WINNIPEG — Leave it to Mark Scheifele to provide a little perspective on the situation.
No, the Winnipeg Jets centre was not trying to pour cold water on the situation that has fans in a frenzy these days, thanks to the performance of speedy forward Brad Lambert during the past two pre-season games.
Scheifele was asked a simple question about his own personal experience, which includes lighting it up and making an impact in his first NHL training camp as an 18-year-old back in the fall of 2011.
Of course, the circumstances are different this time around, yet Scheifele is able to relay some valuable information on what Lambert is potentially facing during these final two pre-season games against the Calgary Flames, provided he gets into both tilts.
“You can’t get too far ahead of yourself,” said Scheifele. “I think I led the pre-season in scoring. This is exactly what I was talking with my dad about the other day and we were talking about that time, and I was like, ‘Wow, this isn’t that bad. I can play in this league.’ And then I played my first regular-season game. The pre-season is a different animal than the regular season.
“But at the time, I was kind of high on life and then the first couple of games brought me down to earth.”
Scheifele ended up playing seven games with the Jets before he was returned to the Barrie Colts of the Ontario Hockey League, but not before scoring his first NHL goal against the Toronto Maple Leafs.
Lambert has done everything that’s been asked of him so far and then some, prompting a vast shift in the narrative of what would be best for his personal development.
When training camp began, it would not have been out of the question to expect the first-round pick to potentially play some games in the Western Hockey League this season but now, some folks are wondering if he might end up finding a way to force his way onto the opening-day roster, perhaps even the opening-day lineup.
The most likely outcome is Lambert ends up with the Manitoba Moose of the American Hockey League, but his performance suggests he’s ahead of schedule and looks like a good bet to get into some games with the Jets, whether that’s right out of the gate or as the season moves along.
Jets head coach Rick Bowness hasn’t been afraid to heap praise on Lambert in recent days, but he also has pushed for patience, as someone who understands how big the jump to the NHL is -- even for a guy who has been playing hockey professionally since he was 16 years old.
“You can’t teach what that kid does with speed. It’s unreal how fast he is,” said Bowness. “We’ll teach him how to play the game and understand the game a little better. That will be our job, but some of the things he does, that’s just natural and it’s beautiful to watch when he gets going.
“Listen, that decision will be made over the next little while, in terms of where he starts and where he plays. He hasn’t played his way out of here yet. I love working with kids and this kid has got a few more days to develop and to see where it goes.”
Lambert appreciated the responsibility heaped on him by Bowness -- which included three shifts during the three-on-three overtime and a chance to participate in the shootout on Saturday against Edmonton.
“Honestly I didn’t know how it was going to go. Every day is a new opportunity,” said Lambert. “Trying to do everything I can to take advantage of every opportunity I get. Just work hard every day and learn every day.”
During a training camp where much of the focus centred around the defence corps, how Lambert fares in the game -- or games -- against the Calgary Flames figures to attract a lot of attention this week, especially after skating on a line with Cole Perfetti on Monday.
“He looks fast, he’s got some skill. That’s what we kind of saw instantly since he started practising the first couple of days,” said Scheifele. “He definitely has a lot of promise, a lot of high-end talent, which is awesome.”
On to your questions for the monthly mailbag (thanks to all for your submissions):
The top-six seems to be fairly set in stone in terms of personnel, if not deployment with Blake Wheeler, Nikolaj Ehlers, Mark Scheifele, Pierre-Luc Dubois, Kyle Connor and Cole Perfetti. However if we see an early and prolonged injury to one of them, who do you think has the best chance of being the replacement in the absence of Andrew Copp or Paul Statsny on the third line?
