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This article was published 20/1/2019 (209 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.
DALLAS — Sami Niku’s command of the English language keeps getting stronger, although bluntness hasn’t been a challenge for the kid since his arrival in Winnipeg.
The Finnish-born defenceman doesn’t engage in long converstions with reporters after just one-and-a-half professional hockey seasons in North America. But even with a limited vocabulary, Niku, 22, is a straight shooter when discussing his own play.
"Sometimes, I do stupid things at the blue line, but sometimes they work. When I have confidence, I do pretty good things out there," he said, following the Jets’ morning skate Saturday at American Airlines Center.
"Of course, especially in the (offensive) zone, when I get the puck I can do my thing."
And his thing is quick puck movement, a must-have in today’s NHL — although, with his youth and inexperience, forcing things offensively can come with a price.
During his first recall from the AHL’s Manitoba Moose in late November, he took a few pot shots at his own performances during a five-game stretch when he made some defensive blunders and failed to counter them by putting points on the board.
A hidden gem, taken in the seventh round of the 2015 NHL Draft, Niku is a gifted skater with exceptional hands, but is still slight of frame and has difficulty handling bigger bodies, and his defensive reads are still a work in progress.
On Thursday night in Nashville, however, he put it all together alongside partner Joe Morrow. The AHL’s 2017-18 defenceman of the year earned a pair of assists — the first two of his NHL career — and nearly scored on a breakaway.
He may have scored his only goal in his NHL debut late last season in Montreal, but the kid’s coming out party, to be sure, occurred at Bridgestone Arena against the Central Division-rival Preds.
"It felt really good, first points this season and, of course, it gains you a little bit of confidence for the next game. It was a really good game for us," Niku said. "Especially right now, my defence is the first thing. I need to be good there, and then the offensive game will come.
He and Morrow were tidy in their own end against the rugged, hard-checking Preds and moved the puck effectively, each finishing plus-four.
Niku said he felt in control against a heavy Nashville push deep in Winnipeg territory.
"They have a very good team and they pressure hard, good forecheck, and it was a good test for me," he said.
Morrow said he’s enjoying skating alongside the dynamic Finn and watching him gain confidence.
"I just try and talk to him, try to keep him positive. If you make a mistake, it’s not the end of the world. When I was younger, I’d be gripping my stick a little bit too tight and scared to make a mistake... like one mistake and you’re out of here," he said.
"I think confidence breeds success, and in a hockey player like that when you’re playing well you’re more comfortable and you’re excited and, obviously, more involved in the play. That being said, every game that he gets in consistently and one after the other he’ll keep getting better and better."
On Saturday, Morrow and Niku finished even on the night against a gritty Dallas squad in the Stars’ 4-2 triumph.
Injured defenceman Ben Chiarot (lower body) is on the trip, but missed his third straight game.
Jets head coach Paul Maurice said the solid play of Morrow and Niku made the decision to give Chiarot some additional time to heal much easier.
"The plan there was if we needed him, we could play him. But after the three games off here we’re quite hopeful that he’s ready to roll right out of the break," Maurice said. "We would be in a position to err on the side of health and not feel like we need to rush a guy back, for sure."
Injured blue-liner Dustin Byfuglien (lower body) has been skating and could return after the break or likely within a week after that. Nikolaj Ehlers (upper body) is still likely two or three weeks away from rejoining the club, Maurice said.
Maurice will command the bench for the Central Division squad during the all-star mini-tournament next weekend in San Jose. He let the cat out of the bag on one of his top offensive partnerships.
"I’m looking forward to watching Mark (Scheifele) and Blake (Wheeler) together. There’s the first scouting tip on the game — those two guys will play together. I’m looking forward to watching those guys have fun. They’ve earned it. Those two guys drive the bus here and they earn it," he said, after the morning skate Saturday.
"I get to go as more of a representative of our whole staff and organization, from the ownership to the trainers, because we got to first place at the halfway mark."
The event will be played in the format of a three-on-three tournament. The Metropolitan and Atlantic divisions will battle for 20 minutes, followed by a 20-minute game between the Central and Pacific divisions. The two winners advance to a championship game, with a US$1 million prize up for grabs. The action begins at 7 p.m. (CT) Saturday.
Scheifele, 11th in NHL points production, said he’s excited about his first trip to the NHL’s showcase weekend.
"It’s an honour to play in the all-star game, my first one, so I’m pretty pumped," said Winnipeg’s top centre, who has 25 goals and 33 assists and has suited up for all 47 games. "It will be a nice few days off before that and then a lot of excitement in San Jose."
It will be the second all-star appearance for Wheeler, the Jets captain, who has nine goals and 52 assists. Only Tampa Bay Lightning forward Nikita Kucherov has more helpers (54). With 61 points, he’s eighth in league scoring.
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, January 21, 2019 at 8:53 AM CST: Corrects stat for Wheeler