WINNIPEG – Training camp 2.0 has entered its second week and the Winnipeg Jets used Monday’s session to work on special teams for the first time since returning to the ice as a group.
As far as training camps go, there haven’t been nearly as many headlines to monitor when you compare things to last September, when Kyle Connor and Patrik Laine were absent because of a contract stalemate and Dustin Byfuglien was granted a personal leave of absence and never returned.
There has been only one player who has yet to take part in any of the on-ice sessions with the group and that’s depth defenceman Anthony Bitetto, who remains “unfit to play” and missed a seventh consecutive day.
It’s fair to say the Jets eased into things, using the first two days to focus on drills related to hands and feet and designed to help the group get back up to speed.
The Jets don’t feel like they’re playing catch-up by any means as they continue preparations to take on the Calgary Flames on Aug. 1 to open the best-of-five play-in series.
“It’s the first time I’ve ever been through this and the first time any of us have ever been through this, so we’re kind of making it up as we go a little bit,” said Jets captain Blake Wheeler. “The most important thing is to have our team playing as close to full speed as we can for that first game in Calgary. We still have time to build toward that. There’s no sense of us coming out on Day 1 and trying to find that speed and that intensity and have it cost us a week or two down the road. That doesn’t make any sense.”
“We’re doing a good job of building some of the grind and some of the battle into our practices, getting guys up to that sort of compete level.
While some teams have spent more time on the intrasquad game component, the Jets had only one so far – a tilt consisting of two 20-minute periods that included four goal scorers who are unlikely to be in the lineup for the series opener next month.
“You take four months off and kind of have a short camp and away you go into playoff hockey,” said Jets head coach Paul Maurice, noting he’s had conversations with players about the amount of scrimmage time that is necessary during training camp. “They all feel that scrimmages, at times, create as many bad habits, because you can’t finish checks, you don’t block shots and you don’t do some of the other things that you would see in a game. You finish checks, but it’s not the same. We don’t want to develop any bad habits.”
There is no playbook on how to run things during a global pandemic, where teams haven’t seen game action since early March but will be expected to find playoff intensity on Aug. 1.
That’s part of the fascination with watching how the post-season is going to unfold.
On to your questions in the first edition of the Jets mailbag.
Has there been any word on Dylan DeMelo re-signing? — @hockey_anna
There’s no doubt that trying to convince the defenceman to stick around is a priority for the Jets going into the off-season.
Jets general manager Kevin Cheveldayoff now knows he’s going to be dealing with a flat salary cap of $81.5 million, but has more short-term flexibility to make a move or two this off-season when compared to last summer, when inking new deals with Connor and Laine was going to take care of the majority of the available funds.
How will a flat cap impact DeMelo’s value?
That’s tough to predict at this point, though one of the most important variables to consider right now is how important is it for DeMelo to test the waters on the open market, especially after being part of three organizations since September of 2018?
It’s safe to say he’d be looking for some stability, though it’s possible he takes a shorter-term deal with the idea that the economics in the NHL could be improving a few years down the road.
DeMelo’s value stretches well beyond the traditional numbers, so he won’t be looking for a high-priced contract.
But as the type of player who makes his defence partner better, there will be ample competition for his services should he get to the open market.
When it comes to his role, DeMelo figures to be partnered with Josh Morrissey on the top pairing for several years to come, so that could play into the final decision as well.
Here’s what DeMelo had to say when I broached the subject of being a pending unrestricted free agent and whether or not conversations about an extension had begun:
“There hasn’t been much conversation yet in that regard, and I think we see with the way the world was, I don’t think that was obviously a topic for discussion,” DeMelo said during a zoom call. “But I think I’ve fit in here very well, and I think there’s definitely a possibility of that in the future, of possibly re-signing here. And if that is the case, I would definitely welcome it, I enjoyed my time here so far. Even from the outside when I was with Ottawa and San Jose I always valued how this team played and the coaching staff and organization and bodies in that room.
“So it’s a great team to be a part of. We’ll worry about that when the season’s done, though, and focus on a good playoff run here and see how far we can go. Obviously, the further your team goes, the more success you have as a team, individually usually everybody kind of prospers. My focus right now is on this team and what I can do to help us get to that Cup, and I think everything will take care of itself in the end.”
It’s not uncommon for someone to make a positive public declaration like DeMelo did. It’s standard, but he’s been genuine in expressing his views on the move since his arrival and it wouldn’t be a surprise if he makes a commitment to remain with the Jets.
