CALGARY — The odds are stacked against Sami Niku when it comes to cracking an experienced Winnipeg Jets blueline this year.
But the 21-year-old Finn is showing that he's not far away.
Niku and Nikolaj Ehlers, who notched the overtime winner, each scored twice on Monday as Winnipeg won 5-4 over the Calgary Flames.
CJ Suess rounded out the scoring for Winnipeg. Juuso Valimaki, Ryan Lomberg, Mark Giordano and Morgan Klimchuk scored for Calgary.
A seventh-round pick in 2015, Niku could turn out to be quite the find for an organization that already boasts a starting six of Dustin Byfuglien, Tyler Myers, Jacob Trouba, Josh Morrissey, Dmitry Kulikov and Ben Chiarot.
"When you look at Sami Niku what's exciting, yeah, he scored two and I get that, was where he was a year ago," said Jets coach Paul Maurice. "We liked him then, but in one year's time, he's moving differently on the ice. He's a little stronger, (has) a little more confidence, his reads are better in his own end."
Niku came over to North America last season and immediately impressed. In 76 games with the Manitoba Moose, he racked up 16 goals and 54 points, winning the Eddie Shore Award as the AHL's most outstanding defenceman — just the second rookie in 60 years to win the award.
"This has been a big camp for me, this game was my best game," said Niku, who has four points (two goals, two assists) in three games.
Quiet-spoken, don't let his laid-back attitude fool you, says Chiarot, his defence-partner on this night.
"Any good player in the NHL has that swagger and has that confidence and he's got it," says the veteran. "It's just a matter of time before he gets a good opportunity and is able to show his stuff up here."
Down 2-0 early, Niku's goal with 12 seconds left in the first period ignited a rally that would see the Jets score four straight goals.
Showing great poise, Niku patiently strode towards the Flames net before picking the low corner on Mike Smith.
Niku's second, which gave the Jets the lead, came on another wrist shot, this time from the blueline with the puck deflecting off a Flames player and getting past Smith.
While Niku admits his defensive game requires the most work, it's getting better. A lanky kid at six-foot-one and 192 pounds, he may never have the strength of some blueliners, but he's got other assets that can make up the difference.
"What he's learning now is that everybody defends differently in this league, depending on your abilities," says Maurice. "So, Dustin Byfuglien has a certain style of defence and Sami Niku's is going to be completely different but the end result is about being effective.
"Can he close the gap? He doesn't have to be a physical force the way he skates and he's got a great stick. He's going to learn to use those things and not give ice. He can be as aggressive as (Byfuglien) or some of the other defencemen, just in a different way."
Joe Morrow, who is on a one-year, one-way deal, is the favourite to be the club's extra defenceman. Tucker Poolman will also factor in the mix.
But down the road, Niku is a guy to remember.
"He reminds me a little bit of Toby Enstrom, who I played with for a bunch of years here," Chiarot said. "Maybe a little bit more offensive on the blueline, moving back and forth, but moving the puck, defending-wise, very similar to Toby."
Enstrom played 719 career games with the organization, before returning home to Sweden this off-season.
Notes: Both teams sat many of their regulars. Johnny Gaudreau, Sean Monahan, and James Neal were among the many veteran Flames forwards not in uniform. The Jets dressed an even-less experienced squad with Blake Wheeler, Mark Scheifele and Patrik Laine not in uniform.
Darren Haynes, The Canadian Press