PITTSBURGH — Sami Niku didn’t arrive in Pittsburgh carrying a life preserver, but there’s no question the Winnipeg Jets are hoping he can help their drowning defence stay above water.
Niku made his 2019-20 NHL regular-season debut on Tuesday night, the latest to step through a revolving door on the blue line that is unlike anything Jets head coach Paul Maurice has seen in his lengthy coaching career.
"No, this would be a new experience for us," Maurice said prior to taking on the Penguins at PPG Paints Arena.
No kidding. Consider: the six defencemen who dressed Tuesday night had only 350 games of combined NHL experience and a total salary cap hit of just over US$7 million, with Neal Pionk accounting for nearly half of that. That’s less than the US$7.6-million cap hit the Jets would love to be paying Dustin Byfuglien, who is currently suspended as he ponders his future.
Niku and 18-year-old Ville Heinola are on entry-level deals, while Tucker Poolman, Anthony Bitetto and waiver-wire pickup Carl Dahlstrom are making near the league minimum.
No. 1 defenceman Josh Morrissey missed a second straight game Tuesday, one day after Maurice declared him ready to go. Morrissey suffered an upper-body injury after a collision with a teammate during the warm-up before Sunday’s game against the New York Islanders and missed the contest, but was a full participant at Monday’s practice in Pittsburgh.
"He got through the practice, he just didn’t feel great like an hour after. We just want to be real careful, that’s all. We’ll hold him out another game, precautionary," Maurice said.
The Jets were also without defenceman Dmitry Kulikov, who has left the team to attend to a personal family matter. Throw in the injury to Nathan Beaulieu (upper body, at least three more weeks) and the off-season departures of Jacob Trouba, Tyler Myers and Ben Chiarot, and Winnipeg has turned over the entire blue line from what they had just at the end of last season.
"It’s obviously tough. Early in the season, you want to get a rhythm going with your whole team, so it’s tough to lose guys or not have guys in the lineup. It’s one of the things you just have to battle through and have other guys step up and play their game. It’s a big opportunity for a lot of guys," centre Mark Scheifele said.
One of those would be Niku, who likely would have cracked the opening-night roster but was dealing with a nagging groin injury suffered during training camp, which meant some conditioning on the farm. Niku played two games last weekend in Texas with the AHL’s Manitoba Moose, recording a pair of assists.
"I just want to play my own game. Of course, I need to be hard in the D-zone and play hard on defence and try to help the team win," Niku said following the morning skate.
Niku was in a car crash the first day of training camp, which also hampered his first couple weeks. He only got in one pre-season game.
"Of course it wasn’t easy. I knew I might need some time in the AHL to get my conditioning back, but now I’m good to go and feel pretty good," Niku said.
"It wasn’t easy. Car accident and then I pulled my groin. S—t happens and now I’m good to go."
Niku began Tuesday’s game paired with Bitetto. Heinola and Poolman formed another duo, while Dahlstrom and Pionk were the third. The Jets also called up Nelson Nogier from the Moose as added insurance.
That’s a far different look from what the Jets envisioned the top six looking like just a few weeks ago, with Byfuglien, Morrissey, Kulikov and Beaulieu most certainly part of it.
"You know what? The attitude’s been good, they’ve worked hard. They’ve stayed positive, they’re still trying to make plays, they’re not showing a lot of tentative play out there, which is really good. It’s all about growth for that blue line," Maurice said of his current crop.
With such a young, inexperienced group on the back end, Maurice said there’s increasing pressure on the more veteran forward group to pitch in.
"A big part of that is the forwards being within striking distance," he said. "We’ve got to do a real solid job as a forward group, we’ve got enough guys who’ve played in the NHL that they’re capable of helping those guys out."
To make room for Niku and Nogier, Kulikov was moved off the active roster while veteran centre Bryan Little was placed on retroactive injured reserve as he continues to work his way back from a concussion suffered during the final pre-season game on Sept. 29. He’s eligible to be activated at any time, and Maurice wouldn’t rule him out for Thursday’s home opener against the Minnesota Wild.
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.