WINNIPEG -- The chicken and egg theory debate revolving around Andrew Copp is both intriguing and multifaceted.
Let’s first apply the premise of what came first, the increase in offensive production or the enhanced role with the Winnipeg Jets?
The answer isn’t as straightforward as one might think, though it’s obvious the steady increase in ice time over the course of his NHL career has certainly been a factor.
Although he was held off the scoresheet in Saturday’s 2-0 loss to the New York Islanders, Copp chipped in three assists on Friday in a 5-1 victory over the Chicago Blackhawks.
That offensive outburst moved him to five goals and 12 points on the season, which left him just behind team scoring leader Kyle Connor, who has 16 points (including a team-high eight goals).
Although he broke into the NHL quickly because of his defensive awareness and pedigree, Copp hasn’t been shy about his quest to carve out more for himself over time.
And while there have been times when he’s been given cameo appearances in the top-six at various points, he spent a good chunk of last season being used in a more offensive role.
Since training camp began, Copp was split up from longtime linemate Adam Lowry and has been used in a variety of situations, all of which came either on the wing or at centre on one of the top two lines.
Although he’s bounced around a bit, he’s currently back at his natural position of centre and flourishing with Nikolaj Ehlers and Paul Stastny, who left with a suspected foot injury late in Saturday’s game after blocking a shot off his foot.
Jets captain Blake Wheeler cast his vote in favour of Copp earning the additional opportunity through his hard work.
“He’s getting an opportunity to play in the middle and that’s where he probably excels the most,” said Wheeler. “I don’t know if he’s become a better finisher, he’s in a role now where he’s getting more opportunities. You can’t really talk about a guy being a finisher or not being a finisher if you’re not getting opportunities.
“He’s getting a lot of minutes on the power play and playing in a more offensive role with two offensive players. They’re getting matchups where they are leaned on to produce. He’s always had the capabilities of finishing, he’s just getting more chances.”
Stastny has noticed the evolution in Copp’s game during his second go-around with the Jets.
“When I was here three or four years ago, he was always playing a checking-line role,” said Stastny. “You can ask anybody, if you play long enough and you get put in the right spot and you take advantage of it, you’re going to shine. He plays the same two-way game, he’s playing at centre now so he’s got more responsibility defensively, but he’s easy to play with.
“He makes the game easier for everybody, starting in our defensive zone. It’s fun to see, it’s fun to see him grow as a player, but I think he’s had the same work ethic and the same focus to get better, and once you get that opportunity and take advantage of it. (Jets head coach) Paul (Maurice) trusts him and we all trust him. He’s been great.”
Perhaps the most impressive part of this offensive eruption is that it hasn’t come at the expense of Copp’s sound defensive game.
"Well, he's smart. He knows that any kind of play like that is going to lessen his points. He's figured it out,” said Maurice. “You play well, you do the right things defensively and you're going to get more chances with the two guys he's playing with.
"So, he's trying to maximize his offensive game by being a really smart defensive player. That's his DNA. At the end of the day, his foundation is he doesn't make mistakes defensively and I'm talking year over year, there's just not a lot, from the very first game he played. He's seen less video than any player I've ever coached. He just got it.”
Not only does the hot start bode well for Copp’s bargaining power as a pending unrestricted free agent this off-season, but given his high level of play and versatility, he’s also forcing his way into the discussion for the United States Olympic team - where he could potentially join Connor up front and Connor Hellebuyck in goal.
Copp has suited up with Team USA at both the world junior hockey championship and the IIHF men’s hockey championship in the past and he might be a perfect fit in a Swiss Army knife role.
For the time being, Copp simply wants to build on his strong play and he's enjoying the move back to centre.
“I don't know about playing with more speed, but getting the puck moving a little bit more. I've kind of figured it out on the wing, but it's easier playing centre,” said Copp. “And you know, I've got two good guys on my wings that I can kind of dish the puck out to. You just feel involved at all times in the game, which is nice.”
Copp was also a prolific and proficient high school quarterback in Michigan, a two-sport athlete who gave up football after a shoulder injury.
Which brings us back to the chicken and egg theory.
Since Copp has often been praised by Jets head coach Paul Maurice for his ability to both consume and absorb what is shown to him on video and apply it immediately, I’ve often wondered if that trait was somehow related to his time spent in the film room when preparing for gridiron battles.
Maurice had an interesting theory that certainly had some substance to it.
"I think maybe he was drawn to quarterback because he was of that mind,” said Maurice. “Not that he became that mind as a quarterback, but all the things that you would need to do, he had. That's how he's built and that just translates into his game.”
The ability to push himself for more has been a driving force throughout Copp’s career and it’s been on display once again through the early stages of the new season.
“Growing up, I guess I played this type of game and feel like I’ve always played this type of game, and now I’ve just gotten better,” said Copp, noting the impact working with Hall of Famer Adam Oates is having on his offensive game especially. “But a lot of hard work, a lot of video and just kind of understanding where everyone’s at on the ice. So, I’ve worked on it tirelessly but a lot of it is credit to other people helping me out with it and my linemates, and we’re not finished. There’s still levels I can get to and get better.”
If he’s able to continue at this level, Copp will be looking at another substantial raise and could follow in the footsteps of fellow Michigan Wolverines alum Zach Hyman, who cashed in on a lucrative multi-year deal last summer.
There’s plenty of time to debate what Copp’s next contract might look like, but what can’t be ignored right now is that he’s once again showing just how valuable he is to a Jets team he’s invested a lot of sweat equity since the organization chose him in the fourth round (104th overall) in the 2013 NHL Draft.
Copp has clearly taken on a leadership role with the Jets and has embraced the chance to be relied on.
“You want to be as big of a part of the team (as possible.) We've had a great group here for a long time, it feels like. We've added some pieces this year that feel like we round out the group pretty (well), so we take a lot of ownership in how we play and how we perform,” said Copp. “And you just want to be your best and be your best for the team. So yeah, I feel confident in my game, confident that I'm helping the team every night whether it's on the scoresheet or not on the scoresheet and I just want to continue that.”