Montreal Canadiens: Sami Niku to Fall Just Shy of Games Played Threshold, Will Become UFA

Dec 28, 2021; Tampa, Florida, USA; Montreal Canadiens defenseman Sami Niku. Mandatory Credit: Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports
Dec 28, 2021; Tampa, Florida, USA; Montreal Canadiens defenseman Sami Niku. Mandatory Credit: Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports /

The Montreal Canadiens picked up Sami Niku just before training camp began on a one-year contract.

The Finnish defender scored 14 points in 18 games for the AHL’s Manitoba Moose in 2020-21 and was called up for six games with the Winnipeg Jets. Though he seemed to have NHL potential, the Jets tore up his contract and granted his exodus from the blustery city.

The Habs scooped him up to add some depth to the roster on the back end, and they surely ended up needing it.

The Canadiens dealt with an incredible number of injuries this season. They have used 46 different players this season as they had a hard time filling out lineup cards at different points in the season. A difficult bout with Covid around Christmas, combined with several injuries resulted in them icing a couple of players who played most of the season in the ECHL.

So, Niku was needed, but apparently not that much.

There is a unique rule in the NHL’s CBA that allows little used players to become unrestricted free agents earlier than they normally would be. Typically, a player is a restricted free agent until he turns 27, or plays seven NHL seasons.

However, if a player is 25 at the end of a season, his contract is up, and he is yet to play 80 NHL games, he becomes an unrestricted free agent instead of restricted. This means he can sign wherever he pleases, and is completely free to negotiate with every NHL team without being shackled to his existing franchise for two more years.

With Covid wreaking havoc on the NHL for the past three seasons, that threshold was brought down to 73 games instead of 80.

Sami Niku played 13 games with the Canadiens this season, scoring six points. He looked fine as a third pairing defender who could join the offence and move the puck up ice. But, he was put on waivers in late January and sent down to the Laval Rocket. He was just six games shy of the 73 game threshold, but with so much time left in the season, it was expected he would be back in the NHL before season’s end.

Niku has not been back and will finish the season with the Rocket in the AHL.

Then, since the Habs didn’t call him up for six more games, he can become an unrestricted free agent and sign anywhere he wants.

Niku isn’t a top four defender at the moment, but he is just 25 years old and didn’t look out of place at the NHL level this season. It seems odd the Habs, the worst team in the league at the moment, couldn’t give him six more games to retain his rights for the next two seasons.

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