Nothing has gone according to script for Sami Niku this season.
The Finnish-born defenceman figured he'd crack the Winnipeg roster out of training camp and be a key element as the Jets blue line underwent an extreme makeover.
And after suiting up for 30 NHL games a year ago and a bunch more watching from the press box, his expectation wasn't pie-in-the-sky thinking.
Indeed, there were holes to fill on the back end in the fall, yet Niku's name has only been above a Jets locker-room stall once during the first half of the 2019-20 campaign. The rest of the time he either served the Manitoba Moose or was recovering from injuries — until now.
With an injury to Nathan Beaulieu, the Jets recalled the smooth-skating Finn on Thursday and he took the warm-up skate at Bell MTS Place prior to his club's battle with the Toronto Maple Leafs. He's destined to play on the team's four-game road trip, perhaps as early as Saturday in Minnesota against the Central Division-rival Wild.
"It feels really good and I was excited. I heard that Beau was hurt, so I was a little bit expecting they might call me up, but it's a good feeling and nice to be back," said Niku following practice Thursday. "It hasn't been the year I wanted it to be, but it's just bad luck and now I'm good to go again. I have to stay healthy and just play my own game.
"My goal was to play the whole year in the NHL and it didn't happen. But now I'm here and I just want to stay here and play as good as possible."
Things went south rather quickly for Niku when he and forward Kristian Vesalainen got into a car crash the first day of training camp and suffered some bumps and bruises. Later in camp, Niku missed time with an injury, never really got back on track and began the year with the Manitoba Moose, the Jets' American Hockey League affiliate.
He had a one-game promotion for a game in Pittsburgh but was sent back to the Moose after that. And then the injuries started to pile up and he missed two long stretches before finally being available to Manitoba head coach Pascal Vincent on Dec. 29. He played a pair of games for the Moose before getting being recalled this week.
In 18 games with the Moose, the 2017-18 AHL defenceman of the year had three goals and 11 helpers.
Niku has plenty of the tools required to be an NHL regular, including slick foot work, quick puck movement and natural offensive instincts, but his size and strength, defensive work and gap control clearly posed some problems last season.
The 23-year-old said he believes he's taken major steps to address those points of concern.
"I was working really hard for a month when I didn't play. I worked out every day and got stronger, too. I'm in better shape before the injury, probably. I added like five pounds," said Niku, who is listed at six feet and 194 pounds. "(Defence) is getting better and better. I don't worry about that. I know I can defend, too. The offence will be there, but of course I can be harder and harder in the D zone. But it's getting better every year."
It now comes down to a decision between Niku and Carl Dahlstrom by Jets head coach Paul Maurice.
"We're going to see him sooner rather than later, unless we get on some kind of a run. We still haven't made our lineup, based on other issues we're dealing with on our back end, for (Saturday). But we're going to want to get him up to speed and get him in pretty quick," said Maurice.
On social media, some Jets fans have been clamouring for his addition to the roster since opening night, and the #FreeNiku message has made its way around Manitoba and to Finland and back.
Niku saw a sign in the crowd Thursday with that hashtag that made him laugh.
"It means a lot that the fans like me," Niku said. "I have done something right. I'm happy."
Assistant sports editor
Jason Bell wanted to be a lawyer when he was a kid. The movie The Paper Chase got him hooked on the idea of law school and, possibly, falling in love with someone exactly like Lindsay Wagner (before she went all bionic).
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