Kristian Vesalainen claimed the number one spot in our 2019 Jets Top Prospect rankings and you’d maybe expect that from a kid who was taken in the first round of the NHL draft. Sami Niku is second on the list which is remarkable when you consider he was taken in the seventh round of the NHL Draft, 198th overall. That’s 13 picks away from being skipped over completely which is the only thing that would make this more remarkable.
At the time those in the know understood what kind of steal the Jets may have just picked up in Florida, but even they couldn’t have anticipated Niku trending to be a top four NHL defenseman with a roster spot all but locked up on the Winnipeg Jets just four years later.
- Born: Oct 10, 1996 (Age 22)
- Birthplace: Haapavesi, FIN
- Position: Defense
- Handedness: Left
- Frame: 6’1″ / 194lbs
- Drafted: 2015 – 7th Round – 198 Overall
- Played Last Year: Winnipeg Jets (NHL) / Manitoba Moose (AHL)
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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.
The Rise Of Sami Niku – JetsNation (Jan 15, 2018)
“We expected him to take two or three months,” Moose Head Coach Pascal Vincent said. “Usually it takes until Christmas for Europeans to get used to it, but it got way faster than that. His adjustment was really quick.”
Manitoba Moose blueliner Sami Niku adjusting to life in new country – GlobalNews.ca (May 18, 2018)
Niku, the reigning AHL defenceman of the year, has quietly carved out a role with the Winnipeg Jets this season and seems unlikely to be heading back to the farm. Sure, it took several injuries on the blue-line for him to become a regular in the lineup. But he’s shown enough in that time to earn plenty of trust, and praise, from the coaching staff.
Trading in his antlers – Winnipeg Free Press (Mar 8, 2019)
What We Said At The Time:
Interestingly enough, when combining all the major European pro-leagues as one sample, the most successful player that is statistically comparable to Niku is none-other-than Jets’ very own Tobias Enstrom. Another European who was highly touted prior to the draft, but fell into the late rounds.
The real value though is in Niku’s performance as a 16-year-old. With 14 points in 20 games, Niku impressed many early. Scoring at a rate similar to Joni Pitkanen and Tony Lydman at the same age, Niku performed well enough to earn a PCS percentage of 22.2.
What We Say Now:
The concerns about Niku’s defensive ability have eased some as the last couple of years have gone by. Sure, there is still work he needs to do in being a little more physical in his own end of the ice and his decision making when it comes to defending is still off at times, but he’s improved by leaps and bounds since his AHL debut in the 2017-18 season which was evident in his winning of AHL defenseman of the year that season.
While injuries are what got Niku fast-tracked into the NHL somewhat, it’s his vision and ability to move the puck forward that kept him in the league even when teammates made their return. One could debate the merits of watching the NHL game from the press-box as opposed to going back to the AHL and continuing to get playing time, but in the case of Niku it’s perhaps safe to say that the combination of just being on the big club while getting to study game action and develop an understanding for how fast it is should be seen as an overall positive that has hopefully prepared him well for life as a full-time NHL player for 2019-20.