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To suggest no Winnipeg Jets stayed in the city during the COVID-19 pandemic would be to inadvertently overlook Sami Niku as a member of the NHL team.
That's entirely forgivable considering, for the most part, the Finnish-born defenceman's 2019-20 NHL regular season was pretty darned forgettable. And the reasons were not altogether the doing of Niku, who was expected to have a role in the Jets' top six but simply could not stay healthy.
Even the good-natured 23-year-old had trouble mustering anything nice to say about his third pro hockey season in North America during a chat Monday with the Free Press.
"Yeah, it's been a really tough season for me. A lot of bad luck and I didn't get to play a lot of games. Not a very nice season," he said. "When I came back here (in the fall), that was my goal, to play the full season in the NHL. That was the only thing I was thinking about.
"But always something kept happening, so it was really tough. This has been the bad season for me and I really hope there's a lot of good things in the future."
Keeping track of the ailments suffered by the 6-1, 180-pound left-shooting defender is no easy chore.
Firstly, there was a car crash on the opening day of training camp, in which the vehicle driven by him and with forward and fellow Finn Kristian Vesalainen in the passenger seat, was T-boned at an intersection. Both escaped serious injury but were shaken up and kept off the ice for the first few days of camp.
Niku played just one pre-season game before suffering a groin strain and was assigned to the Manitoba Moose, the Jets' American Hockey League affiliate, for conditioning. He was recalled by the Jets during the first week of the regular season for one night only — a 4-1 triumph over the Pittsburgh Penguins — but was promptly sent back to the Moose.
The 2015 seven-round draft pick aggravated the groin injury with the Moose and was again sidelined, but rejoined head coach Pascal Vincent's squad in early November, only to sustain a rib injury at the end of the month that sidelined him for another four weeks.
Niku was recalled Jan. 2 by the Jets and played four nights later in Montreal against the Canadiens. He suited up for 15 of the next 21 games, and was slated to play against the Washington Capitals in D.C., but turned an ankle while the team was getting its kicks with some pre-game soccer.
"Yeah, maybe a little break from soccer before games," he said.
He finished with five assists in 17 games with the Jets, and three goals and 11 assists in 18 games with the Moose.
Niku was in Winnipeg rehabbing the ankle 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. The league has since announced a 24-team playoff format, setting up a best-of-five preliminary series between Winnipeg and the Calgary Flames in late July in one of the yet-to-be named hub cities.
Niku, off skates for about 100 days, figures he's the only Jet player that stuck around in the city but is excited about the prospect of rejoining some of his returning teammates on the ice, likely within a week.
"At first, I thought the season was done but now they are planning to play again. I'd be happy if we can continue and play the playoffs," said Niku. It's his understanding the Jets will skate in small groups at Bell MTS Iceplex soon — part of Phase 2 of the NHL's return-to-play protocol.
Winnipeg captain Blake Wheeler, three-time 30-goal scorer Kyle Connor, all-star goalie Connor Hellebuyck and the rest of the gang should start trickling into town by the end of the week.
While Niku is healthy and eager to perform, he's realistic about his chances of facing the Flames. Jets head coach Paul Maurice will have a full complement of blue-liners — Josh Morrissey, Neal Pionk, Dylan DeMelo, Nathan Beaulieu, Dmitry Kulikov, Tucker Poolman, Anthony Bitetto, Luca Sbisa and Carl Dahlstrom — at his disposal.
"When training camp starts (July 10), I'll just do my best and try to be as good as possible, and then coaches decide who's playing and who's not playing," said Niku. "It's always exciting to go to the playoffs, and if you don't play you are still part of the team, and it's a team game."
A slick skater with good offensive instincts, Niku believes he made some improvements in his defensive game, even with all the interruptions.
"I played harder in the (defensive) zone and my gap was better, and that's the big thing for me, to stay closer. I have to trust my skating, so I don't have to use my body as often and I can really use my stick," said Niku, a restricted free agent after the season. His desire is to remain in Winnipeg for years to come.
"That would be awesome to be here for a long time. That is my goal. And I have a family here now, so that would be perfect," he said.
Off the ice, the season held some personal joy for the former AHL defenceman of the year. Niku and his partner, Ashley, welcomed a son, Sami Jr., into the world in October. He's eight months old and growing fast.
"Just been hanging out with the little guy the last three months. I've had a lot of time to spend with him, which was really nice. He can't sit still. He has to move all the time. Probably soon he'll start to try and stand. Thank God he doesn't walk, yet," Niku said, laughing.
"During the season, it has been really helpful we had him this season. Even when I was hurt, it was so nice to come home and see the baby. I had something else in my mind than my injuries. There's nothing better. A few years ago, I didn't expect that I'd have a son in two years. But now that I have him, it's the best thing ever."
Niku’s signature flowing locks are longer than ever.
"I never cut it during the season, and the season isn’t over yet."
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).
Updated on Monday, June 29, 2020 at 8:32 PM CDT: Clarifies return dates of some other Jets players.
June 30, 2020 at 8:43 AM: Adds comment from Niku about not cutting hair
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