There will be people out there who are surprised to see a seventh round draft pick, from 2015 no less, ranked above some of the players that just missed, but Sami Niku brings a really nice skill set and an impressive resume despite his draft status.
Niku has spent most of his junior career going up against older players. He jumped out of his under 16 league and began to face 18 year olds when he was 14. He jumped to J20 at 15 and he has been playing primarily against men for the last two seasons. This led to a lot of hype. Heading into last season, Niku was thought to be worthy of a pick in the first three rounds. Even leading into the draft he was given a third or fourth round grade by many third party scouting services. He fell. The Jets got a good one.
AIH Authors’ Thoughts:
Sami Niku already has experience playing professionally and against men. He has played well in these scenarios. As a 17 year old, Niku finished top 10 in defensive scoring (per game) in Finland’s second tier pro league. That is dang solid.
Perhaps even more interestingly, his numbers weren’t far off those of Julius Nättinen – 25 points in 39 games vs 29 points in 39 games. Julius is a forward and a second round pick. Niku has some impressive, skating and vision, these work in concert with his impressive offensive instincts. At 6’0, Niku isn’t small, but he is slight and he has to work some on his defensive game, but he is a very intriguing late round pick.
At least Chevy took a LHD with one of his 2015 picks! As a 7th-round flyer, who knows what he’ll turn into, but it’s nice to see him playing well during the junior showcase this summer. Will he be a diamond in the rough for the Jets? Looking at the LHD depth in the pipeline, he’d better be.
Sami Niku is a small, quick defender already being compared to our own Tobias Enstrom. After an impressing debut on the Finland U20 squad as a seventeen year old, Niku needs a few more years of development in Finland before being ready for a shot to take on the NHL.
Left hand shot, something the team needs but is certainly what one would look at as a project. Needs to bulk up, hopefully we’ll see more of him once the world juniors starts up.
7th rounder D in 2015. skates well. Good passer. Smart with puck. Needs to gain some weight and seasoning. Lowest ranked D on Depth chart, and for that, could be surpassed by future draft picks.
A LHD? How is that possible? Certainly a curious move to take only one left side D in the draft and a later pick too. Seems to be an excellent value pick, but will he be an impact player or even an NHL player?
I will admit to being outrageously high on Sami Niku, but this kid can play. In 2013-14, he was the only 1996-born player in the Mestis, Finland’s second-tier hockey league. In 2014-15, with the promotion of Aleksi Salonen and Valtteri Kemiläinen to the Liiga, Niku became JYP-Akatemia’s main offensive driver from the blueline, jumping from just 3 points in 30 games the previous year to 25 points in 39 games (by comparison, 23 year old teammate D Olli Aitola scored 23 points in 56 games). Niku’s regular season point totals put him tenth among all Mestis defencemen; those above him played an average of approximately 51 games, and the next youngest was a full four years older. The reason Niku saw just 39 games in the Mestis is that he also graced the Liiga with an additional 12. While he averaged a grand total of 10:14 minutes, this still made him one of only six U19 defencemen to play 10+ games at Finland’s top flight.
After being drafted, Niku through a translator described his game as, “he likes to play with the puck, he likes to move the puck and he’s a great skater”, and he’s exactly right. Despite a thin build of 6’0″ and 176 pounds, when the puck’s on his stick he’s no wilting flower. Confident in tight spaces and under pressure, he’s unafraid to hold the line and keep the play alive in the offensive zone. With a defender to his back, Niku is adequate at using both his body and mobility to shield the puck. Speaking of mobility, the kid is not only fast but able to accelerate quickly, doing both with a silky smooth delivery. This enables him to jump into the rush, something he’s more than willing to do.
Niku has a decent shot, including a solid snapper from the point and high slot, but passing ability is definitely the greater offensive strength. He’s able to make tape-to-tape cross-ice and stretch pass feeds, the kind necessary in today’s NHL. Coupled with his ability to find seams and squeeze the puck through traffic to forwards hanging around the net, it’s no wonder that Niku can quarterback a power play.
As with many youngsters, that aforementioned frame will need to bulk up over the next few years. Questions surrounding Niku’s ability in his own zone are a bit more worrisome, but there again is an issue common among young players with notable offensive talent. I’ll take the player who needs to develop his defensive decision-making but can move the puck with confidence, over a Stone Hands Stuart every day of the week.
While his favourite player may be Alex Pietrangelo, Niku realizes that he’s a different kind of cat, and his game is perhaps patterned more after another Blues defender in Kevin Shattenkirk. He also has a very relevant potential role model and analog in fellow Scandinavian Tobias Enström, though both comparables likely require a “poor man’s” prefix. Niku has already shown that he can not only survive but thrive against men at a professional level. The question now becomes what he can do against stronger competition as he makes the leap from Mestis to Liiga.
As you can see in the video above, Niku has excellent spacial awareness and he is able to create seams, then exploit them. These are the sort of skills that can drive opposing teams crazy. Hopefully they are transferable to the next level. If they are, the Winnipeg Jets could have a sleeper on their hands.