DeMelo is going to get a raise from the $900,000 he made this season. He deserves a substantial rise and the Jets have the ability to give him one – and to continue to put him in a position to play a valuable role.
That’s why the fit looks like a good one for both sides, though it’s important to remember there will be significant competition for DeMelo’s services.
If Connor Hellebuyck is slow out of the gate, what do the Jets need to do to have a chance? Do you think Paul will let them run and gun and try to win games 5-4, or do you think because this format is so crazy that we might see Laurent Brossoit starting Game 3 if the first two showings are poor? — @PharmaMag1
Goaltending is of the utmost importance at this time of the season and it’s an even bigger factor when it comes to a best-of-five series to begin.
Hellebuyck has been a pillar of consistency for the Jets this season and I don’t see a scenario where he’s not starting in net for them, regardless of how he plays during the first two games.
The only way Brossoit gets a start is if Hellebuyck suffers an injury.
Should Hellebuyck not be as sharp as he was during the regular season, there’s a chance the Jets could get involved in some 5-4 games that would be reminiscent of the Smythe Division days.
But the focus for the Jets going into the series would be to stay strong defensively and be closer to the template that allowed them to have success, beginning in late January and through the pause in early March.
So, in your opinion, what will win this play-in series… Offence or defence? — @rdsurgeyooper
It’s a great question and part of the beauty of all of these opening series is that it’s nearly impossible to know for sure how teams are going to look coming off a break that will nearly be five months by the time the puck is dropped in Game 1.
There could be a number of low-scoring affairs or a pond-hockey special sprinkled in where the red light at each end gets a serious workout.
The most educated guess I can make right now is that it will be a combination of offence and defence that is going to allow one of the two teams to move into the 16-team tournament.
As it stands right now, the Jets would appear to have the edge in goal with Hellebuyck.
On paper, the Flames have an edge on the blue line, but the Jets have a few more game-breakers up front.
It’s a coin flip series – or it most certainly was based on what we’ve seen from the two teams heading into the pause.
Do you think Jansen Harkins sees any playoff hockey? — @PitbullOVR
If the Jets go on any type of playoff run, you can expect Harkins to get a shot to contribute.
Whether it’s through injury or a performance issue that opens the door, Harkins is definitely near the front of the line when it comes to the forward depth chart.
The fact he’s been used at centre throughout training camp showcases his versatility – and would allow him to enter the lineup either down the middle or on the wall as a winger.
Nobody in the organization made a bigger leap than Harkins this season, going from fringe prospect to bona fide NHLer.
It’s only a matter of time before he’s in the lineup. You can bet he used the time during the pause wisely and he’ll be ready to go whenever his number is called.
What are your thoughts on giving playoff games to a veteran lineup vs. developing younger players? (Jansen Harkins vs. Nick Shore, Nathan Beaulieu vs. Sami Niku) — @tylermcduffe
From a philosophical standpoint, I have no issue whatsoever with a coach choosing a veteran player, an inexperienced prospect or someone with limited NHL experience as a starting point.
Harkins has far greater offensive upside than Shore at this stage of the proceedings and his hockey sense allows him to be a dependable two-way player.
But when it comes to the role he’s being asked to play, that’s where Maurice favours Shore, who is a valued member of the penalty kill and is one of only two right-shot centres who takes draws with regularity.
Harkins hasn’t spent much time playing centre at the NHL level yet and that’s another reason why it appears Shore has the inside track to be on the fourth line for Game 1.
As for the question on defence, although he’s a pending unrestricted free agent, Beaulieu is under consideration to be brought back next season.
Niku’s season has been an unmitigated disaster so far, beginning with the training camp car accident with fellow Finnish prospect Kristian Vesalainen and continued with a variety of injuries that included a groin pull and several other ailments.
Just when it looked like Niku might actually get back into the lineup in late February, he suffered a lower-body injury while playing two-touch prior to the pre-game warmup.
For a guy who was expected to see regular duty this season, being limited to just 17 NHL games was an obvious disappointment.
It was clearly a step backwards.
Niku still has the potential to be an NHL regular and since he’s no longer exempt from waivers next season, that opportunity should come as early as next season.
Does he need a change of scenery in order to make that happen?
It’s still a bit early to make that bold proclamation, though a trade would not be out of the question.