The Winnipeg Jets could have benefited from Sami Niku breaking into the NHL last season as the impact player he was in the American Hockey League last season. Over 30 NHL games between various call-ups he had a decent shot to make his case, but wasn’t able to stay with the big club.
This season with big changes on defence, the expectations were that Niku would make the team and carve out a permanent spot relatively early. That has not been the case.
Spending some extra time in the AHL this season, Niku has only recently cracked the NHL lineup on what appears to be a full-time basis; getting bigger and bigger minutes since joining the team in early January.
Niku has been a dominant force in the AHL since he joined the Manitoba Moose in the 2017-18 season as a 21-year-old. Now 23, has he finally found a way to translate that success from the AHL to the NHL?
Let’s see how much progress has been made compared to last season.
Unfortunately, the Jets are still being torn asunder while Niku is on the ice and while it’s unfortunate that his timing in joining the roster also coincided with the Jets’ swoon before the all-star break, these numbers are adjusted for that — showing the team is far worse off while Niku is on the ice than when he’s on the bench.
Strangely, his numbers are even worse than last season in all but inner-slot shot differential, so on the surface there doesn’t appear to be much progress made with his adjustment to NHL life. I will say it is a very small sample size to judge a player on too harshly.
Nevertheless, the consistent struggles Niku has had at controlling the flow of play at the NHL level as he gets closer to the age where he’s no longer considered a prospect and starts being looked at more as a project, are very worrying. He’s not untalented by any means, but in speaking with a scout recently they surmised that he’s currently stuck at a development stage where he’s far too good for the American Hockey League and doesn’t need to work hard to be great there.
That dominance in the AHL has led to some lazy habits that burn him in the NHL and he really just needs to get reps in to work those kinks out of his game.
Despite the poor differentials, there’s still some evidence that Niku has improved in certain areas as well. For example, his offensive-zone turnover rate has dropped by 5.3 percentage points year over year, and his defensive-zone turnover rate has dropped slightly as well. Most of Niku’s mistakes have come in the neutral zone this season.
Niku is getting more involved in the play as well, both in acquiring the puck by doubling his successful stick check attempts per minute over last season, and in connecting on more high-end plays. This season Niku is completing slot passes more often, and has gone from electing to dump the puck out of the defensive end 25.7 per cent of the time last season to just 13.4 per cent this season. That’s an extension of confidence in his puck-moving abilities.
The Jets could really use Niku to jump in and be a gamer like Quinn Hughes has done for the Vancouver Canucks, or even step in and be a solid play driver like Ethan Bear has been for the Edmonton Oilers, but while he takes time to establish himself as an NHL regular, everyone should take a step back and realize that he wasn’t a high first-round pick.
Picked in the seventh round, Niku is found money for the Jets and he has already surpassed expectations. Development is rarely linear, and if there’s any chance whatsoever he can bring half of what he does in the AHL to the NHL eventually, it will pay to show patience in the young Finnish defenceman.
Andrew Berkshire is a hockey writer specializing in data-driven analysis of the game
Andrew Berkshire is a hockey writer specializing in data-driven analysis of the game.
Updated on Friday, February 7, 2020 at 9:27 PM CST: Adds graphic