Does Morgan Barron or David Gustafsson's offensive AHL pedigree win, or the experience of Mason Appleton or Jansen Harkins or would they pull Brad Lambert all the way up from the Moose, assuming that's where he ends up? — Cody Magnusson
Injuries are part of the game, so it’s natural to wonder who would get a promotion, either from within or from the minors. As for Lambert, the Moose seem like the most logical landing spot -- though he could delay that with a strong showing this week. For the sake of this discussion, let’s say the injury occurs while Lambert is in the AHL. If that’s the case, he would make the most sense to get the recall if a winger is required to play top-six minutes and to contribute to the power play. As Bowness pointed out, Lambert already has NHL speed to go along with his natural instincts. If a centre goes down with an injury, it would be interesting to see if the Jets considered moving Cole Perfetti to the middle. Morgan Barron and Jansen Harkins have both been given brief auditions on the top two lines and would also be under consideration, but remain in a battle for work on the third line with Adam Lowry and Mason Appleton.
What is your evaluation and grade on Rick Bowness from his day one with the Jets? — Craig Zamzow
What we know about Bowness so far is that he isn’t afraid to speak his mind and he hasn’t hesitated to make difficult decisions, beginning with the choice to remove Blake Wheeler as captain. Bowness’ passion for the game and intensity have been on display since the start of training camp and his ability to communicate with the players is evident. My evaluation is that he’s doing what was expected when he was hired to replace Paul Maurice and Dave Lowry. He’s planning to implement an aggressive system that should suit the roster as it is currently configured, but the success of the Jets will boil down to their willingness to commit to the defensive structure. Ultimately, Bowness will be evaluated on how this team performs, but the early signs are that he’s been able to connect with this group. I’d like to reserve the grade until the season gets going, but he’s off to a strong start.
With Rick Bowness and the new coaching staff, is there a player that would be a surprise to make to the starting roster and is there a player that you'd be surprised if they didn't get a starting roster spot? — Eric Hjorleifson
With just under two weeks to go before the Jets open the season against the New York Rangers, there is plenty of time for the teaching of systems to continue and some additional clues about the final roster decisions should come to the surface during these final two pre-season games.
A player that would be considered a surprise to make the roster, at least going into training camp, would be forward Saku Maenalanen. The Finnish forward has made an impact in the three games he’s played and began this week skating alongside David Gustafsson and Sam Gagner. Maenalanen is a strong skater, plays a physical game, can kill penalties and has shown some skill as well. He’s definitely a candidate to win a job on the fourth line right now and even got an audition for the Jets' third-line left-wing vacancy on Saturday against Edmonton.
As for the second part of the question, that answer is a bit cloudy right now. Going into camp, my projection was that both Ville Heinola and Dylan Samberg would be in the opening-night lineup and while that might still be the case, neither player has created enough separation in the competition to push past the bulk of the veteran group, at least to this point. With Friday’s game expected to be close to the opening-night lineup, there needs to be a level of urgency from all of Samberg, Heinola and Logan Stanley, if he’s playing.
“Players play their way out of here. They make that decision for us,” said Bowness, reiterating a point he made early in training camp. “These next couple of games, they will make that decision for us. They’re either going to play their way on, or they are going to play their way off by showing us they are not ready. Two games to go and guys are obviously running out of time. Every shift, for the guys that are on the bubble, every shift is important at this point.”
Where or how would you rate the team in its development cycle, given that a rebuild is the start and Final contender is the end of the cycle? — Vern Fecteau
The Jets find themselves in an interesting spot when it comes to the development cycle. The window of opportunity appears to be tied to a core group that has several prominent players with the ability to become unrestricted free agents in the summer of 2024, barring an extension or two. The Jets also have an interesting stable of prospects, including guys like the aforementioned Lambert and forwards like Rutger McGroarty (who is beginning his freshman season with the University of Michigan Wolverines) and Chaz Lucius in the system along with D-men like Declan Chisholm, Elias Solomonsson and Simon Lundmark, among others.
So there is some additional talent coming, but it’s clear from the off-season decisions made by Jets general manager Kevin Cheveldayoff that the team believes it is still in win-now mode -- otherwise several veterans would have likely been moved in deals aimed at strengthening the future.
