Following an impressive rookie campaign, the Winnipeg Jets were hopeful defenseman Sami Niku would be able to take another step forward with his development and emerge into a meaningful role during his sophomore season. Unfortunately, that promising plan couldn’t come to fruition this past season.
After the Jets lost key defensemen Jacob Trouba, Tyler Myers, Dustin Byfuglien, and Ben Chiarot last offseason, the team was desperate for one of their internal blueliners to step up and play significant minutes in a top-four role. While Niku had an opportunity to earn significant playing time heading into this past season, a trio of injuries prevented him from accomplishing that feat, which definitely played on his emotions throughout this past winter.
Starting the regular season off on a rough note, the 23-year old was involved in a car accident that occurred the night before Day 1 of training camp, which forced him to miss a handful of the team’s preseason games. To make matters worse, the left-hander suffered a groin injury during his first game back on the ice, keeping him sidelined for nearly a month and a half after that contest.
Despite recovering from his groin injury in October, the Jets decided to send Niku down to the AHL to earn some regular playing time with the Manitoba Moose. But after just 16 games – scoring three goals and 12 points – the 6-foot-1 blueliner suffered his third injury of the season and the pain was so severe he couldn’t even skate for an extended period of time.
Thankfully, the former seventh-round pick finally received a clean bill of health toward the end of 2019 and spent the second half of the season up in the NHL. That said, head coach Paul Maurice didn’t exactly put him in a position to succeed, as he was moved back and forth between the team’s second and third defensive pairings.
Over his 17 games with the Jets, Niku averaged just 16:10 minutes of ice time, producing five assists, 27 shots on net, 19 blocks, 16 hits, along with only a pair of takeaways. But despite averaging nearly 20:00 minutes of ice time through two of his final three contests before the league’s shutdown, the former top prospect didn’t play a single second during his team’s playoff run, which has further sparked the conversation about whether he could be traded this offseason.
Even though the FreeNiku hashtag has been trending across social media over the last few months, and rightly so, it just doesn’t make sense for Winnipeg to trade such a young player who owns less than 50 games of NHL experience. While there’s been plenty of tension on both sides off the ice, there’s definitely a chance to start repairing that relationship and that opportunity will likely present itself very shortly, as the youngster is slated to become a restricted free agent and will need to be re-signed before next season begins.
Coming off his three-year, $2.75 million entry-level contract there’s a very good chance Niku will be looking to sign a short-term bridge deal this fall, which could allow him to command a long-term contract before his age-26 season. If the relationship with the front office is still toxic at that point, then the Jets could look to move on from him and hopefully maximize his value on the trading market.
But if Winnipeg is keeping the Finland native around for the next two seasons, or perhaps even longer, they need to provide him with enough playing time that he can make a strong impact at the NHL level. As a result, this additional ice time would likely allow him to replicate his impressive offensive performance from the 2017-18 campaign where he scored 16 goals and 54 points in the AHL.
Considering the Jets’ blueline is expected to feature many different names next season, that should open the door for Niku once training camp opens if he’s still on this team. But if he survives this offseason, then he’ll be motivated as ever to compete for one of the top-four spots and to prove he deserves to be respected as one of the league’s top young defensemen.