With cap gymnastics settled, Jets shift focus to navigating Flames

Sean Reynolds & Ken Wiebe discuss what stood out to them at Jets training camp including Nikolaj Ehlers role, Connor Hellebuyck’s performance & more.

WINNIPEG — Kevin Cheveldayoff is hopeful that the toughest part of the salary-cap gymnastics is already complete, though he recognizes juggling could become a more regular part of the routine with a taxi squad to manage for the first time.

The general manager of the Winnipeg Jets found a way to maximize the pool of available Long-Term Injury Reserve money by submitting a roster Tuesday that didn’t include a couple of players that are expected to be in the lineup Thursday in the season opener against the Calgary Flames.

Number crunching is always important, but balancing the books became challenging for a number of teams in a flat-cap world.

Forward Dominic Toninato failed his physical and started the season on LTIR, while veteran centre Bryan Little joined him on LTIR Thursday.

“There’s a lot of fluidity still,” said Cheveldayoff. “The transactions will happen as they need to. All these things have to happen in sequence, and those are the different procedures that go into play. There are a lot of intricacies to it. So, you’re going to need that taxi squad, you’re going to need that 23-man roster to be flexible. And you’re going to have to be nimble with it. The good thing is we have salary cap space to be able to do that.”

Cheveldayoff did a noble job of explaining a topic that has left many fans and media members scratching their collective heads over the past several days.

“Say you add up all your contracts and you're at $81.7 million,” said Cheveldayoff. “So you're $200,000 or $300,000 over. Let's say $81.8. You're $300,000 over the cap and you have to find a way, after you've either assigned guys down or called guys up, whatever roster you wanted to submit. If you have players that go on LTIR, like Toninato, you then invoke. You're allowed to go up to what his number would have been. He makes $700,000. But when you're invoking, if you're below, all you can capture on that day is getting yourself to the cap. So when we invoke with Toninato, you're essentially back at ground zero. You were able to submit a compliant roster, but you do not have any more LTI space available.

“So then the next day we invoked on Bryan Little, so we go from zero to an LTIR space of $5.2 million, or whatever his cap space is, and you go from there. You operate in the season after that. So timing is very important. You've seen a lot of that in the league this year.”

Veteran forward Trevor Lewis converted his pro tryout offer into a one-year deal with the Jets worth $750,000, while Mathieu Perreault is expected to be recalled from the taxi squad on Thursday and skate alongside Lewis and Nate Thompson on the fourth line.

Clear as mud, right?

The Jets still have an important piece of business to take care of involving unsigned restricted free agent Jack Roslovic and how that’s resolved (either with a contract or a trade) will cut into some of the available LTIR pool money.

As for the strengths and expectations of the Jets, Cheveldayoff agrees with the assessment Jets head coach Paul Maurice that this organization has moved into performance mode.

“Internal expectations are obviously very high,” said Cheveldayoff. “As far as our team, your main strength starts in net. And Connor Hellebuyck, putting up a Vezina Trophy-winning season last year, and I know he’s really driven to try to achieve something more than a Vezina, and that’s a Stanley Cup. When you have a player like that, you’ve got a good base. I like the different look on defence.

“We’ve talked a lot about our penalty killing and hope some of the additions can help that improve. I’ve said it over the years, but every year you get a year older and our players that have grown up through our system are a year older, they’re that much more mature. One thing that the long off-season did was allow them to continue to work on their bodies, where sometimes that maybe wasn’t the case in a normal off-season. It’s not going to be easy, this is a division that I think will create a lot of excitement amongst hockey. Certainly, there’s going to be a lot of attention paid to it, being in the passionate hockey market of Canada. I think that excitement level is going to drive everyone.”

Here are four other storylines to monitor surrounding Game 1:

Will Ehlers be available?

The Jets had a notable absence on Wednesday as Nikolaj Ehlers found himself in the COVID protocol related absence category, leaving him questionable for Thursday’s game.

Ehlers doesn’t necessarily have the novel coronavirus, so it’s possible he’s feeling better this morning and his test comes back negative.

That’s the best-case scenario for the Jets.

“I think him playing (Thursday) night is in the range of possibilities,” said Maurice. “I mean, yeah, there's a spectrum of things that causes you to be on the acronym squad and any one of those may have a different outcome.”

Ehlers didn't take the ice for the team's morning skate, though Maurice said he has not been ruled out for Thursday night's game. The team is still awaiting test results before determining his status.

If Ehlers is unavailable, Andrew Copp figures to be promoted to the top line with Mark Scheifele and Blake Wheeler, and either Kristian Vesalainen or Jansen Harkins will draw in on the third line.

Does Tkachuk remain Public Enemy No. 1?

Scheifele was on the receiving end of the hit from Matthew Tkachuk that knocked him out of the series three shifts into the qualifying round and has already provided his forgiveness publicly and absolved him of any blame in the matter, but there is a long-standing tradition of taking a number and players having a long memory.

