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Sami Niku is getting his shot at the NHL.
The reigning American Hockey League defenceman of the year was called up to the Winnipeg Jets Sunday to take the place of blue-liner Dmitry Kulikov, who is expected to miss at least a month of action because of an upper-body injury.
Although Niku was not immediately put in the lineup Sunday night when the Jets hosted the New Jersey Devils, the 22-year-old Finn said he is thankful for the opportunity.
“Of course I was really happy that I was coming back here, and I hope I stay here and play good,” Niku told reporters following the morning skate. “My defensive game is better than last year. Of course (playing defence) is the biggest thing. I’m a defenceman, so I need to defend. The offence will come, I’m not worried about it.”
Niku has one goal and four assists in 12 games with the Moose this season. He missed one game last weekend as a healthy scratch after violating a team rule. Moose coach Pascal Vincent provided no details.
Niku scored 16 goals and added 38 assists in 76 regular-season games in his rookie campaign. He also made his NHL debut in a late-season recall with the Jets, scoring a goal against Montreal.
Joe Morrow stepped into Kulikov’s spot in the lineup Sunday, playing with Tyler Myers on the third-pairing. The top two pairs of Josh Morrissey-Jacob Trouba and Ben Chiarot-Dustin Byfuglien were unchanged.
Kulikov suffered an apparent shoulder injury after taking a hit from Colorado’s Gabriel Bourque in the first period of Friday night’s 5-2 victory. He doesn’t require surgery, but Maurice said he could be out longer than four weeks.
Niku, a left-shot like Kulikov, got the call over right-shooting Tucker Poolman. Jets coach Paul Maurice said Niku has continued to show growth and development on the farm.
“He’s a guy that because he’s a bit of an extreme player, he’s got really good offensive abilities there. But in the North American game, the NHL game and the Jets game, there’s a learning curve to that and he’s got some areas that he needs to improve,” Maurice said Sunday. “So as a man of his size, but with his skating ability, he has to learn how to defend a certain way against stronger guys that he would face over here.”
The Jets also added some forward depth to the organization on Sunday.
Centre Logan Shaw, 26, was signed to a one-year, two-way contract worth an average annual value of $675,000 in the NHL. The free agent had been skating with the San Diego Gulls of the AHL, scoring two goals and adding three assists in seven games.
Shaw has 180 career NHL games on his resume for the Montreal Canadiens, Anaheim Ducks and Florida Panthers, including 72 games last year for Anaheim and Montreal. The 6-3, 208-pounder from Glace Bay, Nova Scotia has 12 goals and 19 assists.
Shaw was placed on waivers Sunday and is expected to be assigned to the Moose on Monday if he clears.
Speaking of the Moose, it was a big night Saturday for rookie Kristian Vesalainen.
The 19-year-old Finnish forward scored his first two professional goals in North America, leading his team to a 6-2 victory over the Grand Rapids Griffins. Vesalainen has six points (2G, 4A) in six games since being sent down by the Jets to get some additional ice time. He also missed three games with an upper-body injury, returning to action last Thursday.
Vesalainen made the Jets out of camp, had an assist in his first game but was held scoreless in his next four contests before being a healthy scratch. He has an option in his contract to return to Europe this year if not playing in the NHL, but has yet to activate it at this point.
Winnipeg has just 22 healthy players on the active roster — one less than the league maximum — and it’s possible Vesalainen could soon be in line for a call-up if his strong play continues. The same could be said for reigning AHL rookie-of-the-year, Mason Appleton, who is up to 14 points (7G, 7A) in 13 games to lead the 7-6-0 Moose in scoring so far.
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Mike McIntyre grew up wanting to be a professional wrestler. But when that dream fizzled, he put all his brawn into becoming a professional writer.