Jets’ Heinola, Samberg making cases for sixth spot on defence in loss to Oilers

Dylan Holloway scored the game-tying goal midway through the third period and Devin Shore tallied the lone goal in the shootout as the Edmonton Oilers inched past the Winnipeg Jets 3-2.

WINNIPEG — Numbers are dwindling and opportunities to nail down spots on the periphery of the roster are about to become fewer and farther between.

As the Winnipeg Jets reached the three-quarter point of the pre-season schedule, several decisions remain open for debate.

With Rick Bowness and the coaching staff looking for some separation in the competition for roster spots, it says here that several jobs still have a vacancy sign attached to them heading into the final two exhibition games — a home-and-home series with the Calgary Flames left on the docket Wednesday in Winnipeg and Friday in Alberta.

A 3-2 shootout loss to the Edmonton Oilers strengthened the bids of several players on the bubble, but the positional battle that drew the most interest heading into training camp remains mostly wide open.

The logjam on the blue line remains, even after the Jets reduced the roster by 16 players on Saturday afternoon, getting the number of defencemen down to 10.

It would appear five of the six jobs available for the opening-night roster are spoken for: with incumbents Josh Morrissey, Dylan DeMelo, Neal Pionk, Brenden Dillon and Nate Schmidt all locked in.

The sixth spot has yet to be nailed down, with Ville Heinola and Dylan Samberg appearing to have established a leg up on Logan Stanley, and Johnny Kovacevic and Kyle Capobianco also surviving Saturday’s deep trimming. Prospect Declan Chisholm did not, though he’s going to be given top-pairing minutes with the Manitoba Moose and should re-enter the equation before long.

Heinola clearly had his best showing of three pre-season games on Saturday, as he did an outstanding job of distributing the puck on a top power-play unit that struck twice in six opportunities.

Heinola’s puck-movement and ability to create seams is an obvious strength for a man-advantage that is looking for a boost this season.

But Heinola turned the puck over on the Oilers’ first goal and, even though Bowness laid some of the blame for that miscue on the forwards for not being in a proper position, he also took a minor penalty for tripping.

Despite a few hiccups, Heinola played with more confidence and showed far more signs of a guy who could make an impact this season if given the opportunity.

Samberg meanwhile was paired on his off side with Heinola and was used again to kill penalties, logging just under 17 minutes despite taking a minor penalty of his own.

Samberg isn’t flashy and doesn’t have the same offensive upside as Heinola, but he’s a more consistent defender and still can move the puck effectively while bringing a bit more of an edge to the defence corps.

So, Mr. Bowness, what’s it going to take for one of these D-men to pull away from the competition and make your job a bit easier?

“It’s different roles. It will come down to that, the role we’re looking for from the third pairing D,” said Bowness. “Do we need a power-play guy, do we need a penalty-killing guy, do we need a physical guy? It’s really going to come down to the needs of the team at the time.

“We’ll have to make those determinations over the next week.”

Some clues may begin to emerge since the Jets have three full practice days scheduled before the next game action, but the reality of the situation is that the final decision might not be made until after the sixth pre-season game.

So, as the defensive decision attracts the most attention, 2022 first-rounder Brad Lambert seems to have vaulted himself into the middle of the forward competition after a second straight strong outing.

Lambert had an assist wiped out by a successful coach’s challenge for offside, but once again provided a glimpse of his vast potential, finishing with four shots on goal and five shot attempts in just over 16 minutes of action.

Bowness was so impressed by Lambert that he gave him three shifts during the five minute three-on-three overtime session — where Lambert nearly ended the game with an explosive individual effort that was turned aside by Oilers goalie Stuart Skinner.

Lambert also got a shot with the Jets’ first power-play unit, when Blake Wheeler was in the box serving a fighting major for coming to the aid of Schmidt, and later was tapped on the shoulder for the shootout, where he made a slick move to the backhand before his shot rattled off the post.

Bowness went to his trademark answer of ‘we’ll see’ — which means he knows but he’s not yet ready to share publicly when asked if Lambert was working his way into the equation?

“In open ice, he’s going to make something happen,” said Bowness. “I love the way that he gets the puck and just goes. For an 18 year old kid, he’s confident with the puck.”

Is he ever.

Now that Lambert has stacked consecutive games together, his next challenge is to make an impact against what should be closer to a full NHL roster when the Flames come to town.

Speaking of forwards who are confident with the puck on their stick, it was another solid showing for Cole Perfetti.

The 10th-overall pick in the 2020 NHL Draft chipped in a pair of goals — his first two of the pre-season — while having an assist wiped out by the aforementioned coach’s challenge.

Perfetti looks right at home on a line with Pierre-Luc Dubois and Wheeler and is showing no signs of the shoulder and back injuries that ended last season prematurely.

“Great hockey sense. He’s a real smart player and can make plays and can go to the right spots,” said Wheeler. “He thinks the game at an NHL level. He’s going to be a guy that’s going to be a lot of fun to watch here for a long time.”

Earlier in the day, Jets associate coach Scott Arniel said Perfetti was likely to play in five pre-season games to help him get ready for the regular season.

“I need to get up to speed and to make sure everything is good with the injury,” said Perfetti. “My health and all that is the most important thing. It’s been great. Each game I’ve felt better and better. That’s kind of my focus, for each game to find something and take that next step forward.”

Perfetti has clearly shown he’s ready for a spot on one of the top two lines, though the competition for the fourth-line spots is going down to the wire. Plus, the left-wing position with Adam Lowry and Mason Appleton remains very much up for grabs.

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