It wasn’t that long ago when Sami Niku was an afterthought for the Jets. After getting sent back down to the Moose out of training camp, the Jets were ready to roll plenty of others ahead of him on the depth chart. When injuries arose in November, Niku was called up and then proceeded to sit in the press box for nearly a month.
Fans were getting frustrated that their prized defensive prospect wasn’t getting an opportunity to play in the NHL. While it may have come later than some people hoped, Niku is currently getting his opportunity and he’s making the most of it.
The #Moose left Sami Niku off their playoff roster and head coach Pascal Vincent said today Niku is now a Jet and he’s not expecting him to be sent back.
— Russ Hobson (@russ_sportsguy) March 6, 2019
While some people were worried that Niku might have been surpassed by the trade deadline acquisitions, it appears that Niku is here to stay.
I believe that Niku shouldn’t just stay with the Jets, but he should stay in the lineup, even when everyone else gets healthy.
While you might argue that he still isn’t ready for a full time NHL job, I am going to say that you’re wrong, because Niku deserves to be playing on a nightly basis.
Niku has phenomenal skating ability. Out of all the Jets defensemen, Niku could very well be the best skater. He achieves his speed so effortlessly and can make tight turns so easily that it’s a joy to watch. This skating ability makes him strong on the puck retrieval as he can get into position quickly which gives him more time to make a pass. Even if the defender is right on him, his tight turns help him create the separation he needs to move the puck up the ice.
Niku was under pressure from two Lightning, spun off them both and fed to Chiarot with time and space. That clip would be my argument for 83/33 should the two ever dress at the same time.
— Murat Ates (@WPGMurat) March 6, 2019
This skating ability makes Niku feel totally different on the ice compared to someone like Chiarot or Kulikov. They both tend to retrieve the puck and use their strength to get it out. While this strategy can be effective, it relies on good bounces and plenty of help from the near side forward.
The second reason Niku needs to stay in the lineup is because of his offensive instincts. Niku’s skating not only helps him in his own end, but it also helps in the offensive end when jumping into the play. This play against Tampa is the perfect example as Niku made a great rush from the point and took the puck all the way behind the net. He showed great patience as he created separation behind the net before feathering a gorgeous pass to Laine in the slot. This play could have easily ended up in the back of the net and it was entirely driven by Niku.
Niku to Laine… We could get used to this! pic.twitter.com/pYo0pb2gWG
— JetsNation (@NHLJetsNation) March 6, 2019
While Niku’s offensive instincts are still potent, he tends to shy away from them at the NHL level. I believe his offense will start to show up as he gains more confidence against tougher competition. Niku already seems more comfortable on the ice than when he started this season and if that trend continues, he should be in fine form down the stretch.
This confidence seems to be the biggest issue with Niku right now. He has the talent to play in the NHL but he seems a bit tentative. This was more of an issue earlier in the season as the increased minutes have helped immerse him into the game as of late.
The other negative aspect of Niku is his advanced states. The numbers aren’t strong, likely due to the poor play of the entire team, but also because he hasn’t been able to get into a rhythm with so few games. The sample size is small, but Niku has a 44.37 CF% this season which would put him last among all Jets skaters who have played more than two games. With such a small sample, I decided to do some tracking myself to see if Niku has actually been getting better lately.
I looked at the last ten games and noticed something interesting, Niku has a CF% of 49.07% which is much better than his season mark. Even more importantly, the Jets as a team are sitting at 46.89% in that same span. This means that over the past ten games the Jets have been much better with Niku on the ice than when he’s on the bench.
The last reason that Niku needs to stay in the lineup is that he provides more value to the team than Kulikov or Chiarot. Kulikov definitely hasn’t been at his best lately and he’s turned into a liability with far too many penalties. He still has some good moments, but Niku could easily fill Kulikov’s spot.
The other interesting combination would be Niku and Byfuglien on the second pairing. Some have compared Niku to a young Enstrom with his size and offensive ability and that doesn’t seem too far off. Remember that historically Byfuglien and Enstrom have been really good together. Scratch that, historically Byfuglien and Enstrom have been phenomenal.
There are 103 pairings that have gotten 500+ minutes together in the last two seasons. These are the top 10 in xGF% (score-venue adjusted).
— CJ Turtoro (@CJTDevil) February 27, 2019
If Byuglien – Enstrom led the entire league in xGF% over the last two seasons, then imagine what Byfuglien could do with a younger and smoother skater in Niku.
Perhaps that’s the biggest reason why Niku should stay in the lineup. If he can fit alongside Byfuglien, the Jets will have a dynamic pairing for years to come.
Sami Niku is a good hockey player. This isn’t to say that he should be an All-Star or that he needs to play over 20 minutes per game. The point is that Niku is a definite upgrade over some of the other players that are currently being dressed. When Byfuglien and Morrissey come back into the lineup, there should still be a spot for Niku to play even if it comes at the expense of Kulikov or Chiarot.