Photo Credit: Jonathan Kozub | Moose Hockey

The Rise Of Sami Niku

At the end of the 2015 draft, the Winnipeg Jets made no headlines by drafting Sami Niku 198th overall. Just under three years later, Niku may be the steal of the draft.

With 27 points in 38 games in first AHL season with the Manitoba Moose, Niku has the potential to be the kind of player we point to when we say “look, seventh rounders can be important too.” He sits third in AHL defensive scoring, and first among rookie defensemen.

The Jets had already had a very successful draft to that point. We could (and probably will) devote an entirely different article to that. Niku was a pick when the Jets were already playing with house money, but they may have hit blackjack with the 198th pick in the draft.

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Niku has been a steady riser since his draft year. After his draft year, he won a gold medal at the 2016 World Juniors. In his draft year plus-two, he put up 27 points in 59 games in the Finnish Elite League and really put himself on the radar for Jets fans.

His performance at the young star’s tournament in Penticton was, for some fans, their first look at Niku. His smooth skating and sublime puck-moving skills stood out in every game. In many ways, he’s a prototypical modern defenseman.

Niku’s size doesn’t lend itself to throwing players around in the corners (he’s listed at 6’0 and 194 pounds on the Moose website but other sites have him closer to the 175 mark) but he defends well with his stick and footwork. And when the time comes to send the puck the other direction, he does so calmly and patiently.

Niku is tailor-made for the modern NHL, and we may see him there sooner or later, as his rise to prominence in the Jets organization has been quick and jaw-dropping. Right now it’s almost impossible to believe he was a seventh rounder.

Niku Transitions Seamlessly

As good as Niku was in the Finnish Elite League, the move to North America was always going to be a real test for him. He’s passed that test with flying colors in the early going.

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I could be here all day running down the list of promising young defenseman Niku is outscoring in the AHL this year. While they are different styles of player, it’s worth pointing out Niku has more than doubled the rookie goal totals of fellow left-handed defenseman Josh Morrissey in his first (and only) AHL season.

Niku is easily on pace to hit double-digit goals and over 50 points in his first season in the AHL. For a rookie forward that would put him on a team’s radar for a call-up. For a rookie defenseman, it’s exceptional.

Niku will get his opportunities with the big club next year, in all likelihood. Toby Enstrom’s contract is up, and even if he’s re-signed, there’s his recent injury history to consider.

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Ben Chiarot, who’s been the Jets seventh defenseman most of this year, is under contract next year but will be a UFA the year after that. Among left shooting defensemen, Niku is the best option to replace him.

After all, the Jets other left-shooting defensive prospects are likely years away. Logan Stanley needs AHL seasoning beginning next year, and it will be years before Dylan Samberg even gets that far, as he’s got a college career to round out.

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So who’s left to fill on the Jets left-hand side? How about an intelligent puck mover who has clearly been watching videos of fellow Finn Patrik Laine?

As mentioned, count me among those who initially thought Niku was a long-term project on the back end even after his breakout season in Finland. Niku has made a believer out of me, however.

He’s starting to make believers out of everyone else too. Much like Tucker Poolman before him, the once almost-forgotten defensive prospect is now earning constant attention from those covering the Moose. He’s forced everyone to take notice.

For a Winnipeg Jets team that, even after the signing of Dmitry Kulikov, has a depth problem on left defense, he’s a breath of fresh air. For a long time, the Jets were having trouble drafting defensemen and it showed in their games at the young stars tournaments.

Niku is proof that trend is slowly but surely reversing. Looking at the Jets crop of selections from last year, including Samberg and Leon Gawanke, the Jets appear to be headed the right direction as far as defensive selections go.

Meanwhile, add Niku to a 2015 draft that already included Kyle Connor, Jack Roslovic, Michael Spacek and Mason Appleton making an impact in the pros, and Erik Foley likely to do so before long.

We could also, while we were gloating a bit, check out Croix Evingson, a 6’5 left-shooting defenseman off to a good start to his NCAA career with U-Mass-Lowell.

But for now, it’s enough for Jets fans to be secure in the knowledge that the pipeline on the left side hasn’t run dry. In Niku, the Jets have yet another late-round steal. Now all that’s left to do is await his debut with the big club.