The Sami Niku experiment is over, at least for now. Three games filled with giveaways, costly penalties and defensive miscues was enough of a sample size for Winnipeg Jets head coach Paul Maurice to decide he'd seen enough.
And when one door closes, another one opens. Enter 19-year-old Ville Heinola, who made his season debut Thursday night in Ottawa, filling the spot of his fellow Finn on the top blue-line pairing with Josh Morrissey that didn't look out of place at all in a convincing 4-1 victory.
Heinola played 14:22, going plus-two with one shot on goal and one block.
"We felt there was an opportunity based on the play of our other guys," Maurice said of the switch prior to puck drop at Canadian Tire Centre. "He’s a good puck mover. We’re finding that balance between some size, because we need some size in our lineup, and then we need some puck movement. It’s kind of what Sami does for a living and Ville will get a chance to go in there and do that."
Unfortunately for Niku, he was moving more pucks to the guys in the other sweaters, while also dragging Morrissey's game down with him. Niku, 24, was playing an elevated role due to Dylan DeMelo (birth of child) and Tucker Poolman (COVID-19 protocols) both being unavailable.
Heinola burst onto the local hockey scene when he was drafted 20th overall by the Jets in 2019, then made the club out of training camp that fall. He skated in eight NHL games, with a goal and four assists, before the Jets decided some seasoning was required. He was briefly sent to the Manitoba Moose before returning to Europe to finish out the season.
Plenty of eyes were on Heinola over the Christmas holidays as he played a big role with Team Finland at the World Juniors, helping them to a bronze medal and being named one of the top defencemen of the tournament. But it meant missing all of Jets training camp because he needed to quarantine for a full week upon arrival in Winnipeg. Once cleared to skate, Heinola was assigned to the Moose to get back up to speed, then was reassigned to the taxi squad and now the big club.
"I haven’t played since World Juniors but I feel like I’m in good shape right now. I have a lot of confidence and I think I’m ready to go," Heinola said following the morning skate. "Of course I’m one year older now, so that’s a big thing, I think. I feel like I’m stronger and faster now. I just have to use my body more now so I can be better in the defensive zone and all-around better. That’s the biggest thing, to show that."
Heinola, who is living with injured Jets forward Patrik Laine, said he's much more relaxed at the NHL level then he was in that short rookie stint, when he was learning the league, the city, his teammates and much more.
"I can be myself more and try to enjoy the moment," he said.
A big issue for the Jets has been the lack of right-shooting defencemen with DeMelo and Poolman unavailable. Neal Pionk was the only one in the lineup on Thursday, partnered on the second pair with Derek Forbort. Veteran Nathan Beaulieu again moved to his off-side on the third pair with rookie Logan Stanley, while Morrissey and Heinola took turns switching to the right side on their pairing.
"From Day 1 with Ville you can see he’s a very smart player. He’s not a big guy, like myself, but he’s a very smart player with the puck, he moves really well, makes a lot of little plays that you might not necessarily view as flashy but everyone on the ice appreciates them because they’re extremely difficult to execute and he’s able to do that," said Morrissey.
"Just his confidence level as well. He came into the NHL as an 18-year-old, you don’t see that very often, and he played without fear in all those games he was in last season and obviously he was able to be really effective for us. I think just naturally he looks a little bit stronger, a little bit faster, probably more confident and comfortable than he was just a year and a bit ago. He’s a great kid. You can tell he loves hockey and I’m excited to see him continue to grow into what’s going to be an amazing player in the NHL."
No doubt this was a tough pill to swallow for Niku, who has seemingly been passed on the depth chart by Stanley in the blink of an eye. Another rookie, Dylan Samberg, is also waiting in the wings to make his NHL debut.
"Sami has a certain skill set that he needs to employ. I don't think it's been there for him," said Maurice.
"I like where Logan's at. I like — what he brings, we can use. I just didn't love Sami's game. There's technical parts to that and there's mistakes. I still have lots of faith in the young man but he's a puck-mover and so is Ville and we think Dylan Samberg is as well, in parts of his game. But if you're not at the top part of your game, we don't have a lot of time to wait. So we've got to get going."
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.