Jets trying to stay focused as they limp into busiest stretch of season

Winnipeg Jets forward Kyle Connor discusses being on a line with fellow sniper Patrik Laine, and what a full season together might look like.

WINNIPEG — Clearly, this was not the way Paul Maurice drew it up.

The head coach of the Winnipeg Jets has been leaning on the theme of flexibility since training camp opened, so the fact he’s without two of his top-six defencemen as the busiest stretch of the season has arrived was met with a simple shrug of the shoulders.

Playing five games over seven days (and six in nine), beginning with Monday’s tilt against the Toronto Maple Leafs, Maurice was hoping the Jets would at least be close to full health.

That simply isn’t the case, with two notable absences on the back end in Dylan DeMelo and Tucker Poolman.

DeMelo stayed back in Winnipeg this week with his wife and newborn child.

Poolman, meanwhile, landed on the COVID-19 Protocol Related Absence list Saturday, when the Jets cancelled practice out of an abundance of caution (a phrase you will probably be hearing a lot this season).

To top things off, Jets forward Patrik Laine has been dealing with an upper-body issue during the past several days and has been ruled out, officially listed as day-to-day.

But even that comes with a caveat.

“There wasn’t anything in the game that he was worried about. He was aware of it, but it was just minor,” Maurice said Monday afternoon. “Then he came out (on Sunday) and couldn’t warm it up, it couldn’t get to the point where he felt comfortable with it. He treated it, rested it, same thing. He wants to be sure that he can perform with it. We’ve got to get this thing healed.

“I don’t have a timeline for you. I’m not looking at this, unless something changes, as long term. The day-to-day is an honest assessment in my mind of where he’s at. It’s going to get questioned because we happen to play six games in the next nine (nights). We want to get him back in the lineup, you wish you had more time between games to let it heal. We don’t, but we won’t put him back in until he’s confident that he can be the player that he was.”

Time to sound the alarm?

It’s way too early for that.

Given the long list of things the Jets dealt with last season alone, this doesn’t qualify as entirely new ground — even if it qualifies as a challenge.

The next-player-up mentality is alive and well, especially when borne out of necessity.

Time spent worrying about players who are not available is not time well spent.

That doesn’t mean those players are forgotten, but they still have to be replaced, even if only temporarily.

Laine was a dominant force in the Jets’ season opener, producing two goals, including the overtime winner, and an assist in Thursday’s 4-3 victory over the Calgary Flames.

He also caught the attention of his teammates by coming to the defence of Kyle Connor after he was on the receiving end of a cross-check from behind by Noah Hanifin.

Laine showed his investment level in all facets of his game and when he plays at that level he’s a dominant force — and difficult for opponents to deal with.

“Unlike time in the past, I feel like we have a place to point to where his confidence base comes from. He came to camp and worked like a pro. He’s in good shape, he’s big, he’s strong but that doesn’t matter. What matters is that from the very first drill, he just pushed himself and everybody noticed it,” said Maurice.

“Fifteen minutes into practice, they’re going, ‘Who’s this 6-5 guy who’s battling in the corners with unbelievable hands. So that’s where his performance ... take away the goals, obviously, that I think we’ve always known about Patrik and we’ve seen it from his Day 1 in the NHL. But the play away from the puck and the battling in the corner.

“You watch that Calgary game, that’s a different player than most of you have seen. A different player than we’ve seen. This guy now is morphing into a dominant power forward and that’s where we point to. When we got to a point where if he wasn’t scoring and he came back (to the bench) and that frustration started to build, we would remind him of the training camp and the work that he put in — and the payoff was the way that he played and the way that he looked on opening night.”

Players like the one Maurice just described are tough — if not impossible — to replace.

But guess what, the Maple Leafs won’t take pity on the Jets for not having Laine available, nor will the Jets be wasting time feeling sorry for themselves.

Those prime-time minutes need to be filled internally.

Same goes for Laine’s production, but the Jets still have plenty of skill left in the lineup.

