The 2015 NHL draft class will be best known for its top two selections, Connor McDavid and Jack Eichel. Winnipeg Jets fans can point to Kyle Connor – taken at 17th overall – and Jack Roslovic – selected 25th overall – as steals. Yet, the real steal of the 2015 NHL Draft may have come via Winnipeg’s second-to-last pick, when they took left-handed defender, Sami Niku, at 198th overall.
Niku’s Early Years
Niku was drafted by the Jets in the seventh round and for good reason, as his early stats don’t jump off the page. Playing in Finland’s tier-two professional league, Mestis, for the majority of his draft year, the Haapavesi-born defenceman posted three goals and 22 assists in 39 games for JYP-Akatemia.
He did not hit his stride as a point-producing defender at a high level until his final year in Finland, notching 27 points – five goals and 22 points – in 39 games for JyP HT Jyvaskyla of SM-Liiga. With the Manitoba Moose in 2017-18, Niku cemented himself as a top-flight prospect, winning the Eddie Shore Award as the league’s most outstanding defenceman.
Sami Niku was awarded the Eddie Shore Award as the AHL's outstanding defenceman for the 2017-18 season. The #MBMoose rookie spoke about the honour and joked about the season 'prediction' he made to Patrik Laine #GoMooseGo pic.twitter.com/dcvRQKJSMy
— Manitoba Moose (@ManitobaMoose) April 10, 2018
Niku took to the North American game quickly, recording six points in his first six games for the Moose. He soon blossomed as an offensive talent on the blue line with 54 points – 16 goals and 38 assists – in 76 games, for a 0.71 points-per-game pace. He also became a strong option on the power play, notching 10 of his 16 goals on the man advantage, by using his supreme speed to burn opponents on the rush and his highly accurate shooting to pick through screens from the point.
He added a goal and two assists in Manitoba’s ill-fated postseason run that ended with a second-round sweep at the hands of the Rockford Ice Hogs. However, he was able to spend time with the Jets during their run to the 2018 Western Conference Final.
The Next Josh Morrissey
Niku has all the tools to become a top-four defender for the Jets and with the right deployment and development, he could easily become a 50-point defender. He is a smooth skater with offensive awareness and strong puck-handling skills that can frustrate opponents, allowing him to set up teammates or chip in a goal.
The best player comparison is Jets defender Josh Morrissey, the first notable prospect development success since the Moose returned to Winnipeg. To this point, both defenders played a single season with the Moose, though Morrissey has just completed his second season with the big club.
By the age of 21, Niku outpaced his Canadian-born counterpart with a 0.71 points-per-game pace compared to Morrissey’s 0.38 pace, and with the older Morrissey recording 20 points or more in back-to-back seasons at the NHL level, Niku can be expected to exceed that if given the opportunity. Both players have similar stick skills and on-ice awareness but Niku has the offensive edge, speed advantage, and more experience against bigger opponents.
What’s Next for Niku?
With the Morrissey contract situation still looming – despite the 23-year-old’s confidence that a deal will be struck by the start of training camp – some may be quick to assume that, given their similar trajectories, Niku would be the perfect candidate to slot in next to Jacob Trouba. However, as noted by The Hockey Writers’ Declan Schroeder, the Jets brass is unlikely to risk rushing their top defensive prospect.
A knock against Niku is his size. His 6-foot frame puts him at the small end among Jets defencemen, measuring the same height as both Morrissey and recent addition Joe Morrow. However, the latter two outweigh Niku by a wide margin. Morrissey and Morrow weigh 195 and 196 pounds respectively and can use their size and strength to out-muscle opponents down low and stand up to attacking forwards on the blue line. Niku is listed at 176 pounds, which is far below what The Hockey Writers’ Tony Wolak found to be the NHL average of just over 200 pounds.
The potential is there for Niku to become a staple on the Jets’ blue line for years to come, perhaps even lining up with Dustin Byfuglien in his early playing days just as Morrissey did before him, but he must add the amount of muscle needed to play the Jets’ style of game. He has the speed, he has the offensive skills, and now he needs the mass to go along with it.
Despite this, Niku still remains the most likely Moose to cross the hall in 2018-19, joining the big club in a sheltered role.