The NHL is ever-evolving, and a part of that evolution is the blueline. Gone are the days of the plodding, big hitting defenseman, and the Winnipeg Jets have plenty of puck movers.
The Winnipeg Jets feature Josh Morrissey, Jacob Trouba and Dustin Byfuglien on the blueline. Now, the man affectionately known as Big Buff is obviously quite the physical force, and he’s listed at a conservative 6’5, 265lbs.
But the man can move the puck, and that’s what the NHL blueline is all about. This is the Erik Karlsson game now. Control the puck, get it out of the zone and add more offense to the defense.
That being said, some undersized defenseman are making waves. The aforementioned Karlsson, Ryan Ellis, Shayne Gostisbehere, etc. Size is still important, but you can get by without it if you’re quick, can make good decisions, and know where to go with the puck.
The Jets picked Sami Niku in the seventh round of the 2015 draft, and he profiled as a late pick mostly due to his stature (5’11, 176lbs). Niku is a slight guy but he can move.
Niku’s got a really solid shot from the point as well, which, while it’ll fly under the radar due to Winnipeg’s other offensive options on the back end (Byfuglien, Morrissey, Trouba and even Tyler Myers), is still useful in limited capacity.
Case in point, he scored his first goal of the year, albeit in just 18 contests, against Columbus. Now, it’s clear that Paul Maurice doesn’t want to trust the rookie too much, and that’s understandable when the games are this important.
But despite acquiring Nathan Beaulieu and Bogdan Kiselevich at the deadline, he has to right now. The left side of the blueline is real thin, as Josh Morrissey is out with an injury and Myers, Trouba and the (also sidelined) Byfuglien are all righties.
Kiselevich and Beaulieu are both southpaws as well, as is Dmitry Kulikov, and none of those three inspire too much confidence. Kulikov and Beaulieu are steady, don’t get me wrong. Kiselevich has been ill and has yet to make his Jets debut. It’s unclear whether or not he’ll clear Niku out of the lineup, but I’d hope not.
Niku is a divisive prospect, which is actually a good thing, considering his draft position. Most of those seventh rounders aren’t interesting enough to be divisive. But he has a real shot and a real chance (nice) to carve out a role. Will it be this year?
I doubt it, but he’s got a chance with the injuries, even though the Jets wanted to acquire as much depth as possible so that he’s not a necessity. That’s nothing against him, it’s just…well, depth is good in the NHL. Especially when the playoffs come around.
But until Big Buff and Morrissey return, Niku will likely get opportunities. And if he continues to play like he did against Columbus, he might get to keep his role beyond that a bit.
And hey, even if not, he’ll be auditioning for next season. I don’t know if I even believe in Niku, but I’d like to see more of him. Especially considering the current alternatives (nothing against you boys, but you’re known commodities).
As fans and analysts, we always want to see the kids given a chance. See if they can sink or swim. It’s Maurice’s job, and the job of the entire front office, to make sure he doesn’t sink. So I get it. But c’mon, give us a little fan service for the stretch run.