After an unpredictable off-season, which also lasted far too long, the Winnipeg Jets opened training camp earlier this week, meaning the coaching staff will have just 10 days to evaluate the entire roster and determine which skaters will be suiting up on opening night on Jan. 14.
Since the COVID-19 pandemic wiped out the preseason, limiting all 31 teams to just practices and scrimmages, the Jets could be forced to make some very tough decisions before the regular season opens, especially since they have several talented young players competing for roster spots. Unfortunately, these obstacles will likely prevent any skater that doesn’t already own prior NHL experience from earning a role to begin the season.
For someone like defenseman Sami Niku, who’s played 48 games in the NHL over his first three seasons, he doesn’t fall into that category of potentially being sent down due to a lack of exposure at the highest level of competition. While it appears he’ll probably start this season with the Jets, coach Paul Maurice currently views him as an extra blueliner and admitted the 24-year old will need to prove he deserves to receive consistent playing time.
"He's going to be in the line-up for the Winnipeg Jets at some point this year." Maurice on Sami Niku, adding he'll stay in that spot if he "takes off."
Says Niku is on the right path.
— Mitchell Clinton (@MitchellClinton) January 5, 2021
So how can Niku “take off” and force his way into the lineup on a regular basis this season?
Well, there’s no question he’ll need to find a way to stay healthy, which is something that significantly derailed his 2019-20 campaign. Thanks to three separate injuries – a lower-body injury, a groin injury, and he was also involved in a car accident right before training camp opened – the former seventh-round selection spent the first half of last season rehabbing and didn’t receive a clean bill of health until near the end of 2019.
Along with staying on the ice, it’ll also be crucial for Niku to make the most out of his limited opportunities during the first few months of this season, as he could serve as a healthy scratch through the majority of the 2020-21 campaign if his recent struggles continue. But considering the 6-foot-1 defenseman has only generated two goals and 10 points through 48 career games, it’ll probably be very difficult for him to take playing time away from teammates like Tucker Poolman, Derek Forbort, Luca Sbisa, and Nathan Beaulieu unless he takes a positive step forward.
Though he’ll need to climb the list of skaters ahead of him on Winnipeg’s depth chart, the youngster hasn’t played in a single live game since Feb. 18, meaning there’s a very strong chance he may encounter some rust over these next few weeks. If that’s the case, then the native of Finland could struggle out of the gate and it’s possible he might not hit his stride until closer to the middle of the season.
While no one is expecting him to replicate his stellar 2017-18 campaign in the AHL, where he posted 16 goals and 54 points through 76 games, although that’d certainly be welcomed, Maurice and his staff are probably just looking for him to produce effectively at both ends of the ice. Even if he receives just 14:00 minutes of ice time per game, which he did in 2018-19, the left-hander would still likely garner a ton of attention from the coaching staff if he performs well defensively and makes a strong impact in the offensive zone as well.
If both of those things were to happen, and there’s no guarantee they will, Niku might be able to carve out a future with the Jets and become a key part of their blue line moving forward. But since he’s set to become a restricted free agent after the 2021-22 campaign, now is the time for him to prove he belongs on this team and shouldn’t be traded next off-season or at any point beyond that.