Sep 21: According to Elliotte Friedman of Sportsnet, Niku has cleared waivers. He can now have his contract terminated and become a free agent.
Sep 20: Somewhat surprisingly, the Winnipeg Jets have placed Sami Niku on unconditional waivers for the purpose of a mutual contract termination, according to CapFriendly. Niku was heading into the second season of a two-year one-way contract he signed in 2020 that carried an average annual value of $725K. That entire cap hit will come off the books with the termination and Niku will become an unrestricted free agent.
While usually these terminations are followed by a contract overseas, it does not appear to be the case for Niku. Chris Johnston of the Toronto Star tweets that Niku is hoping for a fresh start with another NHL organization and Europe is not his current focus. It’s understandable that the 24-year-old defenseman believes he can play at the highest level, given his dominance of the AHL and 54 games in the NHL.
Despite that early experience, it seemed obvious that Niku was not going to get regular playing time with the Jets this season after the team brought in several new options on the back end. Nate Schmidt and Brenden Dillon have joined the group, while Logan Stanley, Dylan Samberg, and Ville Heinola all represent young options that have passed him on the organizational depth chart. Niku played just six games for the Jets this season.
A seventh-round pick in 2015, Niku’s stock skyrocketed in the next few years, as he established himself as a top prospect in Finland. He found success at the World Juniors, winning a gold medal in 2016, found regular playing time in Liiga, the highest level of Finnish hockey, and then won the Eddie Shore Award as the AHL’s best defenseman in an outstanding rookie season in North America. That 2017-18 campaign, when Niku registered 54 points in 76 games for the Manitoba Moose, earned him a one-game call-up with the Jets and a regular role the following season. Since then things haven’t gone as smoothly, but there is still a lot of upside in the smooth-skating defender.
Of course, this is basically just giving Niku a chance to pick his next team. If the Jets had tried to send him down this season he would have required waivers, meaning any team in the league could have claimed him for that $725K cap hit (actually lower than the league minimum this season). A contract termination will allow him to negotiate with whoever he wants and find a spot where he can receive NHL minutes, if available. For teams looking for young assets, there are certainly worse gambles to take.