That’s not to say there won’t be a trade before the season begins, but it appears the Jets believe their window of contention remains open, even if most pundits feel this is a team that is destined to finish in the muddy middle. The Jets are not rebuilding, nor have they fully reloaded. They’re counting on internal growth right now and look like a team that could finish anywhere from third to sixth in the Central Division, depending on how things come together and should be in the mix for a wild-card berth.
Should the Jets consider playing Pierre-Luc Dubois more on the penalty kill? He is big, has a great reach and is aggressive. Plus, using him in all situations would certainly help in signing the player, don’t you think? Lee Davis
This is a great question -- and not just because it’s been one I’ve been pondering myself. Dubois has a lot of qualities that should make him an effective penalty killer, and several of those have been mentioned by you. If the pre-season games are any indication, Bowness won’t be afraid to lean on his star players to contribute and that includes time while short-handed.
The only drawback is that adding these heavy minutes to the equation could impact production at even strength. However, it’s worth considering, depending on the situation. The other thing to keep in mind is that Bowness plans to find ice time for his fourth line and most players in the running for jobs there are guys who should be capable penalty killers.
When it comes to using Dubois in all situations as a way to encourage him to sign longer term, it probably wasn’t an accident the Jets had Dubois serving as an alternate captain in each of the three pre-season games he’s played so far. That’s not a guarantee he will be among those wearing an 'A' once the final decisions are made, but it’s clear he’s under consideration for one of the jobs. It was already clear last season that Dubois was becoming part of the leadership group and that figures to be the case, whether he’s wearing a letter or not.
How safe is Mason Appleton’s job on third line right-wing? He was very underwhelming last season in his return from Seattle. And he didn’t really stand out in the first pre-season game. — @AavcoCup
Appleton now has two pre-season games under his belt here and his job as the third-line right-winger with Adam Lowry seems safe to me. He’s going to play an important role on the penalty kill and is going to be counted on to help augment the secondary scoring that will be necessary for the Jets to take a step forward. In his 19 games with the Jets after being reacquired from the Kraken, Appleton produced only two goals and four points but one thing to consider is that his shooting percentage was 6.7 -- or roughly half of what he converted during the 2021 season when he had 13 goals in 56 games (13.6 per cent).
That’s not to suggest Appleton is going to push for 20 goals for the first time in his career, but he should push for something in the range of what Brandon Tanev registered (14 goals, 29 points in 80 games) before cashing in as an unrestricted free agent with the Pittsburgh Penguins. Last season was a whirlwind for Appleton, from being selected in the expansion draft to being traded for the first time in his career and returning to the team that chose him in the sixth round of the 2015 NHL Draft. Appleton sounds like he’s in a positive head space and excited about the role he’s going to be asked to play.
“I don't think I put a ceiling on it. The coach has full control over where guys play in the lineup. And winning and losing dictates a lot of the line charts,” said Appleton. “So wherever I am to start, obviously you want to continue to climb and get better in this league, no matter where you're at. Even the best players, they always want more, more, more. That's just the mindset to have. Obviously you want to work as hard as you can every day to get to that next step, play a couple more minutes, get some power-play touches, whatever it is. You want more, always, and that's just the natural mindset of a competitive athlete.”
What is the status of the Jets’ Russian players they drafted over the last few years? I believe they are still playing in Europe or the KHL. Are they still part of the Jets' plans going forward? — Robert Dyck
Forward prospects Nikita Chibrikov (second round, 2021) and Dmitry Rashevsky (fifth round, 2021) remain under contract in the Kontinental Hockey League through this season and then one would imagine the Jets will try to bring both players over to play in North America.
Rashevsky has developed nicely, racking up 19 goals and 35 points in 48 games for Moscow Dynamo last season and he’s got seven goals and 10 points in 14 games so far. He’s a skilled winger that can finish and it’s not out of the question to expect him to push for NHL work as early as the 2023-24 season. As for Chibrikov, he remains a solid prospect who is expected to spend this season in the KHL but has yet to play a game with Moscow Spartak. Obviously the timetable for the arrival of Rashevsky and Chibrikov could vary, but both players remain part of the Jets' plans going forward.