If you’ve been following the Winnipeg Jets at the Young Stars tournament in Penticton, it’s players like Logan Stanley, Tucker Poolman and maybe even Michael Spacek who were the main draw. What you might not have expected was Sami Niku leaving them all in his dust.
The smooth-skating, transitional defenceman, whom the Jets took 198th overall in the 2015 NHL Entry Draft, made a habit of doing that this weekend in Penticton. No matter how many forecheckers followed him into the defensive zone, he had an answer for each.
Pinning the Jets in their zone with Niku on the ice was like trying to handle mercury with a fork. The slippery, undersized defenceman could find seams that to the naked eye weren’t visible. Not content to absolve himself of puck-carrying duties at his blue line, Niku would often execute zone entries with full control and use that as the basis for prolonged puck possession in the offensive zone.
I reached out to Sirius XM’s Shane Malloy, the host of Hockey Prospect Radio, to find out if this has always been the case. Malloy, who’s been an amateur scout for decades, told me this is just more of the same for Niku.
“Niku is a smart dependable puck managing defender that makes a quick first pass to forwards at speed. He handles the forecheck well. He defends by taking away time and space using an active stick and body position while keeping his feet moving.”
On Friday night against the host Vancouver Canucks, one such occasion led to a Jets goal. Niku worked his way through the offensive zone, before his drop pass eventually found Jansen Harkins to get the Jets within one of the Canucks.
— Ryan Biech (@ryanbiech) September 9, 2017
It’s a short tournament, so one would have to imagine the players would have the freedom to make exciting, but risky, plays like the one Niku did to create that Jets goal, right? Not according to Niku. “No. Definitely not” Niku said with laughter and a smile on his face, when asked whether he has the coach’s blessing to skate the puck up ice. “It’s just my style,” Niku told Jets Nation “My offensive game was very good today”.
As a young player with a lot left to prove, Niku knows that playing that style can have its downfalls. You have to earn the coach’s trust to get minutes, and being the primary puck carrier on every play isn’t the best way to earn that trust; it can lead to mistakes, and mistakes can lead you right back to the bench.
The Jets seem to have noticed, too. As part of their conversation with Niku, they pointed out he needs to level out defensively to make that jump to professional hockey. “I need to get stronger. I need to get faster” Niku said of his communications with the Jets. “My defending has to be much better”.
If this exhibition tournament is any indication, Niku’s already making progress. The Jets have been badly outscored, and yet, it wasn’t Niku who was picking pucks out of his own net. It’s about the only thing he didn’t do for Winnipeg in Penticton.
This is just one of the many trials Niku is going to face before he makes his NHL debut. It’s a good foundation, but nothing more than a stepping stone.
His biggest challenge this year is still on the horizon. Niku knows that the odds are stacked against an NHL debut out of training camp. The Jets are set on their blue line, with seven players on one-way contracts and each of them fairly established in their role with the club at that.
“I think I need to make a good [first] impression” Niku continued “maybe I’ll start at the AHL and play [well], and then move up.”
That’s how Niku would define a successful first season in North America. I’m sure the Jets would be thrilled, too. The odds of a seventh-round pick making the NHL in any capacity are so small as to be almost negligible.
Even if you look at Niku’s last season in the Liiga, it doesn’t look great. Using the pGPS (Prospect Graduation Probabilities System) to look at Niku’s last season, only 3.3% of players with a similar statistical and stature based profile have gone on to carve out a full-time NHL career.
Yet in an exhibition tournament full of players with professional experience and first round pedigrees, Niku distinguished himself. The numbers might not bear out a clear path to the NHL, but that hasn’t stopped him yet.