Jets have a perfect replacement for Toby Enstrom in Sami Niku
The Winnipeg Jets needed to find a replacement for Toby Enstrom – and fast.
With Winnipeg scheduled to play the next day in Philadelphia, Enstrom skipped last Friday’s optional practice to nurse the lower body injury that has been nagging him for weeks. When it became clear that he could miss Saturday’s game, Winnipeg found itself in a predicament.
Jacob Trouba has been out of the lineup for weeks. Dmitry Kulikov was injured midway through Winnipeg’s previous game. Joe Morrow and Ben Chiarot were already in the lineup. This meant that the closest available defencemen who had all of their limbs in order were with the Jets’ AHL team in Chicago.
As expected, Enstrom’s short term replacement was Tucker Poolman, whose best run of play in the NHL actually corresponds with a previous Enstrom injury. For 10 games earlier this season, Poolman and Chiarot were an effective but sheltered third pairing after Dustin Byfuglien joined Enstrom on the injured reserve.
On Saturday, however, shelter was nowhere to be found. For the first time this season, Winnipeg was forced to dress all three of Poolman, Chiarot, and Morrow in the same game.
It didn’t end well.
While Chiarot acquitted himself well with Byfuglien on the Jets’ makeshift top pair, Morrow and Poolman were hemmed in their own zone for long stretches of play. Chiarot led Winnipeg’s defensemen with a 53.9 per cent Corsi while Morrow and Poolman rounded out the bottom end at just 33.3 per cent each.
Poolman has played well in previous stints with Winnipeg – as difficult as Saturday’s game was for him, he remains Enstrom’s obvious short term replacement.
But Enstrom is an unrestricted free agent this summer. Winnipeg needs to be prepared to replace him not just in the short term but in the long term, too.
In my opinion, the best player to fill that role was left behind in Chicago – and he responded with a hell of a game.
With the Moose on the power play in the dying minutes of a tie game, Sami Niku set up Nic Petan for a one-timer that soon became Manitoba’s game-winning goal. It was Niku’s 31st assist of the season and his 43rd point.
Niku added another assist – his sixth point in his last five games – in Manitoba’s Sunday night loss to the Iowa Wild. With his 44thpoint, Niku is tied for the most points in the AHL by a defenceman – as a rookie.
It’s been a simply phenomenal North American debut for Niku, one that has me convinced that Niku is Enstrom’s spiritual successor. In Niku I see a brilliant, undersized defenseman with high-end offensive skills who can defend well enough to play inside the top four.
But I don’t want you to take my word for it.
For this piece, I reached out to Corey Pronman and Scott Wheeler, The Athletic’sin-house prospect experts, as well as Miika Arponen, founder of Finn Prospects and writer for the Finnish website, Kieeko Areena. I combined their words with numerical projections from previous articles by The Athletic’s Tyler Dellow and Namita Nandakumar in search of Niku’s ultimate NHL ceiling.
When the Jets drafted Niku with the 198thselection in the 2015 draft, the pick didn’t generate a lot of fanfare. Today, Wheeler says Winnipeg killed it with that pick.
“No matter what happens, that Niku, a seventh round pick, has become the player that he is today by age 21 already makes himself a steal,” Wheeler said. “He has been helped by playing on a very good Moose team, but I think he’ll be a top-four defenceman in the NHL in his own right. He’s the kind of player who could step into the NHL and make a good team like the Jets even better next season.”
In researching this piece, I tried and failed to find out what the local papers had to say about him on draft day. That’s in no way a slam – when a player is taken that deep and comes from Mestis, Finland’s second division league, it’s hardly fair to expect a 1,000 word column.
Interestingly enough, Niku seemed to know more about Winnipeg than we did about him.
“It’s a great experience to be drafted to Winnipeg,” Niku said at the draft, via a translator. “It’s a big hockey town. They have amazing fans.”
Niku went on to say that he liked Teemu Selanne but was not his biggest fan – if this shocks you, remember that they’re so far apart in years that Selanne was a Mighty Duck on the day Niku was born – before describing his own playing style.
“(I like) to play with the puck, (I like) to move the puck, and (I am) a great skater,” Niku said, again through his translator.
At the time, Niku had just finished his second season for JYP-Akatemia in Mestis, one step below Finland’s SM-liiga. With three goals and 22 assists in 32 games for JYP-Akatemia, Niku set the Mestis league record for most points by an under-20 defenceman.
I asked Arponen if he could put Niku’s season into context.
“It is the most any defenceman at his age has scored,” Arponen said. “Of course it is special, but to be honest there haven’t been very many prospects of that calibre playing in Mestis until recent years for some reason.”
Mestis was formed for the 2000-2001 season to replace Finland’s first division. Since the 2008-2009 season, top teams in Mestis have been eligible for promotion to the SM-liiga, which produces most of Finland’s top players like Patrik Laine and Joel Armia.
If Niku wasn’t as famous as other top Finnish prospects, Arponen says it’s because he played in Finland’s second best league – away from the public eye.
