The notion of a divorce from the Winnipeg Jets was inconceivable to Sami Niku two years ago, yet he knew with certainty last week it was time to cut ties with the NHL organization that drafted him.
The Jets placed the 24-year-old Finnish-born defenceman on unconditional waivers Monday for the purpose of terminating his contract, wiping the final year of Niku’s US$725,000 annual salary off the books.
Speaking Thursday morning to the Free Press, Niku said the decision was mutual, adding he was eager to depart after feeling entirely disassociated from the team during the abbreviated 2021 season.
"I already knew last year I would need to move on. That was the best thing to do," he said. "At the end, it really wasn't that hard to decide. I had a few hard years, so it was kind of an easy decision in the end. I imagined I would be traded last year or during the summer, but I was still a Jets player right before training camp. So, the best thing to do was terminate the contract."
"I had a few hard years, so it was kind of an easy decision in the end." –Sami Niku
He suited up for just six games last year, producing no points. And he played just 17 games during the pandemic-shortened 2019-20 season, chipping in five assists.
The former American Hockey League defenceman of the year said he thought by now he'd be a source of strength on the Jets blue line.
"After the first few years, I was sure I would be a full-time player in Winnipeg," he said.
Yet, well before the acquisitions of Brenden Dillon and Nate Schmidt this summer, the once-promising prospect found himself stuck deep in the pecking order, particularly with the emergence of towering Logan Stanley and the great expectations attached to youngsters Ville Heinola and Dylan Samberg.
Head coach Paul Maurice said he's glad Niku has the opportunity to look for a better fit somewhere else.
"Yeah, I’m happy for him and I think it worked out right. Sami can play in the league and he’s probably gonna play in the league," said Maurice, following the Jets' first on-ice session at training camp.
"(With) his style of game, I think with (Josh) Morrissey and (Neal) Pionk, you’ve got your skill guys on your blue line and you’ve got some guys that have kind of moved ahead of him. So, he’ll have that opportunity and we’re not looking to hold anybody back."
"I like the man, I really do. It just wasn’t going to happen for him here." –Paul Maurice
Niku said his representatives are working to find him another playing opportunity, adding interest has come from organizations in North America and Europe.
"I can't say when that will happen, but hopefully it will be soon," said the 2015 seventh-round pick, who scored the first of his two career goals during his NHL debut, April 3, 2018 in Montreal against the Canadiens.
A swift puck-mover by trade, Niku had a difficult time grasping the key requirements of his position and often stood out for all the wrong reasons. At times, his attitude and work ethic were also called into question.
Maurice hinted as much, before returning to a more positive train of thought.
"There’s also standards that you’d like players to meet. And you know it was difficult for him, and we’re hopeful things will go well for him," Maurice said. "I like the man, I really do. It just wasn’t going to happen for him here."
"I just want to play hockey. At this point, it doesn't matter where it is, I just need to play." –Sami Niku
Niku said he craved feedback from his employer but didn't get it, adding he felt punished most of the time without being told what he'd done wrong.
"It wasn't the best. Both sides could have done things better. I could have played better always, obviously, and they could have taught me way more. I didn't really talk with the coaches so they could tell me what I needed to do better. It would have been nice. I didn't really talk to Paul at all. If I talked to anyone, it was Charlie (Huddy).
"I like when coaches were honest with me. I would have liked to know what they were thinking. If they weren't happy with how I was practising, no one told me that."
In fact, Maurice's actions spoke volumes. He relegated the once-promising prospect to the press box most nights.
Niku maintained he still has the ability to make an impact in the NHL.
"I know I can play there and I just want to prove it," said the father of a two-year-old son, who will maintain off-season homes in Winnipeg and Finland.
"I just want to play hockey. At this point, it doesn't matter where it is, I just need to play. Probably to others but I don't have anything to prove to myself. I know what I can do."
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).