WINNIPEG – The preseason is nearly over, yet the fun is merely beginning for the Winnipeg Jets newly configured top line.
It’s important to not make too many snap judgments, especially since this was just the second game of action for the trio of Mark Scheifele, Kyle Connor and Nikolaj Ehlers. But the potential for them to be one of the most electrifying lines in the NHL to watch was on full display as the Jets comfortably defeated the Calgary Flames 5-0 on Wednesday night.
They’ve got speed to burn.
They’ve got three guys with lightning-quick releases and finishing ability.
They’ve got three guys with vision and they’ve got three guys who aren’t afraid to share or distribute the puck.
The only thing missing for them is a snazzy nickname. But there will be plenty of time for that should they stay together and find a way to continue to build on their strengths.
The hype machine usually goes a little bit out of control at this stage of the exhibition season, but these are three players with solid track records.
Scheifele has put together six consecutive point per game seasons. Connor is coming off a campaign where he produced a career-best 47 goals and 91 points in 80 games. Ehlers is poised for a breakout season after finally earning a promotion to the top line and first power play unit for the first time in his career.
What’s the ceiling for them?
Can they work their way into the conversation as being one of the most productive lines and earn league-wide acclaim?
“That’s not something we think about daily per say, but you bring it up, 100 percent. That’s our mindset,” said Connor. “Each player, if you ask individually, or if you ask me if we could be one of the best lines in the league, absolutely.”
Connor is not wrong — and he’s not the type of guy who says things to get attention or for effect.
This is something he feels strongly about.
And for a group that is highly motivated to have a bounceback season, Connor and company would love nothing more than to lead the way.
Not just offensively either.
They’ll need to get more than they give up on a regular basis. Especially when you consider the level of competition they’ll be facing most nights.
There’s always plenty of debate about whether teams should load up a top line or spread the wealth a bit, either throughout the top two lines or even sprinkle a bit more offence on the third line.
With Jets head coach Rick Bowness taking over, it was impossible to know which way he might lean. Especially since Connor found such great chemistry with Pierre-Luc Dubois last season.
Since the first day of camp, Bowness decided to roll with Scheifele between Ehlers and Connor and there’s plenty of good reasons for that.
“They’re all very creative offensively,” said Bowness. “They see the ice, they see each other, they know where they are. That’s how you play fast. You get the speed out there, you get the skill out there and the ability to read off each other and make plays.”
The question about whether this configuration can succeed will always circle back to how well are they going to play without the puck or defend.
But one thing that’s been noticeable since training camp is the effort being put forth in that area — whether it’s covering off for one another or for a pinching defenceman or using their speed to apply back pressure or to nullify an odd-man rush.
Provided that level of commitment remains, they could be a handful for opponents in all three zones and not just a high-level threat in the transition game.
“Yeah, we’re going to use our speed whenever we can, all over the ice,” said Connor, who scored twice, including a beauty at even strength that was set-up by Ehlers on a no-look backhand. “Where we can use that in the D zone, say it’s a change of side, our wingers, me and (Ehlers) going down and getting those pucks, just being quick and getting to spots. So we can have an out for each other as well.”
This will be the first time the three players are set to spend an extended period of time on the top power play together. On Wednesday night, they were involved in all three goals on the man-advantage.
Connor buried a perfect saucer pass from Sam Gagner (filling in for Dubois on the top unit) for the first goal, Ehlers found Scheifele for a beautiful redirection for the second and Ehlers closed out the scoring by burying a ridiculous cross-ice feed from Gagner to round out the scoring just past the midway point of the third period.
“You try to play the same way on the power play,” said Ehlers. “You don’t want to move it slowly just because you have one more guy on the ice. And I think we did that pretty well. We were moving the puck and that way plays open up. That’s something we’ve got to continue.”
The Jets improved to 3-1-1 in the preseason and they’ll close out their six-game slate on Friday with a rematch in Calgary against the Flames.
One of the understated storylines in Wednesday’s affair was the play of Jets backup David Rittich.
After a somewhat rusty outing in the exhibition opener against the Edmonton Oilers, Rittich has regrouped and given up only one goal over his final five periods.
That’s how you start earning the trust of the coaching staff and the players in front of you when you join a new team.
“When you get the opportunity to play, you’ve got to take advantage of it because if you play like that, the coach doesn’t hesitate to put him back in the next opportunity,” said Bowness. “There’s no hesitation at all. You play like that and you earn the trust and the respect of his team and his coaches. That also earns him another start.”
The starts won’t be as frequent once the regular season begins, but the Jets have several back-to-backs in the early portion of the schedule, so Rittich will need to be ready to give Connor Hellebuyck a breather.
After losing his starting job with the Flames in the bubble and barely playing as the backup to Juuse Saros with the Nashville Predators, Rittich realizes there is plenty at stake for him.
“Obviously, it’s great if you perform well. If you get saves and you get a shutout it’s nice. I don’t really care. Most important thing for me is that we got the win. That’s what matters,” said Rittich. “I mean, prove myself. Prove that I can be in the NHL. That is obviously the No. 1 thing for everyone who is going into the training camp.”
Much like Eric Comrie did in training camp last October, Rittich has taken the steps toward showing the Jets he’s ready to handle the 20 or 22 starts required out of the job.
As for the remaining battles for jobs on the Jets roster, things are beginning to come into clearer focus with another round of cuts looming in the coming days.
Although the competition for that job remains open, it’s tough to imagine Barron being outside of the 13 forwards expected to start on the roster.
Dominic Toninato was used on the penalty kill and scored a goal on a smart head-fake after coming out of the penalty box, but he remains in a healthy competition for a job up front.
It will be interesting to see if the Jets are willing to subject a player to waivers, try to move one of the players who require waivers or ultimately decide to send Heinola down for some additional seasoning and ensure that he plays big minutes out of the gate in the American Hockey League.
With Bowness saying during training camp that he’d like the blue line to go from 24 to somewhere in the neighbourhood of 40 goals this season, Heinola is sure to help increase that total. But there is still room for improvement when it comes to his defensive game.
The issue is that Heinola needs to improve his angles, body positioning and decision-making at the NHL level in order to take his game to the next level. It’s possible the Jets might ultimately decide to keep him around for some additional on-the-job training.
Bowness wasn’t handing out any clues when it comes to the competition. The bench boss did say numerous times that Friday’s lineup will be close to what he expects to use on Oct. 14 against the New York Rangers.
During his post-game session with members of the media on Wednesday, Bowness was asked if he’s seen enough to have a pretty good idea of which way he was leaning?
“Yes,” Bowness conceded. “Without a doubt.”
It won’t take much longer to figure out who is in and who is out, at least for the time being.
But what’s important to remember is that this is just the starting point and things can change dramatically over the course of a long season.
An assignment to the minors isn’t permanent and nor is a spot on the periphery of the roster, unless that player does enough to cement his status with consistent effort.