New Start for Niku
What’s Happening: For a player who was the AHL’s top defenseman in 2017-18, Sami Niku’s recent history hasn’t gone as well as anticipated. While only a 2015 7th round pick, Niku had shown a great deal of promise coming out of Finland’s Liiga. After his impressive AHL rookie season, putting up 54 Points in 76 Games with the Manitoba Moose, he earned a spot with the Winnipeg Jets in 2018-19, putting up 4 Points in 30 Games.
However, since then, he’s spent more time sitting out than playing, with 5 Points in only 23 Games over the past two NHL seasons. After recently being bought out by the Jets, the Montreal Canadiens have given him a new opportunity, signing him to a one-year, $750,000 contract. While he may start the season lower in Montreal’s depth chart, the signing is low-risk, high-reward for the Canadiens and Niku’s opportunity will be limited by him alone.
Can the Habs Compete for a Cup? For the most part, the squad that brought the Canadiens to the 2020-21 Stanley Cup Finals is largely intact. The two most notable changes are David Savard filling Shea Weber’s spot and Christian Dvorak replacing Jesperi Kotkaniemi. However, with the departure of Phillip Danault, the Canadiens are likely to have lost some defensive effectiveness and will need everyone to help fulfill his former responsibilities. Nonetheless, the Canadiens have depth up front, with two serviceable NHL forwards expected to have to sit out.
Whether the Canadiens will go deep this season depends largely on goaltending, team defense, and if youngsters Cole Caufield and Nick Suzuki can pick up where they left off. That said, in such a tight division at the top end, it’s just as possible that the Canadiens lose out to all of the Boston Bruins, Florida Panthers, Tampa Bay Lightning, and Toronto Maple Leafs, let alone a team from the Metropolitan Division for a Wild Card spot. So, can Montreal get back to the Finals this year? It seems unlikely, but everyone said the same thing last year; in other words, with such parity in the league, the Canadiens will be wholly responsible for their own destiny.
How About the Jets? Since we’ve already talked about the Jets and it was the Canadiens who spoiled their 2020-21 playoff run, it’s a great time to look at their chances this season. On the subject of defense, this position was the thorn in Winnipeg’s side since the departure of Dustin Byfuglien. But finally, defensive depth appears to have been resolved, with Jets’ General Manager, Kevin Cheveldayoff, picking up Brenden Dillon and Nate Schmidt via trades this offseason. Conversely, the Jets now have some vacancies up front, having lost Mason Appleton to the Seattle Kraken via expansion draft and Mathieu Perreault to the Canadiens via free agency.
However, their stellar top nine is largely intact and young players like David Gustafsson, Jansen Harkins, and Kristian Vesalainen should be able to fill the gaps. Having lost Laurent Brossoit to the Vegas Golden Knights via free agency, the biggest question mark is behind 2020 Vezina Trophy winner Connor Hellebuyck. To get critical wins when Hellebuyck needs a rest or in the unfortunate event that he gets injured, having only played in 9 NHL games, it seems awfully unlikely that Eric Comrie can get the job done. So, if Hellebuyck can stay healthy and with a weaker Central Division than in years past, the Jets look like they have one of their best opportunities yet at competing for the Cup.