Photo Credit: © Perry Nelson-USA TODAY Sports

Dear Jets, It’s Time To Call Up Sami Niku

To: Kevin Cheveldayoff, GM Winnipeg Jets Hockey Club
From: Pretty much all Winnipeg Jets fans

Chevy, the Jets defense has struggled at times so far this early season and that’s not unexpected given the lineup you’re putting on the ice, but we’re starting to think that if the defense is going to struggle at actual defense, then they may as well bring in a kid who struggled with it in the pre-season and let him learn on the fly in the name of player development.

Wouldn’t you agree Chevy?

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I’m sorry, may I call you Chevy? I guess I should go with Mr. Cheveldayoff, but I don’t want to be that formal with you. This isn’t that kind of talk. You’ve been the Winnipeg Jets General Manager for eight seasons now and I feel like you and all of us Jets fans have become pals if not family. You’ve shown us pics of your beautiful cottage, we’ve seen you dance and thought it was so good we added even better music to go with it.

Most fans would agree that we’ve liked what you’ve done with the team for the most part over the last few years – save for the odd bad move or in some cases non-signing – so this isn’t an angry post of any kind. Think of this as a little “come to Jesus” type talk.

Or in this case, a “have Sami Niku come to the NHL” talk.

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Chevy, it’s time to call up Sami Niku. Deep down in your heart you probably already know this.

I don’t have any fancy stats or numbers to throw at you for this argument. At least, not any more than what you probably already have at your disposal. I just have plain ol “hockey man logic” to plead my case with.

Niku was outstanding for the Manitoba Moose last season, earning not just AHL All-Rookie team honors, but an AHL first all-star team nod as well as the Eddie Shore Award as the AHL’s top defenseman. The kid was also pretty good in this past pre-season as well.

What more does he have to prove?

We get that your hand may have been forced by contracts. Ideally you don’t want Dmitry Kulikov and his $4.3 million sitting in a press box. It’s also probably not ideal if Niku ends up getting more minutes than $5.5 million man Tyler Myers. Maybe Paul Maurice – knowing that he already had to deal with youngsters like Jack Roslovic and Kristian Vesalainen – didn’t want to add one more rookie player into the lineup. All of this is understandable and when you have a player like Niku who can be sent back down to the AHL without having to clear waivers and is just 22 years old, it’s an easy play to stash him back with the Moose.

It also helped you had a bit of a built in excuse to send him down: “He needs to work on his defense. He needs to work on his zone exits.”

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Even the most ardent Niku supporter couldn’t deny this to be truth. Niku himself knows it’s a fact and said it as much in the same game he had a two goal night against the Calgary Flames.

“It wasn’t that good game for me. I scored those two goals, but that was the only good thing in that game. My offensive game was OK. But, yeah, defensive game could be much better.” Niku exclaimed before adding a strikingly honest job description; “I’m defenseman. My first thing is defense. Goals are not enough.”

So yes, he needs to work on his play in his own end of the ice, no one denies this. But is he really going to improve in that department in the AHL? He already near dominated the league last season with 16 goals and 54 points, so how much more can he get going against the same level of talent a second time around?

Sure, he’s going to make mistakes at the NHL level and some of them might even cost the Jets a goal or two. The kicker in that though is that you can make that same statement for five of the Jets seven defensemen who have seen ice time this season.

Chart courtesy: Evolving Hockey

I said I wasn’t going to throw fancy stats at you so I’m sorry I just did. It’s normally not my thing, but there are too many defensemen on the “bad” side of this expected goals chart even with it being just a small sample size early on in the season to just ignore.

It’s become even more painfully obvious with Dustin Byfuglien out of the lineup for the last two games that this defense struggles with shot suppression and zone exits. How would putting Niku into the lineup make this even worse?

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Is Sami Niku going to learn to get better in his own end defending someone like a Gerry Fitzgerald from Iowa or a Justin Dowling from Texas? Or is he going to get better in his own end defending someone like a Eric Staal from Minnesota or a Tyler Seguin from Dallas?

Is he going to get pointers on how to defend in the NHL from Tucker Poolman and Logan Stanley? Or should he maybe get them from Dustin Byfuglien and Jacob Trouba?

This may all seem like a “what have you got to lose” type approach to which you’ve probably argued “I have plenty to lose early on this season” and that’s a fair point Chevy. As the old saying goes: you can’t earn a playoff spot in October, but you can sure lose one.

But you only need to look to Kyle Connor from last season to see that there has already been precedent for something like this. Last season KC started in the AHL because the thought was he “wasn’t ready”, he played four games with the Moose and then was called up with the Jets forward group facing early injury issues. 76 games and 31 goals later, I think we can say that it worked out pretty well.

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No reason the same can’t happen for Niku. Just like Connor was last season, Niku is ready for the NHL this season.

Chevy, Mr. Cheveldayoff, It’s time to call him up and then talk to Paul Maurice to get him into the lineup.

  • The Jets are patient, too patient with many of their draft and develop players. Both Niku and Poolman should be up with the Jets taking turns playing in games as they can’t be any worse than Morrow and Kulikov. Its also time Petan and Lemieux get a chance to play in some games as well.