Jets picks McGroarty, Lambert take unique paths to NHL Draft

Watch as the Winnipeg Jets take forward Rutger McGroarty with the 14th overall pick in the 2022 NHL Draft.

MONTREAL — Rutger McGroarty comes across as an individual who has no issues with self-awareness.

The 14th overall selection in the 2022 NHL Draft knows what he’s good at and makes no apologies for where he was chosen, no matter what your mock boards may have suggested.

The versatile power forward also knows what requires some additional attention.

That’s why the first of two Winnipeg Jets first-rounders has enlisted the help of legendary skating instructor Barb Underhill to help him with the aspect of his game that needs the most improvement.

“For me I would say my skating. I’ve definitely improved over the past year. It’s something I’m going to be working on the rest of my career,” McGroarty said moments after he heard his name called inside the Bell Centre. “(Underhill) has been my very first skating coach and I’ve just started working with her last summer. I’m really excited to work with her. She sees a lot of potential in my skating. We love each other and have a great relationship so I’m really looking forward to it.

“For me it has been my first skating coach. I’m kind of soaking everything in like a sponge. The number one thing would just be don’t be so tense. When I get tense I feel like I don’t have good core strength, my stride gets choppy. Everything just kind of goes downhill from there. Relax my shoulders, just be relaxed out there and have fun.”

McGroarty was the first player drafted from Nebraska since the Pittsburgh Penguins chose forward Jake Guentzel in the third round of the 2013 draft.

While Nebraska is known as being a football state, McGroarty only played flag football growing u. But that doesn’t mean he shies away from contact in hockey — he embraces it openly and it’s a great compliment to his ability to put the puck in the net.

McGroarty’s father Jim played professionally for seven seasons and he’s now in his third season as the general manager of the Muskegon Lumberjacks of the USHL.

“He’s from Toronto. I was born on a Tuesday and I went to a playoff hockey game on a Friday. I was really born into it. I love hockey and I’ve loved it for a very long time. I wouldn’t have it any other way,” said McGroarty, whose dad previously coached the Omaha Lancers. “I would say the main place (his natural leadership ability) came from was being in a USHL locker room from five to nine years old.

“I feel I matured a lot quicker than most younger kids. Also just being that kid from Nebraska, I feel like I’m equal with everybody. I come to work every single day. I feel like those are the main things.”

McGroarty said he had between around 100 friends and family members in attendance with him in Montreal, reinforcing the belief that it takes a village to reach this stage of your career.

“Honestly, they're just really good people that care for me. And everybody's kind of made an impact on my life and kind of helped me get to this point,” said McGroarty, who suited up for the U.S. National Development Team Program and was the captain for Team USA at the recent World U-18 men’s hockey championship. “So we just wanted to extend the invite and everyone ended up coming. So I'm happy to have them.

McGroarty’s passion for the game was overflowing, as was his pride for blazing a trail for those from Cornhusker Country.

“I just like to show that ‘hey, I’m a kid from Nebraska — a non-traditional hockey market — and hopefully someone sees me talking right now and says ‘I’m from Nebraska and I want to play some hockey,’” said McGroarty. “I wouldn’t say anomaly, I would just say I want to inspire other kids from those non-traditional hockey markets and it’s really cool.”

The Jets added a second forward prospect with the 30th overall pick by selecting Finnish winger Brad Lambert.

Once projected as a top-five pick, Lambert was unable to get much going in terms of his offensive production while suiting up in Liiga, but he’s known for his skating ability and edge work.

Lambert admitted to feeling some nerves on draft day as he waited patiently for his name to be called, but if dropping to the bottom of the first round bothered him, he showed no outward signs of annoyance.

“To be perfectly honest with you, it doesn’t matter. The only thing that matters is what I do from here on forward. Anyone in this draft can be a boom or a bust. Work ethic and stuff like that is what is going to get you to be a boom player,” said Lambert, whose father Ross is from Saskatoon and played hockey professionally for more than a decade. “That’s going to help me going forward. It’s going to help me take the next step. At the end of the day I might have (fallen) to 30, but I can go back up just as quick. I think I have the skill and speed. I think I have one of the best skill sets in the draft. I believe in my skill, so I believe I can go back up there next year.”

While McGroarty has committed to suiting up for the University of Michigan Wolverines program this fall, Lambert has a decision to make about his own future.

After two years of playing in Finland, there’s a distinct chance he could start his transition to the North American game either in the Western Hockey League with the Seattle Thunderbirds (who recently acquired his rights from the Saskatoon Blades) or with the Manitoba Moose in the American Hockey League.

Jets GM Kevin Cheveldayoff wasn’t providing any hints of what direction he was leaning regarding where he thought Lambert’s development would be best served, though he expressed his excitement of bringing him into the organization as the picks started coming off the board.

“You rely on your scouts, you’re not relying on anyone else’s scouts or any outside publications. It’s the work you do as an organization, the due diligence you do as an organization, that gets put into the final list,” said Cheveldayoff. “Everything else is just outside noise. We have to stay like that. When you have that kind of conviction, you end up generally getting some really good players.”

The Jets were looking to replenish the forward prospect pool if they could and were able to do so by selecting two of them in the first round for the first time since 2015, when they added Kyle Connor (17th) and Jack Roslovic (25th).

There was plenty of discussion going into the draft about the wide disparity in each team’s draft boards and projections but at the end of the day, things weren’t quite as wild as anticipated, outside of the shake up at the top of the draft board that included Juraj Slafkovsky going first overall to the Montreal Canadiens and Shane Wright slipping to fourth to the Seattle Kraken.

“You’ve got a guy higher on your list and you’re waiting to see, waiting to see, waiting to see. You get a good feeling. The interesting thing is, and I know I said that I thought there would be a lot of spraying in the list where it would kind of go off the map. I was wrong,” said Cheveldayoff, referring to the 32 players chosen, not necessarily where they went in relation to those projections. “It was really tight. As far as maybe where people got picked, so to speak, the numbers were maybe there. As far as the people we had rated, a lot of them went, just in different areas. An exciting first day here and I’m looking forward to getting to the next one.”

While the Jets didn’t move up or down on Thursday, Cheveldayoff wasn’t providing any hints about whether or not he could enter the trade market on Friday as Day 2 of the draft continues with rounds two through seven (the Jets next scheduled pick is 55th overall).

Asked if Thursday’s activity provided any sense of what the prices could be, Cheveldayoff kept his cards close to the vest although there’s been plenty of speculation that the organization and captain Blake Wheeler could be open to moving on from one another.

“It's really been about picks for us,” said Cheveldayoff. “I think some of the players that moved, the markets are different than the markets we'd be shopping in.”

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