RALEIGH, N.C. — Sami Niku’s days as a member of the Manitoba Moose appear to be over. And that’s good news for those who believe the talented, 22-year-old Finn was overdue for a promotion.
Niku, the reigning AHL defenceman of the year, has quietly carved out a role with the Winnipeg Jets this season and seems unlikely to be heading back to the farm. Sure, it took several injuries on the blue-line for him to become a regular in the lineup. But he’s shown enough in that time to earn plenty of trust, and praise, from the coaching staff.
"I’m not going to describe him as the same player as Josh Morrissey, but what changed for Josh was an awareness of how to use his speed as his most effective weapon. They’re a different style of player. So Sami Niku, as all of these young skating defencemen in amateur hockey, would never have had to go that fast, they were just faster than everybody else. You get to the NHL, and he’s not a big man, so he needs then to learn to use his speed to defend and get into holes to make offence happen. That would be the area that we’ve seen the biggest improvement," Paul Maurice said prior to Friday night’s game against the Carolina Hurricanes.
"We see it in his practice habits, he’s moving quite a bit quicker all over the ice. So he’s effective, even against big men, he’s been moving to go back and get pucks. He can make that tight turn and put it on somebody’s tape. One of the things that he does, Winnipeg will remember Toby Enstrom’s game, that ability to tight-turn in a corner in a heavy area and get it into the middle of the ice. They all have that same attribute."
Comparisons to Morrissey and Enstrom would count as high praise from Maurice. Niku’s offensive skills were never in question, but it’s his ability to defend at an NHL level that will decide whether he stays with the big club and in the lineup.
"He’s doing very well. So, you’ll remember his first game in Montreal (this past season), where he scored a goal and there was some unusual D-zone coverage reads. That is something those guys have to go through to learn. And he has. So now his reads, if he’s off on a read you understand what he was thinking, there was a process to it, he just picked up the wrong guy or he was gapping him somewhere else. He’s done well with it," Maurice said.
Niku suited up for his 20th game of the year Friday night, once again on a pairing with Ben Chiarot that has been effective in recent games. He told the Free Press he’s getting more comfortable with each passing day.
"I feel better and better, the more I play. I’m really happy right now," said Niku, who scored his first goal of the year (and second of his career) to kick off the four-game road trip Sunday in Columbus.
"I’ve had a lot of chances before this year and I haven’t scored. When it went in, it felt very good."
Contrast that to how he was feeling back in late November, when he made his season debut against Chicago. Niku was extremely critical of how his second-ever NHL game had gone, calling his play terrible. Niku played four more games on that call-up before a stint as a healthy scratch and a return to the Moose, but he’s been a fixture in the lineup since mid-February, as Dustin Byfuglien, Josh Morrissey and Joe Morrow are all nursing hurts.
Niku admits he struggled to start this season with the Jets, but believes he’s made significant strides.
"I just needed to be patient and wait for my chance. When I got my chance, I just had to do my best. The first few games this year, they weren’t good and I wasn’t happy. But after that, I played more and more and now I usually play 15 minutes per night, almost. It helps when I play more and more. It’s much easier for me” – Sami Niku
"I just needed to be patient and wait for my chance. When I got my chance, I just had to do my best," Niku said. "The first few games this year, they weren’t good, and I wasn’t happy. But after that, I played more and more, and now I usually play 15 minutes per night, almost. It helps when I play more and more. It’s much easier for me."
NHL teams had until Feb. 25 to send players back to the AHL in so-called paper transactions so they’d be eligible for the playoffs with the farm team. Curiously, Niku was not one of those who got papered.
"I think it was really an assessment of his game," Maurice said when asked why that wasn’t done. "He’s at the point where we didn’t want him sitting here for 20 games and not playing. He’s at a place where he wouldn’t be out of the lineup. We’ve got a number of defencemen, when we get healthy. But we go through defencemen here. That’s been our run, we’ve always had banged-up bluelines."
Morrow, out since Feb. 14, is the closest to returning, as he’s on the road trip and has been skating on his own in recent days.
Byfuglien also skated on his own earlier in the week, but flew back to Winnipeg on Thursday for further treatment on an ankle injury suffered Feb. 14. It was a surprising development, considering Maurice had been hopeful Byfuglien might join the full team for a skate towards the end of the week.
But plans have obviously changed, although Maurice wouldn’t describe it as a setback.
"He went back to get a new treatment. Not as a change of course of action, just it was something they thought they could do after a certain period of time. So he went back to get that taken care of," Maurice said.
Byfuglien initially suffered an ankle injury on Dec. 29, which kept him out of the lineup for 15 games. He then returned in early February, played five games, got hurt again and will now miss a ninth straight game tonight. A return is still at least a week away, if not longer. Morrissey, who suffered either a shoulder or collarbone injury on Feb. 24, isn’t expected back until early April.
It was interesting to hear Maurice mention Enstrom on Friday, as he’s a player who built great chemistry on a pairing with Byfuglien. Does that mean Niku might slide into that role once Byfuglien returns to health?
"It’s a possibility, for sure," Maurice said. However, Niku has been playing on his off-side in the pairing with Chiarot, which the coach believes might actually serve him better.
"So, Sami came into the league as a lefty, played the left side until he got with the Moose, now he’s one of those guys... for your slighter-built guys, playing their off-side allows you to escape a little easier, to get pucks off the wall. So he’s really comfortable on the right and may stay there," Maurice said.
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.
Updated on Saturday, March 9, 2019 at 8:24 AM CST: Final