“Niku was well known among hockey people (in Finland) but not with the public, for example, like Sami Vatanen was. Fame among the public and mainstream media requires quite a big role (for the) junior national team, which Niku didn’t have.”
Niku did play for Finland’s world junior team in 2015 and again in 2016, when he won a gold medal alongside much more heralded Finnish prospects. With Patrik Laine, Jesse Puljujarvi, Sebastian Aho, and Olli Juolevi carrying the team, Niku didn’t get a lot of press.
Perhaps more importantly, Niku graduated from Mestis to the SM-liiga that same season. It wasn’t always a smooth transition for the 19 year old.
“In his first year in Liiga, he did struggle with bigger opponents,” Arponen said. “His skating skills were there and his offensive potential was obvious, which is why he had an average TOI of 10:14 and played in a very sheltered role in his first season. His second season was pretty much the same story with more minutes (15:14) but still a sheltered role.”
Niku registered 11 points in 38 games as a SM-liiga rookie, giving him the SM-liiga’s top points-per-game for players his age. In his second season, Niku took a major step forward, scoring 27 points in 59 games in 2016-2017. Once again, this was tops among defenders Niku’s age.
What were Niku’s biggest challenges?
“Last year, his biggest weakness was the physical side of the game. He got outmuscled by bigger opponents quite often,” Arponen said. “He also sometimes tried to force a bit too complicated plays with the puck, but that improved when he got used to the Liiga level.”
As the AHL’s scoring leader from the blueline, Niku has clearly taken yet one more step forward in his 21-year-old season. In December, Wheeler rated Niku as Winnipeg’s fifth best prospect (and with the trade of Erik Foley, Niku has presumably jumped to fourth.)
“Niku is a mobile, up-tempo creator who thrives best as a passer, rather than as a shot presence from the point,” Wheeler said in that piece. “What sets Niku apart from some of the other young defencemen in the AHL is that he’s also an excellent man-on-man defender. He’ll be an NHLer soon enough.”
How soon is soon enough? And how good of an NHL player are we talking about?
For that, let’s invoke some research. For this portion of the piece, I’m going to quote Tyler Dellow’s “When Do Defenseman Make It?” and Namita Nandakumar’s “Is Sam Morin taking too long? An analysis of NHL prospect timelines.” For the record, both of these are phenomenal articles and if you haven’t read them, they are well worth your time.
Let’s start with a discussion of how soon Niku should make the NHL. Dellow’s piece gives us this graph:
On this graph, Dellow has this to say: “Just over half of the league’s top four defencemen this year first played at least half a season by the time that they’re 21. About 80 per cent have done it by the time they’re 23.”
Niku turned 21 years old on October 10. Given that there are only 14 games left in Winnipeg’s season, there is precisely zero chance for him to hit 41 games. If Dellow’s look into history is any indication, Niku had better make the leap next season or the one after it – otherwise, he’s a bad bet to last in the NHL.
Nandakumar looked at the number of post-draft seasons it takes prospects to make the NHL (as defined by playing at least 40 games in a season.) Her work gives us this chart:
Niku was drafted in 2015 and is thus finishing his third season after being drafted. Per Nandakumar: “The median prospect who makes an NHL roster takes about four seasons to do so.” Put another way: if Niku plays at least 40 games next season, he will be approximately average compared to his peers.
Given that I’m projecting Niku as Enstrom’s long-term replacement and Enstrom is an unrestricted free agent this summer, it’s good to know that Niku would be making decent time if he makes the NHL in 2018-2019.
Dellow’s piece allows us to take things one step further by considering a prospect’s development route. Here is a similar chart to the one above which differentiates based on which league a prospect came from:
As we’ve already discussed, Niku was drafted from Finland’s Mestis league and thus qualifies as European for this chart. On European defencemen, Dellow had this to say:
“Fourteen top four defencemen took the European path and entered the NHL at 21 or younger. It’s a fairly glittery list (at least by conventional hockey wisdom standards), including Hampus Lindholm, Oliver Ekman-Larsson, Zdeno Chara, Rasmus Ristolainen, Adam Larsson, Oscar Klefbom, Roman Josi, Anton Stralman, Victor Hedman and Alex Edler. European defencemen entering the league at 22 or later are a much less impressive group: John Klingberg and Mattias Ekholm are stars but it’s otherwise more of a group of journeymen top four types — the Johnny Oduyas of the world.”
“Again, there are structural impediments that prevent Europeans from getting a shot at the NHL earlier in their career. They have to decide to make the move over to North America and there are pressures from the European clubs to stay and develop there. There’s likely a bit of an unwillingness to come to North America while they think it’s probable that they’ll spend significant time in the AHL.”
Niku is leading the AHL in points among defencemen and he’s doing it at 21 years old. To me, that’s a phenomenal result, but he’s not yet in the NHL. Based on Dellow’s research, if Niku were a surefire top four stud, he would have already made the leap.
