When the Calgary Flames return to action Thursday night at home to Pittsburgh, there’s a chance Jaromir Jagr will be back. The 45-year-old has missed the past 10 days with a lower-body injury after getting two assists in his first five games.
That’s the good news for Flames fans. The bad news is that, if No. 68 does come back, it will likely cost Mark Jankowski his spot as the third-line centre. The 21st-overall pick of the 2012 draft, Jankowski doesn’t have a point in his four NHL games this season, but has taken big steps over the past year in the AHL.
A six-foot-four, 202-pound centre, Jankowski was always somewhat of a project prospect since being picked out of the Midwest Prep Hockey League. He spent four years at Providence College after his draft day and last year was his first full season with the AHL’s Stockton Heat, where he posted 56 points in 64 games.
But even after a strong showing at camp, Jankowski couldn’t crack the NHL lineup and found himself back on the farm. At 23, he is in a place in his career when most players are finding their footing in the world’s top league and those who don’t usually start to fade. Of the 30 players chosen in the first round of his draft, Jankowski is 29th in games played with five, ahead of only Henrik Samuelsson who has fallen to the ECHL. Olli Maatta, picked one spot after Jankowski, is off to a great start in the Penguins’ top four, and Michael Matheson, taken two spots after Calgary’s pick, signed an eight-year deal worth $4.75 million against the cap just a couple of weeks ago.
“I was frustrated to get sent down like any player would. You want to be up here,” Jankowski told Pat Steinberg of Sportnet 960 The FAN’s The Big Show. “For me, my mindset was to go down there and just dominate every shift and every game. If I went down there and sulked and said, ‘Why me?’ and stuff like that, I think I wouldn’t have been playing as well and it would have delayed the process to get back here.”
Dominate he did, with two goals in his first game of the season, and four in his first three games. Jankowski got in six AHL games before being recalled following Jagr’s injury, and he scored a point in five of those. In all, he has eight points in six AHL games.
Back in the NHL, Jankowski has taken Sam Bennett’s spot on the third line, moving the snake-bitten centre off to the wing where he’s a better fit right now. Flames fans are mostly happy to see another first-rounder finally get his crack, but the coaching staff has sheltered Jankowski by starting him in the offensive zone on 68.2 per cent of his shifts. As you’d expect in that situation, Jankowski’s line (mostly with Bennett and Kris Versteeg) has outshot its opponents, but the centre has won just 47.5 per cent of his draws.
Jankowski has been held pointless and since he’s exempt from waivers, unlike some other struggling forwards, he’s the obvious choice to head back to the AHL once Jagr is healthy.
When that time comes, it’ll surely be another disappointing reality for Jankowski, but like we hear so much in sports these days, he has no choice but to trust the process.
“It’s been a great experience,” he said. “It’s been a great process. Ever since I was drafted here in 2012 I wanted to play at the Dome in front of the ‘C of Red.’
“They’ve been patient with me, I’ve been patient, and I think it’s paying off now.”
The past 10 days have at least been another stepping stone towards full-time NHLer status for Jankowski, but it looks like he’ll have to wait a bit longer to attain it. This 23-year-old on the cusp isn’t about to fade. He seems determined to force his way into the conversation for a spot on the Flames.