It was a year of learning for Sami Niku who spent most of the season in the NHL, but much of it in the pressbox. Niku struggled for ice-time all season long until injuries began piling up late in the season. He managed to play 30 games during that span and had a number of ups and downs. Today’s logbook examines the season of the young Finnish defensemen.
83 – Defense
6’1″ / 176 lbs / Age: 22
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Niku is heading into the final year of his ELC and comes in at a price of $775k this season. Niku is eligible to sign an extension this summer, but I don’t think a deal will get done until next year. Niku will want to prove himself at the NHL level for a full year before signing his next contract. It’s going to be tough for Cheveldayoff to sign Niku to an earlier extension as Niku will most likely ‘bet on himself’ and try to earn a bigger reward next summer.
Player’s Season in Review
It was an awkward season for Niku who started the season with the Moose before making his way up to the big club when some injuries arose. At that point, Niku was called up just to sit in the pressbox and help out during practices. He spent a month in that situation and many fans were distraught that the young prospect wasn’t getting any game action in the NHL or AHL. Things changed in late November as Niku suited up for his first game of the year against the Blackhawks.
Niku played in five games before sitting in the pressbox for another month. This time, even more injuries came up and Niku was a mainstay in the lineup until the end of the season.
Niku’s stats definitely don’t jump off the page. He finished the season with one goal and three assists in 30 games while averaging 13:55 per game. He spent almost all of his time playing alongside Ben Chiarot as Niku was filling in for the injured Byfuglien for a few months.
Niku’s boxscore stats aren’t pretty, but his underlying metrics are way worse. Niku finished with the worst on-ice xGoals of all Jets players with a terrible 39.8%. He also finished last on the team in scoring chances for % with 41.99%. Of the eight Jets pairings that had 100 minutes together, Niku and Chiarot were second last in CF%, last in xGF% and second last in actual GF%. Those are some really poor numbers for the young defensmen.
I’m sure it won’t come as a surprise, but Niku’s shot maps are just as bad as the rest of the underlying numbers.
As you can see, the team gets far fewer opportunities with Niku on the ice. To make matters worse, the team gives up far more opportunities with Niku on the ice. It’s a bad combination when both the offensive and defensive shot maps don’t look good.
It could definitely be argued that Niku was put in a position to fail. He was playing with Ben Chiarot, who has been carried by Byfuglien in the past and is hardly the best player to mask a teammates deficiencies. The other aspect of filling in for injured players is that the play of the entire roster went downhill. So not only did Niku get paired with a tough player to play with, but he also came into the lineup just as the team was starting to sputter. Both of these items definitely had an effect on the numbers for Niku.
Even though conditions weren’t favourable for Niku, he still had a bad effect on his teammates. As you can see by this chart, every single player Niku played with got better when they played without him. Niku on the other hand was worse when he was apart from any of these teammates. It would seem that others had to carry Niku for much of the year.
The interesting part of Niku’s season is that many people thought he was performing well. His excellent skating ability allows him to chase down pucks easier than most defensemen and his strong passing skills are able to formulate a clean breakout. The area that Niku seemed to struggle in is that he looked a bit tentative as the puck moved up the ice. Niku thrives on offense, but he appeared to be scared of making a mistake and instead played a very safe style. Those safe plays hindered Niku’s game because he didn’t look as comfortable on the ice and was far too tentative in the offensive zone.
As the games wore on, Niku started to show better instincts and began to just play hockey. If he can continue to do that down the road, he will become a very capable defensemen.
What We Said A Year Ago
“I could be here all day running down the list of promising young defenseman Niku is outscoring in the AHL this year. While they are different styles of player, it’s worth pointing out Niku has more than doubled the rookie goal totals of fellow left-handed defenseman Josh Morrissey in his first (and only) AHL season.
Niku is easily on pace to hit double-digit goals and over 50 points in his first season in the AHL. For a rookie forward that would put him on a team’s radar for a call-up. For a rookie defenseman, it’s exceptional.”
It’s tough to say what the future holds for Niku. It would seem that he’s capable of playing in the NHL and more seasoning in the AHL likely won’t help his game at this point. With the Jets trading Trouba and likely not signing Myers, there’s two spots up for grabs that Niku will be fighting for. Don’t be surprised if Niku is in and out the pressbox to start the season until he can prove his value on the ice.