NHL games under his belt so important? Niku, however, is a bigger piece of the puzzle than they realize.
Niku Fills Present and Future Hole
The Jets positions of greatest need right now, according to most pundits, are a second line center and on defense. As we’ve reviewed here, the left side of their defense corps is especially shallow. Niku is a major part of the team’s future improvement there.
To say the Jets have drafted poorly at left defense would be inaccurate. After all, Josh Morrissey has turned out to be a terrific pick, as has Niku. It would be more accurate to say they’ve drafted infrequently at that position. From 2011 to 2015, the Jets used just four of their 38 draft selections on left-handed defensemen. Two of those, Zach Yuen and Aaron Harstad, were late-round picks in 2011 who never panned out. The other two were Morrissey and Niku.
The Jets seem to have realized the hole in their otherwise-stellar draft record since then. From 2016 to the present, they’ve drafted five left-handed defensemen, including first-rounder Logan Stanley and another potential home run in 2017 with second-rounder Dylan Samberg.
Indeed, the last Jets draft yielded two more players, Declan Chisholm and Giovanni Vallati, who look promising for the future at that position. Here’s the problem: none of them, not even Stanley who is the oldest and highest drafted, are ready to make an impact any time soon. And while all are loaded with potential, none are sure bets.
Declan Chisholm recorded 3 assists today in a 3-2 OT win over Oshawa. He's now up to 15 points (2G, 13A) in 17 games and leads the Petes in points!
— Jets Prospects (@jets_prospects) November 2, 2018
With their window of opportunity open to win the Cup, the Jets need players who can help out now. While to some that would seem all the more reason to ship Niku off, it’s actually quite the opposite. Their left side on defense needs a player like Niku both now and in the near future. Their window to win isn’t limited to this season, even though, with their looming cap crunch, it may seem that way. They’ll be contenders next season too.
If Niku isn’t going to be part of that window to win, then who is? A free agent signing? That’s unlikely with the Jets’ cap situation. Stanley or Samberg? Either of them is several seasons away as of now.
The Jets have had less luck drafting defensemen than forwards overall, but on the right side, the team still has enviable depth in Dustin Byfuglien, Jacob Trouba, and Tyler Myers. Even Tucker Poolman gives them a good safety net. On the left side, Morrissey stands alone right now unless Niku can take that next step.
Niku Perfect for Modern NHL
More and more the NHL is trending away from big, one-dimensional bruisers on the back end. A puck-mover who can start the rush, or sometimes undertake it themselves, is exactly what teams want now. Niku is that defenseman. No, the size and strength of a Ben Chiarot aren’t there, but watch Niku dominate the game with the puck on his stick and you’ll realize quickly he brings something more valuable. The Jets are starting to realize it too.
Ben Chiarot compared Sami Niku to Toby Enstrom in the way he can make the tight turn and find the open guy in the d-zone. #NHLJets
— Scott Billeck (@ScottBilleck) February 16, 2019
If the Jets do ship Niku out, they’re not only trading away exactly the type of player they need, they’re trading exactly the type of player who could be pivotal to any team’s defense some day. Watching him become that player somewhere else would be painful. The old cliche is “banners fly forever” and if trading Niku means the Jets land the piece to take them to the promised land, most will forgive it. But how often in the history of the trade deadline has a mega-deal propelled a team to a Stanley Cup?
Even last season’s prize acquisition, Paul Stastny, easily one of the best trade deadline pickups in recent memory, wasn’t enough to push the Jets over the top. If they swing and miss on this, Niku will make some other NHL team happy for many seasons to come.
Around the trade deadline, the promise of a Stanley Cup may seem closer than ever. But the Jets should remember that even though they’re in win-now mode, this will not be their last chance at glory. The future is bright in Winnipeg, and part of the reason it is so bright is because of Niku.
Trading him away for a rental player might pay off or it might come back to haunt them horribly. No player is totally untouchable at this time of the season, but if Winnipeg can move almost any other piece besides Niku, they should do it. After all, for a team like the Jets who need help on the left side on defense, what price is too high to pay for that? Many teams would happily sell the farm for what the Jets risk giving away in Niku.