WINNIPEG - It’s time to make a little room on the marquee because the Winnipeg Jets aren’t only leaning on a handful of guys to lead the charge anymore.
This is not to suggest for a second that the pre-season scouting report suggesting the Jets would be relying heavily on a combination of elite-level goaltending and the need for the top-six forward group to outscore some of the mistakes was entirely inaccurate.
To this point in the season - and remember it’s still early - that scouting report simply requires an addendum or two as this group is working hard to establish its identity.
Thanks to a 6-4 victory over the Edmonton Oilers on Tuesday night, the Jets improved to 5-2.
Any thought the Jets would still be suffering an emotional letdown after blowing a late lead on Sunday night was erased by an impressive stretch of three minutes and 27 seconds that saw a one-goal deficit quickly turned into a two-goal lead.
As he’s been in so many games this season, Nikolaj Ehlers seemed to be in the middle of everything. Whether it was scoring his fifth goal in as many games or earning an assist on three others, Ehlers continued his ridiculous run.
The dynamic Danish forward took a big step in his progression last season and was tracking toward a 30-goal campaign before the pause arrived. Right now, he’s playing at an even higher level and keeps moving the markers when it comes to projecting his ceiling.
“I don’t know, I’ve always felt like I’m a confident guy out there,” said Ehlers, who has 11 points in seven games. “Obviously, there’s games where it’s not going the right way. I know what I can bring to this team. Sometimes you have to find different ways to bring something to the team. I think either way, I’ve been able to do that.”
Need a clean zone entry, Ehlers is your safest bet.
It’s not just his blazing speed that’s giving the opposition fits either. He’s backing the defenceman off, since they have to respect his wheels, but he’s also going to the hard areas around the blue paint.
Ehlers’ ability to adopt a shooter’s mentality means that he’s not deferring as much as he has in the past. He’s adding new wrinkles to his arsenal and he’s clicking with his new linemates, veteran pivot Paul Stastny and Swiss Army knife Andrew Copp.
The trio combined for 10 points on Tuesday and thanks to his four-point effort, Ehlers woke up this morning one point behind Oilers captain Connor McDavid and Toronto Maple Leafs star Mitchell Marner for the league lead in scoring.
Stastny got off to a bit of a slow start, going four games without a point before getting on track during the past three games, showing off his vision as he piled up two goals and six points.
He’s defensively-conscious and his smarts have been on full display.
Stastny did a great job of neutralizing Leon Draisaitl at even strength during these two games and his ability to distribute the puck to his linemates is something he takes great pride in.
The third member of the line is a guy who simply keeps showing Jets head coach Paul Maurice that he can basically handle whatever is thrown his way.
“There’s not a cost to you as a coach when you move [Copp] around. He’s an exceptionally bright player,” said Maurice, noting the work Copp has put in to improve his puck skills and finishing ability. “He’s able to do the things that he’s done from a points point of view, but he hasn’t changed his identity. So, he’s not cheating the game to do it. He’s true to his own game.
“He’s one of the rare players that I’ve seen that has the ability to seemingly develop his offensive game from a defensive starting point. We seem to spend most of our time taking offensive guys and trying to get them to defend a little bit. But he’s developing an offensive game that makes him a fantastic, two-way player.”
Where some players might see obstacles, Copp seeks solutions.
Copp entered the off-season hoping to push for the No. 2 centre job, only to see the Jets trade for Stastny. Instead of slumping his shoulders, Copp dug in and worked his way into a top-six on the wing.
With Patrik Laine first injured and then traded, Copp got a promotion and all he’s done is continue to show further growth. Next thing you know, the Jets are adding centre Pierre-Luc Dubois in a blockbuster deal.
What does Copp do? I’ll give you a hint: it wasn’t hanging his head or feeling bad about his lot in life.
Instead, Copp came up with a pair of two-goal games and would have scored another in the middle, were it not overturned by a coach’s challenge.
“I feel like I've expanded my game,” said Copp, who is up to four goals and nine points in seven games. “I haven't really tried to change it too much but I've tried to increase my offensive output, make a few more plays, be a little more crisp, execute. The puck's been going in.”
Because he’s formed such a great partnership on a checking line with Lowry over the years, it wouldn’t come as a surprise if they’re reunited once Dubois comes out of quarantine.
But if that’s the case, it won’t be because the head coach doesn’t think Copp deserves the ice time or can’t handle the job. It will be because he wants him next to Lowry and playing against the other teams' best line and because of the comfort those two provide Maurice.
Speaking of under-the-radar performances this season, Lowry has exploded out of the gate and like Copp, is riding a five-game point streak.
Nobody was more frustrated than Lowry about the serious decline in production (10 points in 49 games) during an injury-plagued 2019-20 season.
He’s already matched his goal total (four) and is producing at a point-per-game clip, while also playing an important role on the penalty kill and supplying a physical presence.
Just like Copp, those offensive contributions aren’t coming at the expense of a drop-in defensive play.
Even on a team with no shortage of offensive weaponry, secondary scoring remains a valuable resource.
“People are going to have their own opinions,” Lowry said. “You look at our top six, the premier players and the all-stars we have in that group - they're kind of mentioned in their own group for a reason. But when you look at the makeup of our team, everyone provides an important role and secondary scoring is an important aspect.
“It's going to take contributions from every line if we're going to be successful. You look at the firepower the Oilers have, you look at the Leafs and you go through the list of the teams in the North Division and it's going to be important that our line contributes and the fourth line contributes. We look to the guys in the top-six, but it's also nice to kind of take some pressure off their shoulders every once in a while.”