Might that mean a little higher intensity when the two teams meet for the first time since the Flames bounced the Jets from the postseason with a 4-0 victory in Game 4 in August?

“It has been seen over the last number of years that if ever there was an incident and there was some hype about what was going to come next, it was dead quiet,” said Jets head coach Maurice. “So, you never really really know. My feeling is that the playoffs are a different kind of animal and that was a playoff series. The intensity is high and then it kind of resets maybe the next year, so we’ll see. Both teams want to win that first game and want to get off to that good start. So that will be priority No. 1.”

Jets centre Adam Lowry suggested this was one of those situations where time may have healed all wounds.

“You kind of get into playoffs and playing against one team, you kind of get wrapped up in that own little world and what's going on in that series,” said Lowry. “The things that happened in the past, you're going to leave them there. I don't think there's going to be any carryover from the summer.”

Jets goalie Hellebuyck isn’t worried about retribution either, but does plan on using the early departure as motivation as a new season gets started.

“I hope it does a little bit. We got beat in that series and I’m still bitter about it to this day because I want to win,” said Hellebuyck. “They ruined our chances at a Stanley Cup so for me personally, I’m going to use it as motivation and I’m a little angry that they ruined it for us. I mean, they’re a good team and hats off to them, they played a good series, but I think it would be crazy for us not to use it to try to get a little jump on them energy-wise.”

Tkachuk doesn’t sound overly concerned about being a target, but when you play on the edge, it’s easy to be in the middle of things.

“I don’t think so. It depends who you ask, but I’m expecting to go in there and whatever happens, happens,” said Tkachuk. “I’m just excited to get back playing and I expect them to be fired up and not happy with the way things went for them over the summer so I expect it to be a very intense, hard-fought game.

“I’d say any time you play a team in the playoffs one team always comes out on top and one team always goes home. So that sits with the one team for all of summer and I expect them to not be happy with the way it went for them in playoffs last year and for us, we’re expecting to come in there and play that physical and demanding type of hockey we played in the summer and try to beat them on the scoreboard and try to beat them physically.”

Masked men under microscope

Speaking of goaltending, the impressive play of Cam Talbot became a storyline in August, but he’s departed to the Minnesota Wild and the Flames inked one of the most coveted free agents available in Jacob Markstrom during the off-season.

Although a main focus of training camp has surrounded tightening things up defensively and trying to make life easier on the goaltenders, Hellebuyck is looking to provide Vezina-level goaltending for the third time in four seasons.

“I think you kind of have me for a loss of words there because there’s not one thing that I wanted to really address. I liked my series,” said Hellebuyck, asked about his performance in August against the Flames. “It wasn’t good enough to win. I liked a lot of things from that series, but it was also in the middle of the summer and there are no excuses.

“We lost a lot of (guys to) injuries. It’s a new day and age. It’s going be different teams that have a couple of different players and it’s a different mindset. I’m excited to see exactly where this team is and from looking at them over practice, I feel very confident in this group.”

Markstrom is viewed as one of the guys who should be in contention for the trophy this year as well, so you can expect both goalies to try and put on a display in the first head-to-head meeting of the season.

“I really like where my patience is at. I think it’s only going to get better. I’m very comfortable in my crease right now, in my depth, and that’s a big part of it,” said Hellebuyck. ”Once I get those competitive game juices going, it’s just a whole new level and it just heightens everything. So if I look where I’m at now, during the game I think I’m going to love it. And to speak to the defence, we’re communicating very well, we’re understanding our roles and we’re not being shy with each other.

“We kind of have to trust each other and we are in our roles, trusting that the other person is going to handle their role and if something negative does happen, it’s not (going to have) a negative effect at all. We know that we expect out of each other the roles that we are going to be playing and I think that’s what’s making us so strong moving forward here.”

No lingering effects for Laine

Jets winger Patrik Laine spoke to reporters for the first time since Day 1 of training camp and while he wasn’t asked specifically about trade rumours directly, he did face a query about his personal comfort level after what has clearly been an interesting off-season.

Laine is a highly-motivated individual. His effort level has been high since he stepped onto the ice for training camp.

“He would have had the best camp that he's had here. In terms of effort and engagement, he was wired,” said Maurice. “His first two days of practice would be the hardest I've ever seen him work. So he looked, I'd say, really good. And really pleased with that development. (Laine) is a really competitive guy. He wants to score goals above all things and his experience now is telling him now that you've got to push hard in practice, you've got to push hard in training camp if you want to produce.”

Here’s how we expect the Jets to line up to start against the Flames:

*Nikolaj Ehlers-Mark Scheifele-Blake Wheeler
Kyle Connor-Paul Stastny-Patrik Laine
Andrew Copp-Adam Lowry-Mason Appleton
Mathieu Perreault-Nate Thompson-Trevor Lewis

Josh Morrissey-Tucker Poolman
Derek Forbort-Neal Pionk
Nathan Beaulieu-Sami Niku

Connor Hellebuyck
Laurent Brossoit

*Kristian Vesalainen is on call if Ehlers can’t play.

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