Today we conclude the defenders portion of ‘Off-Season Targets’ with a look at a lesser known option. The Edmonton Oilers are going to be in salary cap hell moving forward, that’s the reality when you have to pay elite talent like Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl.
In order to succeed with elite talent on the books, teams need to have young players on cheap contracts and veterans on value deals. Finding useful players in the draft, and in other team’s systems, is vital to success.
The Winnipeg Jets are a legit Stanley Cup contender, and have a very deep prospect pool. That’s why a player like Sami Niku, a young puck-moving defender, could shake loose.
Why Is He Out There?:
Really, Winnipeg isn’t shopping Niku. He could shake loose, however, if the Jets look to add a piece this summer to push themselves over the hump. In addition to that, the Jets could use Niku in a package to move up the draft board or to add a prospect in a different area.
Winnipeg has Jacob Trouba, Josh Morrissey, Dustin Byfuglien, Tyler Myers and Tobias Enstrom already on the NHL depth chart, with prospects like Logan Stanley, Dylan Samberg and Jan Kostalek bubbling under.
With depth on the NHL roster and in the system, perhaps the Jets move Niku for help elsewhere.
What Does He Do Well?:
Niku is a smaller player, standing at 6’1” and 176 pounds, but he possesses strong offensive instincts and speed. He posted 16-38-54 in 76 AHL games this past season, emerging as an impact rookie in the league. Niku also made his NHL debut during the 2017-18 campaign, scoring a goal and posting an even rating in his one outing.
Niku came to North America after a strong 2016-17 in the SM-liiga, posting 5-22-27 in 59 games as a 20-year old. He went from impact offensive defender in a strong European league to impact offensive defender in the AHL. Not bad.
Here’s a look at Niku from Dobber Prospects
Jamie Zadow, April 2018: Niku has been a revelation for the Moose in the AHL this season. In his first taste of pro hockey in North America, the Finnish defenseman hasn’t disappointed, tied for the league lead amongst blueliners with 52 points through 71 games. He’s a smooth skater that’s not afraid to jump in on the rush and has great vision when quarterbacking the powerplay. Selected in the 7th-round of the 2015 NHL Entry Draft, it looks like the Jets got themselves another steal.
Zadow, September 2017: He shares a similar game to fellow countryman, Tobias Enstrom, and could push for a Top four role on the Jets blue line one day. Of course, Niku will need some seasoning before he is comfortable with the North American style and will gain plenty of experience with the Moose this season.
Where Will He Play/Where Should He Play?:
It’s tough to say that Niku is ready for a top-four role, in fact I don’t think he is at this point. It’s pretty apparent, however, that he is ready for a third-pairing role in the NHL. His AHL performance as a rookie indicates he’s an impact player at that level.
As a left-shot D, Niku is probably the fourth best option in Edmonton. Oscar Klefbom, Darnell Nurse and Andrej Sekera are all better NHL players at this time. I have Kris Russell as a right-shot D in the current look, but he’d also slot ahead of Niku right now if he played on the left.
If Edmonton moves out a left-shot D or two, say Klefbom for a RHD and Sekera or Russell for cap reasons, Niku would have a perfect spot on the third-pairing in Edmonton.
What Will He Cost:
Niku has the potential to be a value contract. He has two years remaining on his entry-level deal, which counts $775,000 on the cap. In terms of trade cost, it’s tough to say.
Could Niku be used in a package by Winnipeg to move back into first round, up to tenth overall? There would have to be other pieces involved, but it could be a match. What about a more veteran defender like a Russell or Sekera, with salary retained?
It’s tough to find a match here between these teams when it comes to a trade. The best bet? Winnipeg wants to move back into the first round and packages Niku to get there.
Bargain shopping is going to be key for Chiarelli and the Edmonton management team. Identifying young players bubbling under in other team’s systems will also be key. Edmonton needs as many contributing youngsters as possible. A team like Winnipeg, who has tons of prospects and a deep depth chart, could be ripe for the picking.
Even if Niku doesn’t project to be an NHL difference maker right away, he’s a player with a high ceiling who could be part of Edmonton’s core for a long, long time. If Peter Chiarelli is looking for cheaper options on defense, this would be a nice avenue to explore.