The Winnipeg Jets might be shopping Sami Niku but it’s not because the young, left-shooting defenceman has requested a change of scenery.
Neither the 24-year-old Finn nor his representative has elevated the "Free Sami" movement to critical status this fall with a trade request.
"I wouldn’t comment on that normally. But no, we haven’t (asked the Jets for a trade)," Niku’s agent, Mike Curran, told the Free Press in a phone interview Sunday. "It’s been out there mentioned. But it didn’t come from us.
"(Niku) has set up shop there. For a kid not to go back to Finland during this whole pandemic process, that should say a lot about his desire to be there."
Niku’s name has, indeed, been bandied about in trade speculation, as has that of forward Jack Roslovic leading up to and since the NHL Draft and the opening date of free agency earlier this month. Those rumours are more the undercard to the main event of a potential Patrik Laine trade.
But the former American Hockey League defenceman of the year (2018) remains Winnipeg property. Niku is coming off his three-year entry level contract and is a restricted free agent.
The Jets gave him a qualifying offer three weeks ago which has now expired. The 2015 seventh-round draft pick (198th overall) had no arbitration rights.
Curran said productive talks continue with the NHL club.
"Everything’s going fine. I don’t really comment too much on what’s said or what’s done. But we’ve had great conversations. He’s in Winnipeg and he wants to stay. I can’t get into specifics but they’re going fine," he said, from New Jersey.
The Jets would appear to have as many as 10 guys competing for six starting spots and one or two depth spots.
There's a logjam on the left side, led by top-pairing blue-liner Josh Morrissey. The team re-signed a pair of its own free agents, Nathan Beaulieu and Luca Sbisa, and then added Derek Forbert on a one-year deal. Top prospects Ville Heinola and Dylan Samberg are also gearing to make the jump.
Niku has stated a preference to playing the right side, however, a glut exists there, too, with Neal Pionk, Dylan DeMelo and Tucker Poolman ahead of him.
Yet, Curran said his client has been skating regularly and is hoping to earn full-time work with the Central Division club.
"For anybody, you gotta go in and earn a job. You gotta go in there and beat someone out. That’s what teams want, too, they don’t want guys to be complacent," he said. "So, (Niku will) come to camp ready to go. That’s on him and that’s his job. My job’s to advocate for him on the contract side and his job is to show up at camp ready to play and make the team."
A segment of Jets fans have used the #FreeSami hashtag on Twitter in the past, lobbying for an established role for the smooth-skating, puck-mover whose defensive shortcomings hindered his ability to move up the club’s depth chart.
But a disjointed, injury-filled 2019-20 campaign also made carving out a full-time gig in the NHL virtually impossible. Niku finished with five assists in 17 games with the Jets, and three goals and 11 assists in 18 games with the Moose.
He was in Winnipeg rehabbing an ankle injury suffered during some pre-game soccer fun when the NHL pushed the pause button on March 12, owing to the coronavirus, while the Jets were on a road trip in Western Canada.
Niku, who has a one-year-old son with his partner in Winnipeg, accompanied the team into the Edmonton bubble but didn’t play against Calgary.
Questions surrounding his attitude and work ethic have stuck with the young Jet, and a disagreement he had with assistant-coach Charlie Huddy last season didn’t help change that perception.
Curran said he’s witnessed a definite maturing of his client.
"I’ve had him for just over a year and had a chance to get out to Winnipeg a couple of times and spend some time with him. Great kid, really enjoyed his company," he said. "He knew he could be better. He wanted to be better. Like any player, you get a taste of the NHL and he wanted to do everything in his power to stay.
"As most kids go through, wondering, ‘Why am I in the AHL, I need to be in the NHL,’ then you learn that to get to the NHL you have to master the AHL and if you have to go back there to get some reps in because you’re hurt or whatever, it’s not punishment. It’s all forward thinking."
Niku was spotted skating recently at The RINK Training Centre and his trademark long locks have disappeared.
"When I first met him, I said, ‘What’s with the hair?’ And he said he always had just one person cut it, a friend of his, and he hadn’t had a chance to see the friend so he just kind of let it go. I joked with him. I said, ‘There probably are other barbers in the area,’" Curran said, laughing. "He finally cut it all off.
"He’s been skating, working out and getting healthy. He had that run of injuries there and I think his focus is getting his body in a good place and be well prepared for a long season, and he’s done that."
Assistant sports editor
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