April 5, 2020

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Free at last

Unlucky, unhappy Niku gets to trade shackles for skates, suit up for Jets in Montreal

Opinion

MONTREAL — Let the record show that Winnipeg Jets defenceman Sami Niku was officially "freed" here in Montreal Monday night.

From what, exactly? It depends who you ask.

Common sense suggests it's from a string of bad luck and bad timing, but there are those who believe it's from a closed-minded head coach who was doing everything in his power to keep the offensively-gifted 23-year-old buried in the minors for as long as possible.

Just pop online and search the #FreeNiku hashtag to quickly get a sense of the conspiracy theories out there.

I've never subscribed to the idea that any bench boss, including Paul Maurice, would sabotage their own best interests just to stubbornly prove a point. Still, the question of whether this was a case of punishment — especially in light of some other revelations about Niku that emerged Monday — was one worth asking as he drew into the lineup against the Canadiens.

Sami Niku missed the first few days of training camp after a vehicle he was driving was T-boned. (Mikaela MacKenzie / Winnipeg Free Press files)

Sami Niku missed the first few days of training camp after a vehicle he was driving was T-boned. (Mikaela MacKenzie / Winnipeg Free Press files)

"Here's what happened to Sami Niku. He got into a car accident two days into training camp, and then he pulled his groin and he was out for a month-and-a-half and it turned out the Winnipeg Jets were winning an awful lot of hockey games. Then he got a real tough injury that he couldn't skate on so he was out another month-and-a-half and we waited for him to get healthy," Maurice said following the morning skate at Bell Centre Monday.

"He played a couple of games in the minors and then he's back up here. That's what's going on with Sami. There's no controversy with him."

And yet, Niku himself fanned the flames a bit, admitting to me that he had a bit of a run-in with Jets assistant coach Charlie Huddy earlier this season.

"It was nothing, really. Just miscommunication. I apologized to him. We don’t think about that," Niku explained.

"He played a couple of games in the minors and then he's back up here. That's what's going on with Sami. There's no controversy with him." –Winnipeg Jets coach Paul Maurice

The incident in question happened around the time Niku was called up in early October after Josh Morrissey got hurt in the pre-game skate against the New York Islanders, and Dmitry Kulikov left the road trip to attend to the birth of his child.

Niku played one game, in Pittsburgh (a 4-1 Jets win), but was sent back to the Manitoba Moose a couple of days later.

To hear Maurice explain it, Niku apparently believed he was allowed to leave the skate. Huddy, who is in charge of the defence, had other plans, wanting to do some further work with Niku.

"That’s fairly standard. He thought that the skate was over before the skate was over. It’s not the first time. It’s kind of funny," said Maurice.

I'm not sure anyone was laughing about it at the time, especially given all that had already gone on with Niku. There was the car crash on the first day of training camp, in which the vehicle driven by him and also containing Finnish prospect Kristian Vesalainen was T-boned at an intersection, leaving both shaken up and missing the first few days.

Niku played just one pre-season game before suffering a groin strain, and suddenly things had gone from bad to worse. He was assigned to the Moose for conditioning, only to re-aggravate the groin and miss more time. After re-joining the lineup in early November, he suffered a separate injury at the end of the month that sidelined him for about four weeks.

Add it all up and a season of stops and starts has seen Niku play just one of the Jets' first 42 games, and 18 of 37 games with the Moose.

Sami Niku has played in 32 NHL games so far. (Mikaela MacKenzie / Winnipeg Free Press)

Sami Niku has played in 32 NHL games so far. (Mikaela MacKenzie / Winnipeg Free Press)

"I liked his game for us last year, it was pretty good. Might have started the season with us if he hadn’t been hurt, and might have stayed here the whole time. So we got banged up on our blue line, brought some defencemen in, we liked the way they were playing, he was hurt for most of it," said Maurice.

As he was set to play the Canadiens on Monday night — in the same building he made his NHL debut in during the 2017-18 season, scoring his first NHL goal — a Finnish media outlet called Yle Urheilu came out with a story earlier in the day suggesting this latest callup came just in time, as Niku was on the verge of demanding a trade from the Jets and had even been considering leaving the team to go play in the KHL.

Niku, the 2017-18 AHL defenceman of the year who has just 32 career NHL games on his resumé so far, downplayed the report.

"It’s in my contract that I had the possibility to go there, but nothing really. I wasn’t going there. It’s nothing," Niku said. However, he admitted he can be a highly emotional player at times, and that keeping his cool during this current season has been a challenge.

"It hasn’t been easy, of course. I’m not used to this. Usually, I’m never injured. It has been hard, but nothing I can do really. Just bad luck. I was working out really hard when I was injured and now, I’m good to go," he said. "It’s just me. I hate to (make) mistakes. Sometimes, I’m just frustrated and maybe I show that too much, but it’s just who I am. I’m working on it and I’m not worried about it."

"I hate to (make) mistakes. Sometimes, I’m just frustrated and maybe I show that too much, but it’s just who I am. I’m working on it and I’m not worried about it.” –Sami Niku

His time away from the rink has been put to good use, as Niku became a first-time father last month with the birth of Sami Jr.

"It’s been unbelievable. It helps if you’ve had a bad game and you go home and he’s there, it’s much easier for me," he said.

Niku began Monday's game on the third-pairing with Anthony Bitetto, taking the spot of waiver-wire pickup Carl Dahlstrom. Maurice suggested he could also see time on the second-pairing with Neal Pionk.

However, there's no guarantee his spot in the lineup is permanent, especially with Kulikov on the verge of returning from injury, and Nathan Beaulieu likely a couple of weeks behind him.

Niku said he's feeling the pressure to "show that I belong here." But Maurice believes full-time NHL employment is close, noting how some other young players on the team benefited from extended time with the Moose.

"So Kyle Connor did it. He’s turned out to be pretty good. I don’t think he was real happy about playing in the American League. And then that Josh Morrissey guy did it too. Most players do it," said Maurice.

"He's a good young player that, like all of them, think they should be in the NHL at 14 and he's going to be a good NHL player for the Winnipeg Jets for a long time. I like the guy."

There's no catchy hashtag for that, but perhaps now all the focus on Niku can finally turn to where it matters most — on the ice.

mike.mcintyre@freepress.mb.ca

Twitter: @mikemcintyrewpg

Mike McIntyre

Mike McIntyre
Reporter

Mike McIntyre grew up wanting to be a professional wrestler. But when that dream fizzled, he put all his brawn into becoming a professional writer.

Read full biography

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