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Here’s a question that at the start of this season, and really through much of this past summer, I didn’t think I’d still be asking in November of 2019…

Why is Sami Niku still in the AHL?

Thankfully I’m not the only one asking this question. Other people with actual access to Jets Head Coach Paul Maurice have been wondering the same thing as well and when he was asked it on Thursday afternoon in Florida ahead of the Jets game against the Panthers, Maurice’s comments were bit head scratching to say the least.

About 2:45 Paul is asked “What would it take…” in terms of having the Jets call Niku back up and Paul’s reply breaks down into the following points…

  • The Jets have eight defensemen. Sami would be nine.
  • He “needs to develop” in the AHL. Specifically wanting him to play with the puck and work on his ‘defense’
  • They like what he’s doing in the AHL.
  • He also likes how the Jets are doing with their own defense so there is no “urgency” to call him up.

To those points I would argue the following:

  • Luca Sbisa and Anthony Bitetto can easily sit in the press-box. Heck, you can send one or even both of them down to the AHL in return. Sure they might not clear waivers, but then that’s one or even two less defenseman you have to worry about, right? There is no way either of those two are better than Niku. Problem solved right? Make it an internal 2 for 1 deal and now you are only carrying seven defensemen.
  • Fair point that he needs to develop, the question is will he do so by shutting down the likes of Jason Robertson of the Texas Stars and Chris Terry of the Grand Rapids Griffins?
  • Wouldn’t “doing well in the AHL” be a really good reason to call someone up to the NHL?
  • The Jets are currently sitting a a -6 goal differential and thanks to Charting Hockey, we can see they are bad at both generating offense (second last in xGF/60) as well as preventing it (only the Sharks, Blackhawks and Rangers have higher xGA/60).
Courtesy: ChartingHockey.com

All four of Maurice’s points seem rather ridiculous.

As I reflected on Maurice’s comments last night and this morning, I kept thinking to myself, did’t we already go through all this with Niku clearly belonging in the NHL and yet the Jets stubbornly keeping him in a league where he won the award for Defenseman of the Year”? The answer to that was yes, a little over a year ago…

Dear Jets, It’s Time To Call Up Sami Niku

“So yes, he needs to work on his play in his own end of the ice, no one denies this. But is he really going to improve in that department in the AHL? He already near dominated the league last season with 16 goals and 54 points, so how much more can he get going against the same level of talent a second time around?

Sure, he’s going to make mistakes at the NHL level and some of them might even cost the Jets a goal or two. The kicker in that though is that you can make that same statement for five of the Jets seven defensemen who have seen ice time this season.”

And here we are a year later, Niku is back to being overwhelmingly good in the AHL while we watch defensemen with the NHL club making mistakes that somehow Niku wouldn’t be allowed to make in the NHL level for… reasons.

The futile quest for a “complete player”

At this point, we know what Niku does well and what he needs to work on and the Jets argument for keeping him in the AHL is he needs work. As Manitoba Moose coach Pascal Vincent told Jacob Stoller of Inside AHL Hockey, they have two certain aspects of the game they’d like him to improve…

“It’s the 1-on-1 battles that he needs to improve,” Vincent said, while noting that Niku is progressing, albeit somewhat, in that area of his game. “The other thing we told him that he needs to get better at is making sure that our goalie sees the puck when there’s an attack to the net.”

So, in other words the Jets are looking for Niku to be a really good stay-at-home physical defenseman that can win battles and make sure the front of the net is cleared out? How many current defensemen on the Jets can do that now on a nightly basis? Maybe Josh Morrissey if he’s having a really good game.

I don’t know if anyone has noticed, but one of the Jets biggest issues this season has been letting opposing teams into high danger scoring areas as they’ve practically given up the slot area for long stretches of time.

If the Jets are waiting for Niku to be that type of player that can help them in that area before giving him a full time NHL role, then I have some very sad news for them. At the age of 23, an even 6′ tall and less than 200 pounds, I somehow doubt Niku is grow any more to be the type of player and make sure no one is standing in front of a Jets goaltender or crashing the Jets net.

It would be a shame if the Jets missed out on potential offense being generated from the blue line – something they’ve had no problem settling for in this current season – simply because Niku wasn’t a “polished” NHL defenseman. If nothing else, Sami could be helping in part of the game.

But that’s where we are now. Paul Maurice and the Jets are seemingly waiting for Niku to turn into a physical two-way defenseman in the AHL and somehow have convinced themselves that Dmitry Kulikov and Luca Sbisa are somehow better options.