WINNIPEG - It appears as though a potential COVID-19 crisis has made its way into the Winnipeg Jets dressing room. It won’t take long to see how they will handle it.
Although the Jets have been fortunate to keep the virus under control for much of this season (and the previous one), they’re currently dealing with the largest outbreak they’ve faced since March of 2020.
No matter how many safety measures are in place or how careful players are being, the rampant spread of Omicron puts everyone at risk.
On Monday morning, Nikolaj Ehlers entered the NHL’s COVID-19 protocols, joining defenceman Dylan DeMelo, forward Jansen Harkins, taxi squad goalie Arvid Holm and video coach Matt Prefontaine - who landed there while the team was in Denver last week.
Although DeMelo, Harkins and Holm are all eligible to come off the list, Jets interim head coach Dave Lowry is still unclear about the availability of some of those players for Thursday’s road game against the Detroit Red Wings.
Harkins was en route to Detroit to meet the team, so he appears to be an option, while DeMelo remains in quarantine in Denver. Holm was returned to the Manitoba Moose on Tuesday afternoon.
There was a development on the Wheeler front, as Lowry revealed that the Jets captain is back on the ice skating and could rejoin the team in a non-contact jersey at some point next week.
In the meantime, Lowry is left waiting to see who is going to be available to him - and what other reinforcements might be on the way from the Manitoba Moose of the American Hockey League.
“We’re not the only team that has dealt with this,” said Lowry. “You talk with your peers. All you have to do is put together a lineup with the players that are available. That’s all you can control, that’s all you can worry about. We knew the situation, that at some point in time, we were going to be affected by it.
"We’re fortunate that it’s taken this long to get into our locker room. What we do now is we prepare with the guys that we have to put together a roster.”
There was one positive development on the injury front as forward Paul Stastny was back on the ice after missing the last game with a lower-body issue. Stastny is known for his ability to provide perspective and roll with the punches and Tuesday’s news was essentially met with a shrug of the shoulders.
“It was inevitable that it was going to happen,” said Stastny. “Everyone is getting it, every guy that’s had it is fine. Whether in Colorado or here, so that’s good. Less and less players at practice, but we’ll make due.
“Every team has been going through it and you almost hope that everyone gets it out of the way now instead of having it linger throughout the year.”
Depending on Vesalainen’s status and whether or not anyone else lands in the NHL’s COVID protocols, the Jets might be looking to recall one or more of Jeff Malott, Mikey Eyssimont or Austin Poganski from the Moose, even just as an insurance policy.
Not having Ehlers in the Jets' lineup means that some important minutes at even strength and on the power play, need to be filled.
As for the defence, the door is wide open for Dylan Samberg to make his NHL debut.
It’s been an interesting season for Samberg, whose development took an unplanned pit stop on the first day of training camp when he suffered a high ankle sprain during an unfortunate fall.
That injury kept Samberg sidelined for game action for seven weeks, and he’s basically been playing catch-up ever since.
However, Samberg - who is in his second pro season after three years at the University of Minnesota-Duluth - is up to 16 games played and by all accounts, has been playing his best hockey of late.
So in many ways, the timing is right for Samberg to jump into the lineup.
He remains one of the top defence prospects in the organization and while his game isn’t nearly as flashy as someone like Heinola, Samberg’s skill set includes a number of qualities that will serve him and the team well - both in the short term and the longer term.
Samberg has size and mobility and projects to be a shutdown guy eventually, even if his initial opportunity figures to come on the third pairing alongside someone like his AHL partner, Johnathan Kovacevic - who would also be making his debut - provided DeMelo remains in quarantine.
For a guy chosen in the second round, 43rd overall, of the 2017 NHL Draft, Samberg has experienced plenty in the years that followed - suiting up in a pair of World Junior Hockey Championships and winning a pair of NCAA Frozen Four titles with the Bulldogs.
There was plenty of debate over whether Samberg might turn pro after his sophomore season, but he opted to return to school to pursue a three-peat, only to have that opportunity stolen by the pandemic.
Samberg suited up in a shortened AHL season last year and then had to overcome an injury on the first day of training camp back in September.
“Yeah, it’s been a while, but this is the moment you keep in the back of your head since the day that you’re drafted,” said Samberg, who has one goal and 12 points in 48 games with the Moose over the past two seasons. “You’re always looking forward to it, you’re always pushing for it, that’s your main goal right there.
“I was fortunate enough to go to college and work on my game there, and then get here and play with the Moose for a little while, work on my game and get comfortable with the program. Now, I finally get an opportunity and I’m really excited for it.”
For a Jets club that already needs to leapfrog two other teams and has a quiet schedule until next week when they head out for a four-game road trip against high-end opponents, surviving this difficult stretch is essential in order to stay in the thick of this playoff race.
“We went a stretch where we didn't play for 14 days. And teams that you're competing with in the standings for positioning, they're playing games, they're moving up, (so) the gap looks big,” said Lowry. “What we have to focus in on is we have to focus in on our games. Where we're at. And that's the only thing that we can control.
“We know that we're going to get stacked up with a bunch of games. We talked to the players at length today: Prepare, use this time wisely, because we know that we are going to play a bunch of games here and our practice time then will be limited.”
No matter how daunting the condensed schedule might look down the road, that’s not something the Jets have time to expend energy on either.
“You can’t get too caught up in how many games you’re going to play in how many days,” said Stastny. “Practice is one thing, but you just want to compete against other players. That’s a whole different thing. Especially when the games mean so much. I think all the guys are excited to get going.
"Whether it’s one game and then we have to take a couple days off, we know we’re going to have a lot of games coming up on the back end of the schedule. We’ll do everything to get ready for those games, stay prepared, keep the mind fresh and the body ready, because it’s going to be a grind.”
This Jets team entered the season with heightened expectations and despite an unexpected coaching change and a couple of stops and starts due to the pandemic, those high hopes remain - even as the team entered Tuesday’s action three points out of the final playoff spot in the Western Conference.
“I still have the same expectations for this team,” said Stastny. “Yeah, there've been some bumps in the road, but everyone goes through that. We still have 49 games left. It feels like we're more than halfway through the season, just because of where we are in the calendar year. But with the season starting a little later, with the extended break and realizing you've only played 33 games, now is the dog days of the games a little bit.
“But you realize every game's so important, especially in this Central Division we're in, the Western Conference. Every team seems to win or get points and you realize how important it is. And that makes it more fun. In the past I've been part of playoff races where halfway through the year you kind of knew who was going to get in and who wasn't. This year, besides one or two teams, maybe, in the Western Conference, everyone's still alive, and it just makes that game that much more important and that competitive. It's easy to get up for, even though it's a long season.”