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Niku paired with Byfuglien in preseason debut

Defenceman adjusting to smaller North American rink

by Ryan Dittrick @ryandittrick /

WINNIPEG - Sami Niku will have one of the NHL's best - Dustin Byfuglien - riding shotgun as he makes his NHL preseason debut tonight against the Edmonton Oilers.

"I'm really excited. It's been an incredible experience at camp so far," the defenceman said following Wednesday's optional practice at Bell MTS Iceplex. "It's my first time in Winnipeg and on North American ice in general, so it's taken a bit to adjust to. The game is a bit different and the rink is a lot smaller, but overall it's been good."

Niku says the most difficult part of adjusting to the smaller ice surface has been less about the physical rink dimensions and more about the pace of the game.

Here, circling back and being "casual" with the puck just isn't an option, says Head Coach Paul Maurice.

"On the big ice, big defencemen - especially with a less aggressive forechecking systems that you see in Europe - there's way more time with the puck. You can bring it back, the team can change, you can wind it up, and that is completely different (here).

"I'd like to see him skate, use his legs, and then move the puck as quickly and as efficiently as (he) can. He's seen a lot of pucks (in practice). He's had to turn and go get it a lot with some of the battling we've been running, so he's going to get his best chance to look good."

Maurice had a similar plan for 2016 first-round pick Logan Stanley, who played more than 15 minutes on the top pairing with No. 33. Stanley had a shot, one hit and four blocks - the kind of eventful night you'd hope to see from a young defenceman playing his first game.

Niku is hoping to do the same.

"I don't want to do anything too complicated. I just want to play my own game - move pucks quick, clear the zone and if I can, get up the ice and (contribute offensively)."

It isn't all new for this raw blueliner, mind you. Niku has already had the experience of playing professionally against men, and is coming off a career year with JYP of the Finnish Elite League, demonstrating his impressive offensive qualities with five goals and 27 points in only 59 regular-season games.

He led his team with an average of 19:47 of ice time during the regular season and 20:32 in the playoffs to help JYP capture the bronze medal. (Patrik Laine's old team - Tappara - won the league championship for the 10th time in franchise history.)

Nineteen at the time, Niku was tied for the team lead during the regular season with three game-winning goals and tied for third with 201 shots. Over the past three seasons, he had 39 points (9G, 30A) in 109 games.

"It was a good season," Niku said. "I played a lot of minutes and was able to put up a lot of points. It was a good development year for me. I still need to improve on a few things like my defending, but I think I'm ready now to play (professionally) here."

Niku signed his signed a three-year entry-level contract with the Jets over the summer and is likely to play with the club's top affiliate, the Manitoba Moose, this coming season.

"I just want to learn as much as I can from the older players while I'm here," he said. "They all have so much (to offer), and tonight is going to be a good opportunity for me to soak it all in. It's important for me to pick up on everything as quickly as I can to show the coaches what I can do."

- Ryan Dittrick,

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