WINNIPEG — The Winnipeg Jets play their first pre-season game of the year Monday night on the road versus the Edmonton Oilers. Just before camp kicked off last week, I had a chance to chat with several Jets, covering topics such as Josh Morrissey’s ascent, the bounce-back potential of Bryan Little and, of course, the status of Kyle Connor and Patrik Laine.
We also covered lots of ground I haven’t had a chance to write about, so let’s empty out the notebook so you can learn why Morrissey thinks the team will have a chip on its shoulder, why Andrew Copp will miss Jacob Trouba so much and where Little thinks Laine can improve if he returns to the fold.
Jets enter season with chip on shoulder
Even if the Jets weren’t dealing with the contract standoffs of Laine and Connor, there’s no denying it was a tough summer given the fact three big defenceman — Jacob Trouba, Tyler Myers and Ben Chiarot — left the team. Winnipeg, which made the 2018 Western Conference Final before losing in the first round of last year’s playoffs, has also seen rivals like the Colorado Avalanche and Dallas Stars improve themselves, solidifying the Central’s reputation as the NHL’s ‘Division of Death.’ Morrissey believes all that has changed people’s perspective on a club that entered last year as a firm favourite in the West.
“We’re excited to try and prove some people wrong this year and not have as high expectations as we did last year. As much as most guys try to avoid reading the headlines, it’s impossible to avoid completely. As a young team, it’s kind of a good thing because it helps develop a bit of a chip on your shoulder. We are young, we’re getting better, but I think it’s a maturation process [that includes learning to stay even-keeled].
“Obviously it would be easy to look at [last April’s playoff loss to the St. Louis Blues] as a huge disappointment and for us players, it was a disappointment. At the same time, I think we’re really on our journey as a team. We’re a young group. I don’t know the numbers exactly, but I still think, in the playoffs we were one of the youngest teams out there and we’re going to potentially be even younger this year.
“If we were a very old team and getting over the hill and we lost a bunch of good players, it’d be a little bit different. It’s unfortunate we lost some great players, but we’re really young and the chance for the young guys to take their game to the next level is really exciting and I think that’s what gives me optimism.”
Trouba trade leaves big hole to fill on blue line
It’s safe to say everyone is going to miss Trouba, a first-pair stud. For Copp, though, not playing with the pal he grew up with in Michigan is going to be downright weird.
“Losing Troubs, for me, is tough. We’ve played together since we were 10 years old. No one is going to replace a player like him, he’s fantastic. We definitely feel like we have some very capable players who are able to fill those roles and fill those holes. [But] it’s not going to be any one guy, it’s going to be by committee. Hopefully everyone takes a step and that’s how we circumvent the losses. We still feel confident in our group, but we definitely have some more to prove.”
Ehlers using playoff struggles as motivation
It may be a bit nutty to talk about the second season during the pre-season, but Nikolaj Ehlers’ playoff goose egg is a storyline that’s going to pop up assuming Winnipeg finds its way into the playoffs. Ehlers missed 20 games with a shoulder injury last year, then played the final game of the Blues series on a fractured leg after blocking a Colton Parayko shot in Game 5. The hyper-focused fifth-year winger could break the 30-goal barrier for the first time this season and would dearly love to find the net when it matters most.
“My first year [in the playoffs], I felt like I played some of my best hockey in those games against Nashville,” says Ehlers, who has zero goals and seven assists in 21 career playoff outings. “I felt really good. When you get the chances, you just have to keep going. It’s going to come at some point. Last year, I had some good chances, but that’s just the way it goes. You obviously hear about it in the media and you think about it yourself sometimes, but it’s not like I’m trying not to score — I’m trying to go out there and help my team the best I can and if it’s not with scoring it’s with something else. I’ve got to find a way to contribute a little more — well, a lot more — than I have in the playoffs.
“For me, I’m trying to get into that playoff mentally a little earlier and get in front of the net. That’s where the magic happens.”
Little believes Laine still has room to grow
As Laine’s frequent linemate, few people have more insight into the Finnish sniper’s development than Little. The former was infamously streaky last year, netting 13 goals in a six-game stretch, and just 17 more in the other 76 contests. (That means Laine scored 43 per cent of his 30 goals in seven per cent of the season.) That would be enough to drive anyone batty, but Little thinks Laine, in particular, would benefit from a dose of unflappability.
“He gets pretty down on himself and pretty negative with himself sometimes. I went through that when I was younger, too. You feel like you should be scoring all the time and when you’re not, you’re really hard on yourself.
“He’s still so young. He’s got a ton of skill, he’s got that shot. A lot of kids come in with those skills — not Patrik’s calibre — but it’s kind of those other parts of the game that develop over time. I think he’s got a ton of room to grow, as do most young players, with the defensive part of the game, even off ice, being a professional and stuff like that.”