WINNIPEG -- The dress rehearsals are finally done. Now it’s time to make the difficult decisions.
As the Winnipeg Jets have wrapped up the exhibition season with a record of 2-3-1 after a 3-1 loss to the Calgary Flames, the final cuts are about to be made and the fact of the matter is that a few of those decisions will be made with a focus on a calculator -- and not only by a scouting report or analysis of how the player fared during the final stages of training camp.
Tough choices are the kind that contending teams are happy to make and, for the Jets, they’ve got a few interesting wrinkles to work through as the 2021-22 season opens in Anaheim with a game against the Ducks on Wednesday.
When you consider three of the remaining players in camp are injured (Dylan Samberg, Nelson Nogier and CJ Suess), that leaves 25 guys for 23 spots but it’s not that simple.
One of those 25 is forward Evgeny Svechnikov, who is on a pro tryout offer (and signed an AHL contract with the Manitoba Moose during the off-season after he was discarded by the Detroit Red Wings).
Svechnikov suited up in five games and did an excellent job, showcasing a dynamic shot and skill set while also using his size.
The expectation is that Svechnikov will sign a two-way contract during the coming days at somewhere near the league minimum of $750,000 -- which would allow the Jets the maximum amount of flexibility.
He remains in the mix with Dominic Toninato to open the campaign on the fourth line with Riley Nash and Jansen Harkins, the lone Jets player to appear in all six exhibition contests.
The other issue at play is related to how the opening-day roster can maximize the long-term injury reserve pie -- and the Jets can do that by getting as close to the $81.5 million ceiling as possible before Bryan Little is shifted to LTIR.
Lastly, because top-line centre Mark Scheifele is going to miss the season opener as he serves the final game of his suspension, the Jets are likely going to start the campaign with 23 skaters -- but they’ll spend ample time with 22 instead this season.
Since centre prospect David Gustafsson sat out the final two exhibition games, he’s a good bet to be assigned to the Moose.
Same goes for defenceman Ville Heinola, who is presently the eighth defenceman on the Jets’ depth chart.
Both of those players are knocking on the door, but it’s important for them to play prominent roles and big minutes, not hold spots on the edges of this roster, where ice time is limited.
Of course that will be disappointing initially, but when players dominate in the minors, opportunities often present themselves sooner rather than later.
Which brings us to another top prospect, forward Cole Perfetti, who left a lasting impression and showed that he is probably closer to NHL duty than even Paul Maurice anticipated.
Perfetti was mostly used at centre during his first NHL training camp, but he shifted seamlessly to the wing for the exhibition finale.
Not only did he generate offensive opportunities for himself and linemates Adam Lowry and Paul Stastny on Friday night, Perfetti was defensively responsible and showed his versatility.
Although his most likely destination is the AHL, Perfetti has at the very least given Maurice and his coaching staff pause to consider using him in the opener thanks in part to Scheifele’s absence.
With Stastny expected to move up to the top line with Kyle Connor and Blake Wheeler, Perfetti showed he would be comfortable on the wing with Lowry, should Maurice decide to call his number for his NHL debut.
“You’re looking for kind of a future, right? Do you think he can play the position at some point,” Maurice told reporters in Calgary on Friday night. “He’s played centre, obviously, and he’s also played some right-wing and I thought, from that point of view, I thought he had a good handle on what he needed to accomplish over there. He did some really good things with the puck. He’s got a lot of confidence with it. He’s got a nice set of hands on him. So that’s a positive for him, it’s another place he can play.
“There was enough in the game to be interested. To sit there and say there’s something there. That there’s a place other than centre ice he could go to if you needed him.”
For his part, Perfetti was happy with his personal progression throughout training camp and he’s done everything in his power to make the decision as difficult as possible for the coaching staff and management team.
Although playing a more prominent role in the minors is the most likely outcome, Perfetti is clearly knocking on the door and those flashes of potential have only heightened the anticipation of his arrival on the scene -- whenever that time comes.
“I thought that was my best game. I created lots and was engaged and made a lot of plays. I was happy with that,” Perfetti told reporters. “There are obviously things I want to improve on and it’s just going to be the experience of taking time and playing every game that I can get and just learning. I’m taking a step in the right direction every game I feel and it’s getting a little bit more comfortable, so I’m happy with that. But there’s lots more (to accomplish).”
That’s the thing about Perfetti, because of his ability to process the game and willingness to ask questions in his quest for higher learning, he’s probably going to accomplish his goal before long.
Whether he’s done enough to get into the lineup on opening night remains to be seen, but he’s just getting started.
“He’s a shy, quiet kid that loves the game and has a knack for… has a high hockey IQ and has skill and has the want to be better and I love seeing that in a kid nowadays,” Scheifele said in a recent interview. “Sometimes you see kids that are so infatuated with what they’re doing, their skill work or whatever it is. He’s a guy that wants to learn the game and how the pro game works and to live like a pro.
“That’s what I really respect about him, that he wants to learn, he wants to be an NHLer, he wants to learn from all the older guys. He wants to be a sponge and absorb everything. He knows that he doesn’t know it all and he wants to make his game better. He reminds me of myself when I was that age. He gets excited about every game and he gets nervous about every game and it’s something you love to see in a young kid coming into their first real NHL training camp, where they’re just excited to play. They want to soak everything up. They want to be the best player they can be.”
As for the coming days, now it’s about drilling into the details for the Jets -- a fine-tuning of the systems, some further work on special teams and setting the lines for that season opener.
Training camp is officially over and the fun is about to begin.