WINNIPEG — Rutger McGroarty has several important reasons for delaying his professional hockey journey.
After a week of providing a glimpse of his hockey future with other prospects at the Winnipeg Jets development camp, one stands out above the rest.
“I want to come in and make an impact. I don’t want to come in and just be another guy,” said McGroarty, the 14th-overall pick in the 2022 NHL Draft. “I want to come in and be 100 per cent ready and be more mature, get another year under my belt, get stronger, get faster, work on my skating, work on my goal scoring. I really want to make an impact when I get here.”
Now, that’s not to diminish McGroarty’s other goals, which include pursuing a Frozen Four national championship during his sophomore season with the University of Michigan Wolverines or a gold medal with the United States at the 2024 World Junior Hockey Championship in Sweden in December and January.
Those things are obviously important for the budding power forward as well.
“I feel like the big things next year; world juniors and winning a national championship, those are two things that… and that’s another part of going back,” said McGroarty. “I mean, I’m fully committed to my team at Michigan and we’ve got some unfinished business (from) the past two years, so we’re going for it this year.”
Once those two things are accomplished, one would expect McGroarty’s name to make its way onto his entry-level contract with the Jets and the next steps of the journey will be taken.
During the course of this past week, McGroarty’s 1,000-watt grin made its way into hundreds of camera phones during the walk between rinks at the Hockey For All Centre in Winnipeg.
Posing for photos isn’t a job requirement at the NHL level, but the level of engagement from McGroarty and virtually every player this week was impressive to see.
This was the first development camp held by the Jets since 2019, so the enthusiasm from both the players and the fan base was a natural reaction.
But at a time when the Jets’ core group is going through a natural progression, with the departure of Blake Wheeler and Pierre-Luc Dubois and the future of Mark Scheifele and Connor Hellebuyck still up in the air, the importance of seeing a glimmer of the next wave of Jets was important. Even if there is a legitimate possibility that none of the players on the ice in Jets practice jerseys will be in the opening night lineup on Oct. 11 against the Calgary Flames.
That’s not to say it isn’t possible for someone like Brad Lambert or Colby Barlow or Elias Salomonsson to make the team with an outstanding training camp in September and October, but the majority of the top prospects still require a bit of seasoning before they’re ready for a look at the NHL level.
The same can be said for McGroarty, which is why he’s turning his attention to taking his game to the next level.
“I’ve just gotten better in all aspects of my game. I feel like I just have another year under my belt. I feel like my style of game is never going to change,” said McGroarty, when asked how his game has developed since being selected by the Jets last summer in Montreal. “Feel like I’m the same player. But I have another year under my belt, and feel like skating it’s something I’m always going to be working on throughout my career and it’s gotten a lot better.
“Like I said, I’m still going to continue to work on it. Still (getting) better and better. But I feel like all aspects of my game have just matured and I’ve gotten better.”
That progression was evident during the second half of his freshman season with the Wolverines, which included a strong offensive finish, leaving him with 18 goals and 39 points in 39 games.
“I think at the start he was kind of finding his game and catching up to the speed of the game and understanding what his good qualities were and what he was as a player. I think it took him a little bit to start,” said Jets director of player development Jimmy Roy. “What you saw by the end of the year is that he was a big part of the team, he got up to speed. He knew how to use his skills of finding open areas, his release.
“He’s a pretty physically mature kid; how to use his body. As an 18-year-old kid against college level bigger stronger players, it took him a bit to find his role and what he was doing, but I thought he really excelled.”
McGroarty also played an important role off the ice during the past several weeks before he even arrived at Jets development camp.
Attending the 2023 NHL Draft in Nashville, he was on hand to support Wolverines linemates Adam Fantilli and Gavin Brindley — who both ended up with the Columbus Blue Jackets — but he also embraced the opportunity to welcome several Jets prospects to the organization.
Why was that important for someone who was chosen one year ago and has yet to suit up for an actual game with the organization?
“It takes a village,” said McGroarty. “There (were) a lot of reasons for me to go; supporting my teammates, supporting guys that I’ve trained with over the years, guys that I’ve played with.
“So it’s really cool seeing those guys and seeing how hard they’ve worked and seeing their dreams come true and get drafted in the NHL.”
McGroarty also introduced himself to Barlow, the 18th-overall selection, shortly after the Owen Sound Attack captain was chosen by the Jets.
“I shot him a text I think like 20 seconds after he got drafted. It happens I was just sitting next to a guy who had his phone number, I’m like, ‘oh, I might as well get him, shoot him a text,’” said McGroarty. “He’s a great kid, I mean, we’ve hit it off right from the very start. He’s just very high energy, laughing, always having fun, but also he’s a really competitive kid. He’s always competing. And I feel like we’re very similar in ways and it’s a lot of fun to have a guy like that.”
McGroarty and Barlow were attached at the hip this past week, whether it was posing for the aforementioned photos, competing against one another on and off the ice, or taking over the Jets Instagram account.
“We both had a blast. Everybody did. It was a great camp for everybody to learn and get to know each other. It feels like I’ve known these guys for 10 years and we’ve been here for six days,” said Barlow, who is hoping to suit up for Canada at the world junior championship along with Jets goalie prospect Domenic DiVincentiis. “I’ve got a lot of work to do this summer, but it’s exciting work. I’ll push myself to be the best player and person I can be.”
It’s not hard to envision a scenario not too far down the road where McGroarty and Barlow are either skating alongside one another or with the likes of fellow first-rounders Chaz Lucius (who was in a non-contact jersey this week but nearly healthy after season-ending shoulder surgery), Cole Perfetti (10th overall in 2020) and Lambert (30th overall in 2022) and other high picks like Nikita Chibrikov (second round in 2021) and Zach Nehring (third round in 2023) in what figures to be a highly skilled and hardworking forward group.
The way McGroarty sees it, the best is yet to come. And when he arrives with the Jets, whenever that time may be, he’s going to be well on his way of achieving that goal of becoming an impact player.