Niku determined to stick with Jets

Sami Niku apologized Friday after disclosing he doesn’t read the papers and, thus, wasn’t rattled by rumours suggesting the Winnipeg Jets might just trade him away.

“I’m sorry. I don’t personally read anything about me or what’s going on,” the 24-year-old defenceman said during an afternoon phone chat. “So, I don’t know anything like that.”

Niku, locked up Thursday with a new, two-year contract with the Jets, is a nice guy, quick with a smile and always willing to talk. But he’s also a pretty terrible fibber.

“I heard something about trading or something but I didn’t really care about that. It’s just rumours. So, when it’s real, it’s real. I just don’t care about those rumours,” he said. “This is where I want to be and the goal was to sign here.”

The slick-skating Finn was a restricted free agent but inked a deal that carries an average annual value of US$725,000, whether he’s in the NHL or suits up with the Manitoba Moose of the American Hockey League. He is no longer waiver exempt.

It’s identical to the budget deal forward Jansen Harkins agreed to earlier this week. The Jets have just one restricted free agent left to sign, forward and 2015 first-round pick Jack Roslovic.

Niku was plucked in the seventh round of the 2015 NHL draft and immediately became one of the organization’s most promising young players. He showed plenty of offensive flash when he left Finland’s pro league and joined the Moose for the 2017-18 season, earning the nod as the AHL’s defenceman of the year. He even scored a goal in his NHL debut in the spring of 2018.

Since then, however, he has struggled to nail down a role with the Jets, playing just 47 games the past two seasons and amassing limited numbers, just a second career goal and eight assists. He’s also been a defensive liability at times and that part of his game remains a work in progress.

Niku said he wasn’t in a position to ask for the moon, particularly when the salary cap remained flat at US$81.5 million owing to COVID-19.

“Of course, I know teams probably want to pay less during these times, so I don’t mind the money in my contract,” he said.

Winnipeg has as many as 10 blue-liners competing for six starting spots and one or two depth spots. The logjam on the left side includes Josh Morrissey, Derek Forbort, Nathan Beaulieu, Luca Sbisa and Niku, while prospects Ville Heinola and Dylan Samberg are also in the mix. Neal Pionk, Dylan DeMelo and Tucker Poolman play the right side.

Niku said he’s undaunted by the numbers and figures he’s got plenty to offer to rise up the depth chart.

“I’m really happy about my off-season and I’m getting stronger. I just have to be really, really good when the season starts and do my best. I’m really confident that when I play my own game and be really, really good in the (defensive) zone, then I will get a spot,” he said.

Niku said he hasn’t spoken to general manager Kevin Cheveldayoff or head coach Paul Maurice in some time.

Niku is 6-foot-1 and 203 pounds — up 10 pounds from this time last year and 30 from the day he was drafted. From a growth standpoint, the gains haven’t just been physical, he said.

“I was a young, little kid when I came here and I could say that I’m a different person. I understand what I need to do to get better and to get into the lineup. I understand what I can and can’t do. There’s a big difference,” he said. “Before I came here I was used to playing the power play and being the top D-man on the team, so I wasn’t used to fighting for my spot, you could say.”

Niku remained in Winnipeg with his partner and their young son when the NHL regular season shut down in March, although he joined the Jets in the Edmonton bubble for the playoff series with the Calgary Flames but didn’t play.

Since then, the young family has been keeping to themselves.

“We don’t go out almost at all. We just stay here and have been feeling really safe,” he said, adding he’s been skating twice a week and was joined recently by the Jets captain. 

“Blake (Wheeler) has been there the last two weeks, too, at the Rink (Training Centre). But it’s been just the two of us.”

Twitter: @WFPJasonBell

Jason Bell

Jason Bell
Assistant sports editor

Jason Bell wanted to be a lawyer when he was a kid. The movie The Paper Chase got him hooked on the idea of law school and, possibly, falling in love with someone exactly like Lindsay Wagner (before she went all bionic).

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