For the Winnipeg Jets, like the other 31 teams in the NHL, life is all abuzz, and as of right now everyone is tied for first! Jets training camp is underway, and with their first preseason home game in the books — in front of fans no less — a pretty obvious issue became apparent. They have a number of really good forwards who aren’t going to be on the opening night roster.
Put yourself in the shoes of head coach Paul Maurice, and you may pose that smirk he delivers on occasion because what the average fan sees as problems, as opposed to the coaching staff, are always two entirely different issues. What a great problem for him to have! A number of offensive players that are good enough to play, just not ready … yet. At least on his team come opening night.
I could do some name-dropping and mention Mark Schiefele, Blake Wheeler, Nikolaj Ehlers, Kyle Connor, Pierre-Luc Dubois, Andrew Copp and Paul Stastny, but I am going to cut to the chase here. The fact remains that with Adam Lowry, Jansen Harkins (with 2021 experience), and the signing of Riley Nash to solidify the defensive side of the forward corps, very few spots remain available for new faces. So who fills those limited roster spots available?
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Maurice is a very cerebral and logical thinking coach, and in a press conference on September 27, he spoke to how young players take time to adjust to the game at the NHL level, and some may subsequently be better off playing 20 minutes a game with their American Hockey League (AHL) affiliate Manitoba Moose than they are playing eight minutes per game in the NHL. Don’t expect the Jets’ front office to rush any of their young talent into the lineup this year that is full of experience and laden with talent. It was very telling response to a question about youth entering the league.
So who then steps up and nabs one of the few remaining forward spots? Early reports say the most obvious would be left-handed shot Kristian Vesalainen. The 6-foot-3, 22 year-old Finnish winger has spent the past three seasons playing professional hockey with the Moose of the AHL, and has been on loan to pro teams in Europe developing his skills there while getting some spot duty with the Jets. All indications are that he is ready, and according to Maurice’s interview it won’t be on the fourth line.
What are Maurice’s Options?
A lot has been hyped about first round pick Cole Perfetti, and for good reason. Due to the oddity of the pandemic, junior aged players were allowed to play in the AHL last season, and Perfetti didn’t disappoint. In 32 games, the then-18-year-old scored 9 goals and added 17 assists. His 26 points was second on the team’s scoring and this from a young man who won’t turn 20 until New Year’s Day. Again according to Maurice’s philosophy this doesn’t bode well for him at the moment. This is a player who definitely needs more than fourth line minutes and starting the season with the Moose may be his best option for eventual success with the parent club.
David Gustafsson, a 21-year-old who plays the centre ice position, spent time on the NHL’s response to the pandemic, the Taxi Squad, allowing teams to maintain five extra players to maintain Covid-19 protocol. In 22 games with the Moose, he put up 19 points, and saw limited time on the ice for the Jets dressing for only four games last season after making appearances in 22 games the previous season.
Good organizations don’t rush young players, and with the Jets current level of depth up front, it may be a mistake to bring someone like Perfetti or Gustafsson up right away. Perhaps a mid-season call up is the answer, which then brings into play an interesting acquistion. Evgeny Schechnikov, a former first round selection of the Detroit Red Wings, who signed a one-year deal with the Moose in August. He brings offensive skill, size and one thing the others lack… experience. He has NHL time under his belt and, at 24 years-old, could provide a little more on-ice maturity than the younger players. He may pose another good problem for Maurice and the Jets’ coaching staff.
Dominic Toninato played in only eight games last year — three with the Moose, and five with the Jets, as he spent the season on the Jets’ Taxi Squad. But he, too, has NHL experience, spending a season each with the Colorado Avalanche and Florida Panthers before joining the Jets organization last year. He recently-signed a two-year deal so he’s not going anywhere, question is where does he fit the Jets/Moose puzzle?
The lineup is far from set and no one really knows how things will roll out on the ice in October but for Maurice himself. However, the current supply and demand of forwards to the Winnipeg Jets lends one to believe all the media hype surrounding this ability to put the puck in the net. The aforementioned players are all likely to see some ice time with the Jets this season, but not all will be there for the puck drop of the season opener.
Keith Forsyth is a freelance writer and sports junkie from rural Manitoba who is covering the Winnipeg Jets for The Hockey Writers. Keith loves all sports and is a huge fan of the NFL (Skol Vikings… if you know, you know) and the Montreal Expos (they’re coming back… you watch!). He recently retired from the education world teaching high school, where his greatest passion was coaching young athletes. He brings that same logical, behind the bench type of approach to you as he delivers an insightful look into the NHL and specifically the Jets. For interview requests or content info, follow Keith on Twitter or his social media accounts. They appear under his photo on articles like this one.