Still, given that very good defensemen like John Klingberg and Mattias Ekholm fall into the 22 or later group, my optimism has not waned.
For context, Klingberg scored 28 points in 58 games as a 21 year old while playing for Frolunda HC of the Swedish league – good for a full-season NHL equivalency (NHLe) of 26 points.
At 21, Ekholm played for Brynas IF Gavle – also of the SHL – where he scored 17 points in 41 games for an NHLe of 20 points.
Niku’s 44 points through 61 games in the AHL translates to a full-season NHLe of 28 points.
To look at Niku’s offence in a different way, I pulled the top 200 offensive performances of under-22 AHL defencemen from 2005-2006 to now and sorted them by points per game. At 0.72 points per game this season, Niku ranks 12th in points per game for his age group.
With Justin Schultz’s otherworldly 1.4 points per game playing with Taylor Hall and Jordan Eberle during the 2012-2013 lockout excluded, here is Niku among his peers:
There are some very impressive names on this list, a group of good young NHL players in the early stages of their careers, and a few players who failed to carve out NHL careers. In the end, 13 of the 19 players listed here (Gragnani is listed at age 21 and again at age 22) are full time NHL players.
Here are what those 13 NHL careers look like in terms of points per game:
This isn’t an in-depth statistical study; it is just a list of comparables. Still, roughly two-thirds of the AHL defencemen who produced points at Niku’s rate from 2005 to now made the NHL and have averaged 0.49 points per game in the world’s best league. It’s not conclusive but it is impressive.
And while we know that offence isn’t everything, Niku compares well with Klingberg by NHLe and Sami Vatanen by points per game at the age of 21. If he enjoys that kind of NHL success, Niku will go down as the franchise’s best late round pick since none other than…
Toby Enstrom (No. 239 overall, 2003.)
Enstrom, if you’re curious, also played in the SHL when he was 21. He scored 11 points in 47 games, giving him a full season NHLe of just 11 points. Enstrom doubled his SEL scoring the following year and then played his first NHL season at age 23, scoring 38 points in 82 games for our very own Atlanta Thrashers.
Incidentally, appropriately, and a little bit hilariously, Arponen brought Enstrom’s name up without prompt.
“A very good comparison on Niku’s playing style is Tobias Enstrom,” Arponen said. “I think they play a very similar game – or at least how Enstrom played a few years ago. Very good skating, reads the game very well and has the hands to create plays. I think Niku’s upside is a top-4 D-man with power play time. Reaching 50 points like Enström in his prime may be unlikely, but I don’t see a reason why couldn’t play in a role like that.”
With so many signs pointing to an Enstrom-esque defender, it’s getting harder and harder for me to project Niku as anything other than Enstrom’s replacement.
Another factor in favour of this is cost. With Byfuglien and Tyler Myers already making $13.1 million between them and Trouba’s contract up this summer, Winnipeg would benefit tremendously from an affordable left-side option. Niku’s ELC could provide just that.
Put another way:
Given that Winnipeg will face a slight cap crunch the moment Ehlers’ $6 million contract hits the books next season, Niku’s cost savings vs. whatever contract Enstrom signs could be the difference between standing pat at next year’s trade deadline and going for another big fish like Paul Stastny. With Winnipeg poised to enter cap hell when Laine’s 40+ goals turn into a cap hit in the neighbourhood of $10 million in summer 2019, Niku’s emergence (and, ideally, Kristian Vesalainen’s too) might be necessary just to keep Winnipeg competitive.
I’ll get to a more in-depth look at Winnipeg’s salary cap situation in an upcoming article. For the moment, let us return to Niku. Is there anything that could hold him back from becoming a top four defenseman?
For this, I’ll close by turning to Pronman, who has long been bullish on Winnipeg’s 2015 draft.
“His main obstacle to being an NHLer is off the puck,” Pronman said. “He’s a little behind strength wise for where you would like a 21 year old to be. He’s not that imposing when checking men and while he can close gaps overall and has a good stick his defensive play could tighten up.”
Niku is currently listed at a non-behemoth six-foot, 194 pounds. While bigger than Enstrom is, Niku is a little on the small size for the NHL – but not by much.
And while the notion that young players can bulk up in the gym is something of an ancient hockey truism, Niku’s particular strengths may depend on his mobility. I’m not sure how much weight I’d want a player like him to add.
Pronman certainly sees the value in Niku’s agility.
“Sami’s biggest strength is his skating. He’s able to evade pressure so well and can lead a rush.”
“He’s got good puck skills, moves the puck well, and is a big reason why Manitoba has had such a good power play and overall team this season.”
Sure sounds like someone who can fill Enstrom’s shoes to me.
Finally, what does Niku think of his own transition to the North American game?
Speaking for himself this time, in English, here’s Sami Niku:
“I’m used to it,” he said, in October. No wonder things are going so well.
(Top photo credit: Terrence Lee-USA TODAY)