After playing an abbreviated 2020-21 schedule against all Canadian opponents, the Manitoba Moose are back in the AHL’s Central Division for a much more traditional 2021-22 campaign.
The Winnipeg Jets’ primary affiliate, under the tutelage of new head coach Mark Morrison, will begin their 72-game slate Saturday in Toronto against the Marlies with a number of promising prospects in the lineup to keep an eye on.
These players will have big opportunities to skate meaningful minutes and hone their craft in hopes either improving their organizational stock or proving they’re ready to make the jump to the big club when opportunities arise throughout the season.
Without further ado, here are three Manitoba Moose to watch this season.
Note: This article does not include Cole Perfetti because as of publishing, he is on the Jets’ roster.
1) David Gustafsson
The 21-year-old Swede was one of the final cuts of Jets’ training camp, being assigned to the Moose on Monday.
Gustafsson was certainly the conversation to claim a fourth-line role out of camp at either left wing or centre, but the Jets will go with some combination of Jansen Harkins, Riley Nash, Cole Perfetti, and Evgeny Svechnikov to begin the season.
The 2020-21 Moose MVP, Gustafsson recorded seven goals and 12 assists for 19 points in 22 games last season, and will play a big role for the AHL club this season. He will log big minutes for the Moose rather than battle for a few minutes here and there on the Jets, head coach Paul Maurice said Sunday.
“I really liked his camp. I really like this guy as a player and the role he’s going to develop into,” Maurice said. “To take that other fourth line, or centre, or left-wing job, I want to be sure he’s going to play minutes in that role and if not — if it’s going to he’s going to fight with those other two guys to get in the lineup — then he should be playing 20 minutes a night. That’s what it’s all about.”
“We thought he made huge strides last year in the (AHL) touching the puck, making plays, shooting the puck, getting the confidence to have some offensive part to his game. We’d like to see that develop. I really like the kid. I like where he’s at,” Maurice continued.
The big-bodied Gustafsson, at 6-foot-2, 212-pounds, is the type of consistent and hard-working role player every team needs. He has 26 games of NHL experience, suiting up for 22 games in 2019-20 and four in 2020-21.
He should be one of the first call-ups if changes are needed on the bottom six.
2) Jonathan Kovacevic
Jonathan Kovacevic is on the cusp of breakout out. A 2017 third-round selection, the 6-foot-5, 220-pound defenseman has caught the organization’s eye after two solid seasons with the Moose in which his role increased exponentially.
In 2020-21, the right-hander recorded two goals and 12 assists in 29 games and was tied for the team lead with a plus-10 rating, leading to him being honoured as the team’s best defenseman. He re-signed a one-year, two-way deal in August.
Kovacevic is now firmly on the radar after three preseason games, and should get big minutes on the Moose this season. He plays a heavy game, but also brings a high level of intelligence to the ice.
“He’s a big man, he moves well, but that’s something he’s worked at — his foot speed,” Paul Maurice said recently. “If you can process the game quickly, then you can speed your own game up.”
“He’s a bright man. Because the systems in the NHL are probably more important than anywhere else, it’s really important that you adhere to a game plan for the other players on the ice. Sometimes the game gets easier — the higher the level, the easier the game is to play — if you can process it.”From “Kovacevic watching, learning, improving,” Winnipeg Free Press, Oct. 1, 2021.
GM Kevin Cheveldayoff bolstered the Jets’ blue line in a big way this offseason, making two high-profile trades for top-four talents, which will make Kovacevic’s path to big-league work more challenging.
But could he be on a similar trajectory to Logan Stanley, who was slow to develop and needed to toil for a couple of seasons in the AHL before being ready to contribute at the NHL level? Jets brass will certainly be hoping so.
3) Jeff Malott
Jeff Malott could be so-called “found money.” He isn’t exactly prospect-aged at 25 years old, but the relatively un-feted forward made quite the impression for the Moose last season.
Malott led the team in goals, impressive considering it was his rookie professional campaign. He lit the lamp 14 times and added six assists for 20 points in 34 games.
Hailing from Burlington, Ont., Malott played two seasons with the AJHL’s Brooks Bandits before enjoying a four-year college career at Cornell University. In 114 games for Cornell, he recorded 24 goals and 29 assists for 53 points.
The 6-foot-3, 204-pound left-hander inked a one-year, two-way contract in May and enjoyed a nice preseason, recording one goal and one assist in a pair of games.
He certainly won’t be the first forward called up, but should be a nice producer this season nonetheless.
Declan Schroeder is a 26-year-old communications specialist and freelance journalist in Winnipeg, Manitoba. He holds a diploma in Creative Communications with a major in journalism from Red River College and a bachelors in Rhetoric and Communications from the University of Winnipeg.
Deeply rooted in the city’s hockey culture, the original Jets skipped town when he was two and the 2.0 version came onto the scene when he was 17.