Laine’s absence opens the door for Jansen Harkins to make his season debut and Mathieu Perreault to move up from the fourth line to the second.

Harkins himself went from being a shining light in the first scrimmage (with a goal and an assist) to being sidelined with a lower-body issue of his own.

On the back end, the absence of Poolman means that Sami Niku goes from being firmly “in the top eight” to being on the top pair with Josh Morrissey.

It also means that 2016 first-rounder Logan Stanley is set to make his NHL debut on Monday — in his home province, roughly an hour from his hometown and against the team he grew up watching.

About the only thing missing will be having his family in the stands cheering him on.

“Obviously I would love to have my family and my friends here tonight. It's a pretty special night for me and definitely something I've dreamed of for a long time,” Stanley said following the morning skate Monday. “Once you're drafted, it doesn't mean as much as you think it does. I think being a first-round pick, there was extra pressure. But as I got older I kind of learned how to tune that out and just go and play hockey.

“Everyone takes a different amount of time to develop into the player that they're going to become. Some guys are going to be quicker and some guys are going to take a little bit longer.”

Stanley had a solid season as a rookie pro, but things didn’t come easy last season, as he dealt with several injuries and didn’t perform up to a level he was happy with.

“After last season I obviously wasn't happy with the way it went. It was unfortunate getting hurt a few times. But I wasn't happy with the season I had,” said Stanley, who is six-foot-seven and 228 pounds. “I made some changes to how I trained and what I was doing. I just knew that this was a big year. Pedal to the metal, and worked out as hard as I could this summer, and it's kind of paying off here tonight.”

Jets centre Mark Scheifele spent a lot of time skating and training with Stanley and has seen that progress first-hand.

“Honestly, I started to see a lot more of his growth the last two summers when I went back and spent a little more time in Kitchener. Proud Kitchener boy, so it’s always good to see a guy like that making his way into the NHL,” said Scheifele. “Obviously, his size is a huge aspect of his game. I skated with him a bunch in the off-season. I saw a lot of growth in his game, even just from that point in September to where he is now.

“I saw him in the gym a lot, saw him on the ice a lot, he put in the work this summer. So you love to see a guy who puts that much work in, who works as hard as he did this off-season, get his chance and be with us. It’ll be awesome to see him (play). Having a big body presence like that that can move the puck and shoot the puck like he can. It’s good to see a guy that works so hard get what he deserves.”

The Jets have a number of young defence prospects in the system, including Dylan Samberg (who looked solid in his first NHL training camp after three seasons with the University of Minnesota-Duluth Bulldogs) and Ville Heinola, who has emerged from quarantine and was added to the taxi squad after helping Finland earn a bronze medal at the world juniors in Edmonton.

Maurice explained why Stanley is the one who gets the first opportunity to jump into the lineup.

“If there have been silver linings to this situation, one of them is that (Stanley) got a really extended conditioning period and he made the most of it. So he came back as a man, bigger, stronger, faster, able to close gaps. So he really, in our mind, turned pro this year,” said Maurice. “Very unfortunate for all of these kind of young defencemen that we have that there were no exhibition games. So he’s going to get thrown right into the fire and we tried to pick the hardest team for him to play against — (Toronto has) an awful lot of skill and an awful lot of speed.

“But if you look just at the positives, which I think in these days is the best way to look at things, he’s a Kitchener-Waterloo kid that would have grown up watching the Toronto Maple Leafs, turns pro and his first NHL game is in Toronto. We’re happy for him. He’s done the work to give himself the opportunity and, clearly, it’s a great test for him with the players and the speed that he’s going to see but a great measuring stick to where he’s at in his young career.”

Here’s how the Jets figure to start tonight vs Toronto:

Nikolaj Ehlers-Mark Scheifele-Blake Wheeler
Kyle Connor-Paul Stastny-Mathieu Perreault
Andrew Copp-Adam Lowry-Mason Appleton
Jansen Harkins-Nate Thompson-Trevor Lewis

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