November 19, 2018

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Niku has his eyes on the prize

Young defenceman hopes to continue NHL momentum with the Jets

<p>Sami Niku celebrates his goal against Montreal Canadiens goaltender Carey Price on April 3 while playing for the Winnipeg Jets. ‘I didn’t expect that, and it came, and it was amazing,’ Niku says of the memorable moment.</p>

PAUL CHIASSON / THE CANADIAN PRESS FILES

Sami Niku celebrates his goal against Montreal Canadiens goaltender Carey Price on April 3 while playing for the Winnipeg Jets. ‘I didn’t expect that, and it came, and it was amazing,’ Niku says of the memorable moment.

Sami Niku has the puck safely stowed away. First NHL game. First NHL goal. The kind of stuff dreams are made of.

Is it possible the kid hasn’t stopped smiling yet, now five months removed from that magical night against the Canadiens in Montreal?

“Of course, right now it’s my biggest memory, easily. It was unbelievable. I didn’t expect that, and it came, and it was amazing,” Niku said Wednesday of his impressive late-season call-up to the Winnipeg Jets.

Sure, it was just one game, a small sample size if there ever was one. But he certainly made an impression on many, including head coach Paul Maurice, who described Niku as playing like he had “antifreeze in the veins.”

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Sami Niku has the puck safely stowed away. First NHL game. First NHL goal. The kind of stuff dreams are made of.

Is it possible the kid hasn’t stopped smiling yet, now five months removed from that magical night against the Canadiens in Montreal?

"Of course, right now it’s my biggest memory, easily. It was unbelievable. I didn’t expect that, and it came, and it was amazing," Niku said Wednesday of his impressive late-season call-up to the Winnipeg Jets.

Sure, it was just one game, a small sample size if there ever was one. But he certainly made an impression on many, including head coach Paul Maurice, who described Niku as playing like he had "antifreeze in the veins."

Now, the calm, cool and collected 21-year-old defenceman is looking to make a more lasting impression as he tries to carve out a full-time role with the big club as early as this fall. His quest will be one of the main storylines when training camp gets underway late next week.

"Now, I know what kind of game that it was. It will be easier for me to go and play there," said Niku, who spoke with the Free Press Wednesday after joining about two dozen Jets players and prospects for a 90-minute on-ice workout at Bell MTS Iceplex. The session included drills and a scrimmage.

It’s not going to be easy to crack the opening-day roster, with eight defenceman on one-way contracts seemingly ahead of him on the depth chart. However, one big thing to watch for is the health of veteran Dmitry Kulikov, who had off-season surgery. The Jets expect him to be ready for camp and able to start the season, but until he gets to Winnipeg and goes through a physical, nothing is certain.

Niku is as slick as they come on skates and has some pundits wondering if he could step right in and fill the void left by veteran Toby Enstrom, who built a pretty impressive NHL career for an undersized, skilled puck-moving defenceman. For now, it looks like one of Joe Morrow or Ben Chiarot might have the edge playing on the left side with Dustin Byfuglien, which is where Niku was placed for his NHL debut.

Niku isn’t worrying about how he might slot in, instead focusing on what he can to improve on an incredible first pro season in North America. He captured the American Hockey League defenceman of the year honours after putting up 16 goals and 38 assists in 76 games with the Manitoba Moose. Not too shabby for a seventh-round draft pick (198th overall) from the 2015 draft.

"That sounds pretty good," Niku said when told he was only the second rookie blue-liner in league history to earn the distinction.

"Of course, it meant a lot. At first, I didn’t how big of a thing that was. But it was huge," he said. "I knew that I could play here, my own game, my offensive game. Of course, the first 10, 15 games were a bit hard, a bit different, but I learned the game pretty well and then it was my own game after that."

Niku spent the off-season working out with a personal trainer in Finland, with one major priority in mind.

"It was my biggest thing this summer to get stronger," he said.

Niku took plenty of lumps in his first season, including a wicked wallop during the playoffs with the Moose that left him favouring a shoulder. He was able to gut it out and play through the pain.

"That’s why I have to get stronger. I can’t take those hits anymore," said Niku, who stands 6-1 but weighs only about 176 pounds. "I did a lot of the same things as last summer, but more upper-body training."

Niku got another taste of NHL life this spring, once the Moose were eliminated from the playoffs, when he skated with some of the Jets’ scratches during the post-season.

"The city was unbelievable, the whiteout was unbelievable. I’ve never seen anything like that. It was amazing," Niku said. "It was a great experience. This year I want to be there (playing), too."

Not that he needs any extra motivation, but the Jets are travelling to Finland for a pair of regular-season games in November against the Florida Panthers. Being on the roster, getting to play in his home country, would be another dream come true.

"Of course, I want to be there. My goal is to play more games than last year in the show," Niku said.

And no doubt to make more memories.

mike.mcintyre@freepress.mb.ca

Twitter: @mikemcintyrewpg

 

Mike McIntyre

Mike McIntyre
Reporter

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.

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