WINNIPEG - Opening day is just around the corner and another training camp is officially in the rearview mirror.
The Winnipeg Jets wrapped things up with a high-tempo scrimmage that officially ended in a 2-2 tie, though a shootout was held after the coaches left the ice to determine the winner of bragging rights.
And if you had Derek Forbort providing the clinching goal for Team Blue with a highlight-reel forehand deke through the five-hole of Laurent Brossoit, please raise your hand.
The move was a thing of beauty.
Over the past nine days, the Jets hit the ice for eight sessions and held two scrimmages. They’ve tested out some new line combinations, experimented with several defence pairings and the decisions regarding the opening-day roster and the taxi squad are starting to come into clearer focus.
The next two days will be about familiarizing themselves with the finer details of systems play and sharpening up on special teams. With a 56-game season against the six other Canadian teams on the horizon, the excitement is beginning to build.
“Everyone is jacked up to play hockey. Coaches want to coach, players want to play,” said Jets head coach Paul Maurice. “This is a short season, they came to camp in shape. They know that we’ve got to go right from the start. I think this is going to be true of every team. I think that every team comes out hard. I don’t think that anybody’s coming out and playing a soft game. They have also been off for a long time. There’s a lot of pent-up excitement and enthusiasm and probably aggression, but we’ll see early.”
A home date against the Calgary Flames on Thursday felt a bit more real as the Jets moved their workout downtown — where players and members of the media got a look at what the building is going to look like with tarps up where fans would normally be seated.
“I was looking around today and it was the first time I’ve been on this ice in 10 months, so it was definitely kind of eye-opening, for sure,” said Jets forward Andrew Copp. “We’ve put in a lot of hard work to try to make it so it’s as safe as possible for all the players, as safe as possible for the community, doing things the right way so that we are able to continue to play the game that we love and hopefully give an opportunity for the community to come together and with the Canadian division, the country to come together.
“We’re doing what we’re doing for all of the right reasons. We’re super super fortunate to get back to work in a climate like this and we obviously hope everyone can get back to work as soon as possible and get the world going again. But, super, super fortunate and we’re trying to be a little bit of an inspiration and to lift some spirits.”
With a baseball-style schedule that features series, the physical toll of travel should not be as taxing, which means ensuring a strong record on home ice is critical - even if there won’t be fans in the stands.
“You’re going to have to create that home-ice advantage. You know your building, you know your boards,” said Jets centre Mark Scheifele. “Being in your own bed, eating food that you’re normally used to. That’s what you have to think about, and that’s where you have to take that home-ice advantage. You kind of see it in the NFL, in the playoffs, the home-field advantage isn’t that different with not a lot of fans in the building screaming and yelling.
“That’s going to be the determining factor, who rests the most. There’s going to be a lot of games in very few days, And when we’re home you have to use that time to rest and recuperate and be ready for the next stretch of games.”
Here are five observations from Jets camp:
Guardian angel looking down
The passing of Dale Hawerchuk in August after a battle with cancer impacted a number of people in the hockey community and within the Jets’ organization.
Hawerchuk played a huge role in the development of Scheifele, not only during their time together with the Barrie Colts in the OHL, but after the Jets centre turned pro.
“Obviously what happened in the summer with Dale is something that’s very tough for me,” said Scheifele. “But that’s something where you know he’s watching over us, he’s watching down on me. He’ll be taking care of me from Heaven. All you can do is try to work your hardest every single day on that ice and know that you’re doing everything to honour him, his name and his family.”
Scheifele has been on the ice early and stayed on late throughout training camp and he looks determined to have his best season yet.
Even with a star-studded cast of forwards, the Jets are going to need Scheifele to be operating at peak efficiency to be a playoff team in the North Division.
It’s been one of the items that is always on the to-do list, but was never a top priority since Maurice took over as head coach.
It’s understandable that he would want to lean on his horses - considering the high-end talent in his top-six - but the inability to find a consistent enough level of ice time for the fourth line has been an issue the Jets need to solve.
Although there is going to be some movement on that line — especially after Mathieu Perreault was placed on waivers Monday in what was more of a cap compliance (and having the ability to maximize the available space once Bryan Little is moved to LTIR) decision — this is likely the most depth Maurice has had at his disposal.
Maurice has said for the past several seasons that being part of one of the special teams units is one way to ensure some additional ice time on the fourth line.
Now that Perreault has cleared waivers, Maurice will use him on the second power play, while Trevor Lewis (who is in line to turn his Pro Tryout Offer into a one-year deal), Nate Thompson and Mason Appleton all figure to be in the penalty-killing rotation.
Lewis has impressed. He’s still got good wheels and his hockey sense has been evident since he stepped onto the ice last Wednesday and right into a scrimmage.
“Just a good, smart, solid hockey player. He’s had a lot of success in his career and he knows what it takes to win,” said Copp. “Those guys are very valuable to bring in. Just talking with him today (about) certain reads and stuff, he thinks the game at a pretty high level. Those are super important to have, especially given a lot of the skill and dynamic players we have up and down our lineup. He’s done well, he’s come in and done a good job at earning a spot.”
