Paul Maurice says no delicate stick-handling was required to pull Sami Niku from Friday’s lineup. Instead, the young Finnish blue-liner knew he hasn’t been at his best lately and that a change was likely coming.
With a pair of injured defencemen in Tucker Poolman and Luca Sbisa ready to return, that meant parking Niku in the press box for at least a game.
"It’s not a, ‘Hey, you’re coming out of the lineup, you’re going to the minors’ (situation)," Winnipeg Jets head coach Maurice said Friday of how the conversation went. "You’ve been a good player for us. You’ve played well. We value your game. You’re off it a little bit here and we’ve got some healthy guys coming back in.’ So it was a very positive meeting, as much as it can be when you’re taking a guy out of the lineup. Like he wasn’t fighting me on his last three games, he knew he wasn’t quite right there."
Niku, 23, has five assists in 16 games this season with the Jets, playing mostly on the second pairing with Dmitry Kulikov. Poolman (out since Jan. 12) took his spot against the San Jose Sharks, while Sbisa (out since Feb. 6) drew back in and replaced Anthony Bitetto on the third pairing with Nathan Beaulieu.
Maurice said Niku has been dealing with a minor injury, so this allows for "a bit of a reset." He struggled in Tuesday night’s 4-1 loss to the New York Rangers, getting beat on what turned out to be a key goal against.
"He has a solid excuse that he didn’t use for it, why he was off a little bit. We think a few days is going to make him feel real good," said Maurice.
It appears Niku, who has admitted in the past to not necessarily dealing with adversity in the best way, showed signs of growth in how he’s handling the situation.
"Sometimes you pull a young guy out and he has absolutely no idea why it’s happening. As a matter of fact, he doesn’t understand why he’s not on the first power play and you’re taking him out of the lineup. ‘How could this happen? I know, I just talked to my agent and he agrees with me. My best friend in junior is on the No. 1 power play on his other team so, clearly, you have no idea what you’re doing,’" said Maurice.
"And then you’ll get a guy who’s played now a little bit where he can give you an honest, fair assessment of his own game. ‘I haven’t been right where I needed to be and I understand it.’ So yeah, it shows an awareness."
Illness prevented him from speaking a day earlier, but Jets captain Blake Wheeler didn’t hide his happiness Friday that Maurice had been given a contract extension.
Wheeler cited the veteran bench boss as a major reason Winnipeg has managed to stay in the playoff race despite plenty of roster turnover, injuries and other built-in excuses.
"It’s a very tumultuous year this year and a big reason we’re still in the fight is his leadership and the coaching staff, how they’ve prepared us. I think he’s tried to empower as many of the guys as he can. In the league today, there’s got to be an element of that. He’s done a good job of getting around the room and getting the guys motivated. The message hasn’t been lost," said Wheeler.
"On top of that he’s a good person, he’s a good man. He treats the players with respect regardless of how many games you have or what your seniority is. He really tries to treat all the guys as people first and build a relationship first. I think that goes a long way with all the players."
Eight NHL teams have canned their coaches this season, with the Minnesota Wild’s Bruce Boudreau the latest to get his walking papers on Friday. But Wheeler said the value of a bench boss goes beyond wins and losses.
"Getting a team to battle regardless of the circumstances... it could have been easy to feel sorry for ourselves and pout our way through this year, but I think he was able to generate some excitement in the group that we have and get us to believe in each other and fight for each other and that’s why we’re still hanging in there," said Wheeler.
"It’s so different now. If a player has an off night or two bad shifts, you can’t sit ‘em anymore. You can’t take them out of the lineup, there’s nobody to replace them. So I think that’s a big adjustment for a coach. How do you send a message to a guy or how do you get the most out of a player when the consequences aren’t like they used to be. I think he’s done a really good job of, like I said before, creating some relationships with guys so that he can come to you when it’s good and he can come to you when it’s bad and you know it’s coming from a good place and you know he’s just trying to get the most out of you, just trying to get the best out of you."
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.