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Photo Credit: © James Carey Lauder-USA TODAY Sports

2020 RFA Spotlight: Sami Niku

It’s Sami Niku’s turn under the microscope for today’s edition of the 2020 RFA Spotlight. We will have one more post to wrap up the series where we will take a quick look at all of the other pending RFA’s for the club.

In case you have missed it, we have looked at Jack Roslovic, Mason Appleton, and Jansen Harkins thus far.


Niku’s career certainly hasn’t shaped up as he envisioned. It’s been an interesting trajectory for Niku who went from a seventh-round afterthought in 2015 to the AHL defensemen of the year just three years later. That success at the AHL level hasn’t turned into NHL success yet as it’s been a frustrating few seasons in Winnipeg.

Niku played his most NHL games during 2018-19 as he suited up for 30 games. It looked like this past year would be another step forward for Niku to be able to turn the corner and become a consistent NHL contributor. Instead, the Jets loaded up with veteran blueliners like Sbisa and Bitetto who both suited up ahead of Niku on the depth chart.

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It was these puzzling decisions that had many fans frustrated during the year.

It’s obvious why so many fans want to see Niku develop. He has a tantalizing skill set with great skating ability and offensive instincts. The Jets severely lack mobility on the back end so it’s logical that Niku would be able to help that problem by using his great speed and passing.

Sure, there might be some growing pains for a year or two, but the only way to get better is by actually playing.

The biggest issue with Niku’s young career is the lack of playing time. In the past two seasons, Niku has played in only 85 games out of a possible 164. Some of that is due to injury, but much of that is because of his time spent in the press box.

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That time spent in the box then leads to the biggest question surrounding Niku. Is it justified? Many fans would say no, that it’s just Maurice benching a young player, but let’s take a look at some numbers.

When comparing every single Winnipeg Jets player over the past two years (minimum 300 5v5 minutes), Sami Niku ranks second-last in CF% with a terrible 43.92%. Only the aging fourth-liner Gabriel Bourque was worse in that regard. When looking at FF%, Niku is actually last among all Jets players.

The real worrisome part is that it gets even worse when looking at expected goals. The Jets only controlled 38.80% of the expected goals over the past two seasons with Niku on the ice. Once again, that is last among any player with over 300 minutes in the last two years.

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Just for reference, that 38.80% puts Niku as the 8th worst player in the entire NHL in the last two years. Clearly, the Jets get severely out-played every time Niku touches the ice.

For the visual learners it’s easy to see the issues when looking at the shot maps.

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The Jets aren’t dangerous at all with Niku on the ice. The big blue section at the top means the Jets get far fewer chances in front of the net with Niku on the ice.

Conversely, it’s just as bad on the defensive end with the Jets giving up absolutely prime scoring chances when Niku plays.

Essentially what I’m trying to say is that fans maybe shouldn’t be too hard on Maurice for sitting a player who literally gives them the worst on-ice results.

Don’t get me wrong, I believe Niku can turn into a productive NHL player. He needs to be given a chance and be able to learn from his mistakes. That’s the only way to get better. Unfortunately, Winnipeg isn’t really in a situation where they can afford to have a player with poor results because their margin for error is so slim given their current roster. In addition, there is no easy way to shelter Niku. If he played with Morrissey or Pionk it would mean a much tougher assignment. On the other hand, if he plays with Beaulieu or Poolman, the pairing would probably struggle and there wouldn’t be any sort of mentorship aspect. If only the Jets still had someone like Toby Enstrom to take Niku under his wing.

All that being said, I really hope Niku’s given a better chance this season. Letting him play a year on the third pairing would likely help his game tremendously. If things don’t work out, it’s possible to part ways in the future.

Because of the uncertainty around Niku’s game and if he even fits in the current lineup, he will likely sign a short deal. A one or two year deal gives him a season to prove himself while not tying up too many years into the future for Winnipeg. The salary shouldn’t be more than the league minimum based on what we’ve seen so far. There’s no arbitration to worry about, so a deal will need to get done if Niku wants to keep playing in Winnipeg.

The last, and definitely most important piece to mention about Niku is that the magical flow has been retired. It came as a shock to many people as Niku’s been rocking the luscious locks for many years.