WINNIPEG — Brad Lambert understands that he can’t make up for the time he lost nursing a nagging injury early in his first NHL training camp.
What he can do is try to make the most of the time he has left — and he took an important step forward with an eye-popping performance in his first pre-season action for the Winnipeg Jets against the Montreal Canadiens on Thursday night at the Bell Centre.
When you’re a skilled player like Lambert, who slipped to the Jets at 30th overall in the 2022 NHL Draft, getting onto the scoresheet in your first action is always welcome.
But what’s intriguing about Lambert has little to do with the wrist shot from distance that beat Cayden Primeau to equalize what turned out to be a 4-3 victory for the Jets thanks to Nate Schmidt's winner with 17.5 seconds left in regulation.
And it wasn’t the primary assist from a point shot by Kyle Capobianco that caromed off his foot before Evan Polei tipped it home that would have had the Jets coaching staff and management team buzzing on Thursday night.
Make no mistake, for a team that’s looking for some secondary scoring, producing points is always welcome and a multi-point effort from Lambert is sure to catch the attention of those who just tuned in for the highlights.
But that’s not what Jets head coach Rick Bowness was focusing on.
“Now you see what we’ve missed the last couple of weeks. The kid looked really good,” Bowness told reporters in Montreal. “He’s got lots of speed, lots of skill, but what also jumps out at you is his poise with the puck. He’s an 18-year-old kid playing in his first game and he didn’t throw it away once. He hung onto it, bought time, and made plays. The skills and the speed are very obvious, but what jumped out at me was his poise.”
The Jets improved to 2-1 in pre-season and are back in action on Saturday night at Canada Life Centre against the Edmonton Oilers.
Lambert provided a glimpse of why he was one of the most intriguing players to watch when training camp opened, but an undisclosed upper-body issue grounded him on Day 2 of camp and he just recently got back into action as a full participant.
That’s one of the reasons Lambert didn’t see any time on the Jets’ first power play unit on Thursday against the Canadiens, though he did end up seeing just over two minutes of action with the man-advantage in this penalty-filled affair that included 28 minutes handed out by the men in stripes.
Lambert’s fluid and explosive skating stride is his calling card and that was definitely on full display.
So was his vision and passing ability, leading to some nice zone entries and set-ups, which included a few nifty backhand saucer passes.
Despite seeing only 13 minutes and change of ice time, Lambert found a way to make an impact, something that’s even more impressive when you consider the three minor penalties taken by the Jets in the first period would have interrupted any flow for any of the forwards not tasked with killing penalties.
Lambert forced Dadonov into a turnover before scoring on his long wrister, which allowed the Jets to regain momentum after giving up a pair of power-play goals during a double-minor for high-sticking to Capobianco (who had eight penalty minutes, all on stick infractions).
“We want to pressure the puck. That’s exactly how we want to play,” said Bowness. “They get the puck, we want to be right there in their face. That’s a good example of it, then it’s obviously a pretty good shot by the kid.”
Following the morning skate, Bowness let it be known that Lambert's play would determine how many more looks he gets during the final three pre-season games. It’s safe to say he’ll be given another opportunity to show what he can do after the next cuts occur on Friday.
That’s when the competition will rise, and that’s when players like Lambert are going to need to show they can do some of the same things against lineups that include more established NHL players throughout them, not just sprinkled in to meet the pre-season requirements.
“It was a little frustrating injury there, but really lucky to get back and happy to get in the lineup,” Lambert told reporters. “The atmosphere in this rink was unbelievable, it actually hurt my ears at times. The crowd got going pretty good there, and it felt pretty good.
“I’m just trying to take advantage of every opportunity I get, go out there and play my game. Work my ass off. That’s just what I’m trying to do. Our line (with Kevin Stenlund and Polei) generated some chances. Obviously had a few tough shifts there, too. But I thought we got some O-zone time, got in pretty good on the forecheck. Two big guys who do a really good job on the forecheck, so it was really good playing with them.”
You don’t win a job on the opening-day roster in Game 3 of the pre-season, but you can continue the process of laying the important groundwork required to make the decision to send a player to the minors much more difficult.
Now it’s up to Lambert to establish some consistency in his game and to show that his offensive instincts are enough to overcome any potential shortcomings on the defensive side of the puck.
That’s not a knock on Lambert, almost all young players have a steep learning curve in that department.
The benefit for Lambert is that he’s been playing professional hockey in Finland since he was 16 years old, so suiting up with the Manitoba Moose in the American Hockey League is an option for him.
It’s not a scenario most 18-year-olds face, where it’s a matter of sticking with the big club or returning to the junior ranks.
That means it’s not an all-or-nothing proposition either, and Lambert could be a candidate for a recall at any point during the season, depending on his development curve.
However, the Jets don’t need to decide what to do with Lambert today and if he’s able to remain in the discussion for another week or so, that will mean he’s found a way to elevate his game.
Even if the future isn’t necessarily right now, Lambert’s performance is sure to have folks talking about his long-term potential and making predictions about when he might be ready to force his way into the top six. Or perhaps convince Bowness to spread the offensive wealth among three lines.