Just three years ago, Sami Niku was a promising prospect who seemed like he had a long and productive NHL career ahead of him.
But it’s was all downhill for the defenseman since winning the Eddie Shore Award for the AHL’s best defenseman in 2017-18. He reached the bottom of the hill Monday when he was placed on unconditional waivers for the purpose of terminating his contract.
Niku’s decline was rapid and unexpected as he went from being considered a big part of the Jets’ future on the back end to totally forgotten.
Niku Turned Head with the Manitoba Moose
If you were to say after Sami Niku’s rookie pro season that would not only be not a top-four defenseman for the Jets by now but that he would be let go for nothing, you would have been looked at like you’d put skates on your hands and gloves on your feet.
The slick-skating Finn put up 16 goals and 34 assists for 58 points for the Manitoba Moose in 2017-18 and put the AHL on notice with his puck-moving ability, creativity, and power play prowess.
Selected in the seventh-round of the 2015 draft, he looked to be another one of Jets’ GM Kevin Cheveldayoff’s late-round diamonds in the rough. He made his NHL debut on April 3, 2018 and scored a goal in a win against the Montreal Canadiens.
The following season, Niku appeared in 30 games for the Jets, skating 13:55 and recording one goal and three assists. He also played 20 games for the Moose and his best seemed ahead of him.
Niku Hit a Rocky Road in 2019-20
A full-time NHL role was Niku’s to lose coming into the 2019-20 season in the aftermath of the mass exodus that saw Dustin Byfuglien, Ben Chiarot, Tyler Myers, and Jacob Trouba all depart the Jets. But 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 Moose to get back up to speed but due to the injury, only played three games in October. Meanwhile, the Jets coped with a patchwork defense and trotted out fringe journeymen like Anthony Bitetto, Carl Dahlstrom, and Luca Sbisa.
Finally healthy in early November, Niku went on a heater with the Moose, recording three goals and nine assists in 13 games and posted an eight-game point streak. This led the “Free Niku” crowd on social media to clamour that he be inserted back into an NHL lineup. At the time, this author advocated for calling him up as well.
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.
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He was finally called up in January after it was announced Nathan Beaulieu would miss at least a month with a lower-body injury. He ended up playing 17 games and recording five assists before COVID-19 shut the sports world down in March.
When the bubble playoffs finally got underway in summer, Niku did not dress for any of the Jets’ four Stanley Cup Qualifying round games against the Calgary Flames. It was clear that his slight frame and lack of physical strength were holding him back from taking a bigger role.
Niku Was Buried After Disastrous Start to 2020-21
While his 2019-20 numbers were far from ideal and most thought he would be further along, despite his rough season and reports he was being shopped around, he was re-signed to a modest two-year deal worth $1.45 million. After re-signing, Niku said:
“I’m really happy about my off-season and I’m getting stronger. I just have to be really, really good when the season starts and do my best. I’m really confident that when I play my own game and be really, really good in the (defensive) zone, then I will get a spot.”From ‘Niku Determined to Stick with Jets,’ Winnipeg Free Press, Oct. 30, 2021.
When the shortened 2020-21 NHL season did get underway in January, he was not “really, really good in the defensive zone.” In three early-season games, he was awful and took a number of bad penalties; despite the Jets still lacking on defence, he was soon banished to the press box.
He played two more games in late February, and on March 1, suited up for what turned out to be his final game of the season. By the time the Jets were eliminated in the second round by the Montreal Canadiens in early June, Niku wasn’t even on the radar.
Niku Had No Chance This Season
The Jets did Niku a favour by letting him go before training camp even started, because there was no way he was going to crack the lineup in 2021-22.
Cheveldayoff finally addressed his defensive deficiencies in a big way this offseason, acquiring top-four talents in Brenden Dillon and Nate Schmidt in separate trades to take some of the load off of Josh Morrissey. He also re-signed Neal Pionk.
The Jets also have the reliable Dylan DeMelo — who was inexplicably left unprotected in the Expansion Draft but was unselected by the Seattle Kraken — and Logan Stanley, the hulking specimen who suddenly emerged as a viable option.
That’s not to even mention top defensive prospects Ville Heinola and Dylan Samberg, and others who jumped ahead of Niku on the depth chart such as Jonathan Kovacevic and Leon Gawanke. A strong offseason has reopened the Jets’ Stanley Cup window, and Niku wasn’t going to give the team the best chance to pass through it.
Who’s to Blame?
There are many reasons for Niku’s regression and release. The myriad factors, theWinnipeg Sun’s Scott Billeck opined, include bad luck, untimely injuries, Niku’s at-times poor attitude and lackadaisical work ethic, and subpar skills inside the defensive zone.
Others have pointed the finger at Niku’s coaching. In a Twitter thread entitled “How to ruin a player like Sami Niku,” pundit Jack Han said instructing Niku to “simplify and dump [the] puck out of d-zone when in doubt” and “be safe and to box-out net front” — among other instructions that attempted to rein in his free-wheeling play style — shattered his confidence and made him lose his instinct to make high-end plays at game speed.
“Now the challenge becomes mental,” Han wrote. “The young player is basically being gaslit on a regular basis by well-meaning but misguided adults. The more he follows instructions, the more he strays from the type of game that’s got him to where he is now.”
Regardless of where the blame falls, by releasing Niku, the Jets get a little bit more cap space. Niku, on the other hand, gets a chance to start over, if another team is willing to give him a fresh start.
At just 24 years old, Niku is still young, but will have to do a lot of work if he wants to once again be considered a viable NHL defender.
Declan Schroeder is a 27-year-old communications specialist and freelance journalist in Winnipeg, Manitoba. He holds a diploma in Creative Communications with a major in journalism from Red River College and a bachelors in Rhetoric and Communications from the University of Winnipeg.
Deeply rooted in the city’s hockey culture, the original Jets skipped town when he was two and the 2.0 version came onto the scene when he was 17.