WINNIPEG – “Superstar Sami Niku!”
Ben Chiarot fires the chirp as he sits beside the latest young, blond, cool, talented hockey player to crack the Winnipeg Jets roster and watches the media horde invade.
Injure a Jet, suspend a Jet, and they’ll fill that hole with another inexperienced player who looks like he has what it takes to stick.
In Niku’s case, he’s the best bet (if Tyler Myers can’t go) to supplant suspended Josh Morrissey Friday in Game 5 of the Jets-Wild series, which Winnipeg can clinch with a victory.
On Thursday, Niku — a left shot like Morrissey — practiced with the big boys at the MTS Iceplex, taking rushes with Jacob Trouba on the second pairing.
“I know I can play here,” said Niku. His English has yet to reach Patrik Laine levels, but his confidence is close. “I think I’m not guy who is nervous. It’s normal game for me.
“It’s really nice to know that I can play in the Stanley Cup Playoffs before I play AHL playoffs. It’s really nice to know.”
Niku is a 21-year-old from Haapavesi, Finland. He has been nothing short of awesome this season, his first in North America.
The kid sniped 16 goals, added 38 assists and posted a plus-17 rating for the Manitoba Moose this season. He was voted the AHL’s top defenceman to go along with his AHL First All-Star Team and AHL All-Rookie honours.
In his lone call-up to the bigs, April 3 in Montreal, all Niku did was score his first NHL goal on his first shot, regaining the lead just 24 seconds after Montreal had tied the game 3-3. (The Jets would go on to defeat the Canadiens that night 5-4 in overtime, and Niku logged 15:13.)
Post-game, coach Paul Maurice waxed poetic about his prospect with the gathered reporters: how Niku never flinched with the puck on his blade in traffic, how he was bold enough to hop up in the rush.
“Antifreeze in the veins, that’s the way he looked,” Maurice summarized.
Judging by that sneak peek at the Bell Centre, Bryan Little is certain Niku will be anxiety-free Friday night.
“For some reason, kids these days don’t get nervous. They just go out there and play really well,” Little said, shaking his head. “I was nervous every game my first year. He handled himself really well. If we need him, we’ll all be comfortable with what he’ll bring.
“Kinda like Patty [Laine], he’s got that confidence that he cannot just play but make a difference. It’s better to have that than be scared.”
Maurice has had a front-row seat to this generational shift. Laine, Kyle Connor, Nikolaj Ehlers, Tucker Poolman… they arrive with a certainty to match their skills.
Crazy thing is, Niku was a seventh-round gamble. Picked 198th overall in 2015, Niku built his skating and puck-moving skills over three seasons in the top Finnish league with JYP Jyvaskyla. He helped Finland win the 2016 gold medal at the 2016 world juniors.
“Doesn’t seem to be overly fazed by the stage,” Maurice said Thursday, before giving Niku some advice through the media.
“Run the right risk, right. If you skate real well and think you can get into a hole, then skate as fast as you can and get into that hole.”
With every new debut to the lineup — Jack Roslovic in Game 2, Tucker Poolman in Game 4 — Maurice asks the kid the same thing: “What are you good at?” Then tells him to bring it.
“We wouldn’t [be] looking for [Niku] to go out and decide to be a grinder now. He’s good at getting the puck quick and then moving it quick and then he can find those holes. That’s going to be true his whole career. Having the confidence to do it in a game that has more weight to it, that’s all part of that experience that so many of these young players have gone through. And they’ve all been able to do it.”
In light of the oft-injured Toby Enstrom ($5.75 million cap hit) tuning UFA on July 1, Niku should contend for a permanent spot in Jets’ top four this fall despite playing just once in the regular season.
Maurice believes the spotlight and pressures of junior tournaments accelerate the necessity to shed nerves early.
“These guys have had all the pressure on them by 18 or 19. I’m watching the goals they’re scoring and the way they’re snapping it around, that’s what we were talking about this morning,” Maurice says. An under-18 game is being waged at the Iceplex as he speaks.
“You never saw a kid come in and try something like that in his first four or five years. A toe drag is an insult on the ice to the defender. You’d get a stick across the arm. Now, that game we were talking about with Sami, we want them to play that game.”
The hair off the back of Niku’s neck flows as long as the hair of birthday-boy Laine’s chin. The two Finns have grown tight lately, with Niku coming over to eat Laine’s mom’s home cooking.
Just in case Niku needed a second helping of pressure to unfaze him Friday, Laine offered his expectations for his dinner pal.
“He has one game and one goal, so you gotta think he’s gonna score if he plays,” Laine deadpans.
“It would be huge for him. It’s a whole different game than the one he played in Montreal. He always likes challenges and he’s played in big games before, so I’ll be excited for him and for me as well.”