WINNIPEG – Morgan Barron spent the last month leaving a positive impression on his new employer, doing his best to show the Winnipeg Jets that he was ready for full-time duty.
A return ticket to the Manitoba Moose of the American Hockey League and his first crack at the Calder Cup playoffs.
Make no mistake, this trip to the minors is not a demotion for the versatile forward.
It’s another valuable opportunity to build on the work he’s been doing since he was acquired along with two second-round picks (one of which can turn into a first) and Andrew Copp from the New York Rangers on the day of the NHL trade deadline.
“I’m just trying to make lemonade out of the lemons,” Barron told reporters in Winnipeg on Wednesday. “Yeah, (it’s) a really good group. I got to know them that first week after the trade. They were really welcoming to me and I really enjoyed playing with them. I kind of had an inkling that I would be down here for the playoff run, so I’ve been gearing up for it and getting ready. I’m just excited to get down. Playoff hockey is different, whether it’s the AHL or the NHL, so I’m excited about that.”
Barron has shown well since the trade, appearing in five games with the Moose before suiting up in the final 14 games of the NHL season with the Jets.
Used mostly in a third- or fourth-line role, Barron did get a cameo on a line with Nikolaj Ehlers and Paul Stastny, flashing offensive flair to go along with a dependable two-way game, finishing with two goals and four points.
Trying to solidify a spot on a checking line with Adam Lowry and Mason Appleton can wait until training camp in September.
For the time being, the focus for Barron will be on doing his part to play significant minutes for the Moose and providing scoring on a team that features plenty of balance but not a lot of guys who would necessarily be considered game-breakers.
“We just have a lot of stick-togetherness, or whatever you want to call it,” Moose defenceman Johnny Kovacevic told reporters. “If you look up and down our lineup, we don’t really have anyone who’s leading the league in scoring or who’s even close, really. We just do it by committee.
“On any given night, any line could step up. I think the beauty of our team is our depth and that we don’t rely on one guy to score. We just rely on the whole team. I think we just play for each other. We play together.”
Thanks to his blend of size (6-foot-4, 220 pounds) and skill, Barron figures to be the type of player that can elevate his game when the stakes are highest.
“I’d like to think so. That’s part of my game, that I’ve always wanted to ramp up to that,” said Barron. “Those are the most meaningful games of the year for everybody. Everybody strives to be a player who can excel in that environment, and I hope to do that.”
Because of the pandemic, this is the first taste of professional playoff action for many members of the Moose, who open the first-round best-of-five series with the Milwaukee Admirals on Friday night in Wisconsin.
Barron has already been through a lot this season, but he’s fully invested in trying to help the Moose go deep.
“I want to win a Calder Cup. That’s the goal for everybody in that room,” said Barron. “It would be a pretty cool experience. Everyone that I’ve talked to who has gone on deep runs and have either won or come up a little short, everyone says it’s an absolute blast to do it. It’s a great group in there, so I’d love to do it with those guys.”
The Moose finished second in the Central Division with a record of 41-24-7 (89 points) and went 7-4-1 in 12 regular season meetings with the Admirals, whose leading scorer is Winnipegger Cody Glass, who had 14 goals and 62 points in 66 games this season after the sixth-overall pick in the 2017 NHL Draft was acquired by the Nashville Predators in a three-team deal that included the Vegas Golden Knights and Philadelphia Flyers.
Barron is far from the only member of the Moose who could boost their stock within the organization by going on a long playoff run during the coming weeks and months.
Dylan Samberg, D: Despite dealing with a pair of injuries – including a high-ankle sprain on the first day of Jets training camp – the 2017 second-rounder returns to the Moose with an incredible jolt of confidence given how he finished the NHL season. Not only did Samberg show that he’s ready for prime time, he looked right at home alongside Neal Pionk on the second pairing. There’s a calmness and composure to his game when it comes to his puck movement and he also brings an edge that will come in handy in the playoffs. Those first 15 NHL games will make him feel right at home when he sees his first playoff action since helping the University of Minnesota-Duluth Bulldogs capture a second straight NCAA Frozen Four title in 2019.
Ville Heinola, D: There’s little doubt the 2019 first-rounder would be frustrated by suiting up in only 12 games with the Jets this season, but he’s used his time with the Moose wisely, dedicating himself to improving his defensive game. Heinola is a dynamic player who can make a massive impact on the outcome, given his vast skill set. The best thing he can do is to dominate at this level and leave no doubt that the Jets need to make room for him among the defence corps this fall.
Johnny Kovacevic, D: The third-year pro has been an anchor on the Moose shutdown pair (often with Samberg) and also managed to deliver career highs in goals (11), assists (19) and points (30). Kovacevic got into the first four NHL games of his career this season and figures to not only compete for a roster spot with the Jets, he could be in the mix to be in the lineup, especially since he plays the right side and figures to be someone who could help with the penalty kill. Kovacevic won’t be exempt from waivers next season and you can expect for him to log big minutes against quality competition during the playoffs.
Declan Chisholm, D: The fleet-footed blue-liner suited up in his first two NHL games earlier this season and showed well, using his skating ability to assist with zone exits while defending well, despite his relative inexperience. Along with frequent partner Leon Gawanke, this pairing will be important when it comes to driving offensive play and moving the puck. Chisholm recently returned from an injury and started to turn the corner in last week’s games against the Abbotsford Canucks.
David Gustafsson, C: The 2021 Moose Most Valuable Player was limited to two NHL games this season due to the combination of suffering two fluke injuries and then landing in COVID-19 protocol (opening the door for Mikey Eyssimont to make his NHL debut). But he put that disappointment behind him and is ready to leave his mark on the postseason. Gustafsson is used in all situations and wants to leave no doubt in the mind of Jets brass that he’s ready for a promotion next season. Despite being limited to 47 games, Gustafsson finished tied for sixth in points with 30 and fourth in goals with 15. The last time Gustafsson suited up in a playoff game was in 2018-19, so you can be sure his enthusiasm level is going to be high.
Kristian Vesalainen, LW: Speaking of disappointment, the Jets’ 2017 first-rounder started the season in the NHL on the third line but was unable to take advantage of the opportunity. His offensive confidence was virtually non-existent once he was relegated to fourth-line duty, and he was eventually reassigned to the Moose after managing just two goals and three points in 53 games. The belief was that additional ice time and puck touches would help Vesalainen feel better about his game, but he hasn’t exactly been lighting it up, recording three goals and six points in 17 AHL games. The playoffs represent a full reset for Vesalainen and, as a pending restricted free agent, finishing the season on a high note is of the utmost importance.
Jeff Malott, LW: It’s been quite an ascension since signing an AHL deal with the Moose after completing his senior season with the Cornell Big Red. Malott has led the Moose in goals in each of the past two seasons, earned his first two-way NHL deal last offseason and made his NHL debut on March 20 against the Chicago Blackhawks. For a team that didn’t have enough secondary scoring this season, Malott is on the radar and wants to show he’s more than just a depth player or recall option.
Mikhail Berdin, G: This is the third consecutive season the 2016 sixth-rounder has been the Moose starter, but he battled injury and appeared in only 32 games while posting a record of 19-10-2 with a .902 save percentage and 2.40 goals-against average (his lowest since posting a 2.34 GAA as a rookie pro back in 2018-19). Although the Jets are expected to try to retain the services of pending Group 6 UFA Eric Comrie, Berdin has a one-way contract for next season and is no longer exempt from waivers. So, you could say he’ll have plenty of motivation to be at his best when it matters most.