Jansen Harkins, who missed time during training camp with an injury, has the ability to be used on either side of the special teams equation as well and remains in the mix on the fourth line.
Adding the experience of Lewis and Thompson - blended with the hunger of a player like Harkins that’s trying to carve out more - figures to put the Jets in position to use the fourth line with more regularity on most nights.
“You look at the teams that go deep into the playoffs. Especially this season, there’s going to be nights when the fourth line won’t play as many minutes, sometimes they might play under 10 minutes. And that’s OK, that’s going to happen,” said Thompson. “Sometimes it’s the management of the game. And then there’s going to be some nights where the fourth line might play over 12 minutes.
"Obviously being a fourth-line guy, or any guy that’s going to be a bottom-six guy, you’re going to want to play over 12 minutes. But that’s not necessarily the case. I think the sweet spot is a matter of you getting into a game, the coach is able to roll four lines, there’s not a lot of special teams and you’re in the game early. As a fourth-line guy, that’s kind of the sweet spot, where every line is rolling and the lines are being rolled over and you’re able to get into a game right away. Other than that, it’s the game of hockey, things happen, as a bottom-six guy you’ve got to be able to make sure you’re ready and when you get out there you have to make your shifts count.”
Shift in mentality
The Jets have integrated a number of young players into the regular lineup during the past several seasons and Maurice has often referred to that inexperience in his media briefings when delivering an explanation for the growing pains.
There were several times during training camp when Maurice seemed to remove that crutch from the equation after he was asked about how he viewed his team going into this season.
“I don’t feel we’re a young team anymore,” said Maurice. “I don’t feel we’re in development mode anymore, we’re in performance mode. I don’t know that you would say we’re a veteran team but we’re just not young anymore. We’re coming into (this) now where we expect to be really strong in all positions all over the ice.”
The Jets are two seasons removed from a trip to the Western Conference final and it’s time to see if they can turn the corner.
Based on the ages and contract commitments to the core group, this franchise remains in win-now mode and if it can’t take a step forward, there will be changes in the not-so-distant future.
Taxi squad could be young (at least temporarily)
This is going to be a work in progress, at least until the American Hockey League gets up and running.
Maurice has said several times that he doesn’t want to have his young prospects spending too much time on the taxi squad - but that’s more about when those players have a place to actually get into game action.
“So we would be fairly young in this department on that taxi squad idea, right?” said Maurice. “We didn't have a lot of veteran waivers or sign a lot of guys to PTOs so we've got a lot of potential kids in this department and the question will be how many games do they get in at the start if they're playing with the American League or when they're with us and schedules and things like that. How much I get into the taxi squad, how injured you are. Because, like I said, you could potentially have a young player on your taxi squad and you stay healthy for a long period of time and he's missing a great opportunity.
“The negative is how often or how long you want a young guy sitting before he's got to get himself into the game. And then here in Canada, we have to be aware of the quarantine between provinces and stuff so there's a little bit more to it I think in Canada and there's more to it again when you have a very young team. So that's what I meant about the information that we'll gather as we go here. I don't think you necessarily have a philosophy that you're planning on using the whole year. You're going to learn as you go and make adjustments.
The Jets' waiver list on Monday included four players aside from Perreault that would be prime candidates for the taxi squad: goalie Eric Comrie, defencemen Luca Sbisa and Nelson Nogier and forward CJ Suess.
Those plans took a bit of a turn on Tuesday morning when Comrie was claimed by the New Jersey Devils (who lost Corey Crawford to retirement) and Sbisa was claimed by the Nashville Predators.
Losing Comrie on waivers for a second straight season means that Mikhail Berdin is the taxi squad goalie until further notice.
The departure of Sbisa leaves Sami Niku as the seventh defenceman and could speed up the arrival of Ville Heinola, who is slated to come out of quarantine on Thursday and is slated to start on the taxi squad.
Centre David Gustafsson participated in the scrimmage, but he’s missed time with an injury as well, so he’s likely heading for the taxi squad as well before he can battle for a roster spot.
Kristian Vesalainen and Joona Luoto also figure to be in the mix up front along with Dominic Toninato and Marko Dano, who have missed all of training camp and are expected to start the season on IR.
Maurice said 2020 first-rounder Cole Perfetti (who won’t be out of quarantine until next week) could also be among that group — depending on how things go over the next few days.
Future looks bright
Another player whose development is going to be fascinating to monitor is Jets defenceman Dylan Samberg.
Although he started camp in the early group, the second-round selection in the 2017 NHL Draft got a promotion to the main group late in camp and his skill set was on display.
It’s easy to see why the Jets were excited to get him into the professional ranks. Samberg is big, strong and skates well.
The early indications are that he processes the game well also, so it’s simply going to be a matter of how quickly the transition goes before he’s battling for a spot with the big club. Samberg also brought a good attitude to camp.
“You've got to work your way up. A lot of these guys have been in camp for multiple years now, and this is my first camp,” said Samberg. “I didn't really expect them to give me anything. I've got to earn it.”