Part of the NHL’s detailed return-to-play proposal is the provision to allow the participants of the proposed 24-team playoff format to expand their training camp rosters to 28 skaters and an unlimited number of goaltenders.
With the AHL officially cancelling the rest of the regular season and Calder Cup Playoffs earlier this month owing to the COVID-19 pandemic, it opens up the possibility for some members of the Manitoba Moose to join the Jets when Phase III gets underway, likely no sooner than July 10, according to Elliotte Friedman.
In a recent media conference call, Jets’ general manager Kevin Cheveldayoff said he 16 healthy forwards and 10 healthy defensemen, meaning he could add at least two skaters in addition to goaltenders. Here’s a look at some candidates for the so-called “taxi squad.”
Bringing up the flashy, enigmatic Russian goaltender would get the internal competition going that will exist in the future between him and Laurent Brossoit if Brossoit to re-signs in the offseason.
Berdin, who finished his sophomore Moose campaign with a 20-21-1 along with a 2.89 GAA, .910 SV%, and two shutouts, has developed quite a bit in two seasons and the extra training camp could help him along even further.
Perhaps Jets’ goaltending coach Wade Flaherty could help the 22-year-old better channel the aggressive, unorthodox style — for example, his penchant for throwing checks behind the net, trying to score, and playing the puck in sometimes wacky fashions — that has made him a fan favourite and a viral internet sensation but also a bit of a wild card at times.
The towering Russian forward, brought in for cheap depth prior to the season, played well in his first North American season.
The 27-year-old posted seven goals and 18 assists for 25 points and recorded 75 penalty minutes in 53 games for the Moose. He also played 2 games for the Jets, making his NHL debut on Feb. 16 against the Chicago Blackhawks.
The 6-foot-4, 235-pound Prokopyevsk native is a physical force to be reckoned with and is never afraid to get into the dirty areas. He also has surprisingly soft hands for such a big man.
The other Moose goalie who would join the taxi squad is Eric Comrie. To say he had a whirlwind season would be an understatement.
He began his season with the Moose, but was claimed off waivers by the Arizona Coyotes three days before the AHL campaign got underway.
After sitting idle for a month, he was assigned to the Tucson Roadrunners for conditioning purposes and made four starts, going 4-0-0-0. He was then traded to the Detroit Red Wings, where he made two starts, including one against the Jets.
He returned to the Jets organization in mid-December, after they claimed him off waivers to provide some goaltending depth for Berdin, who was run ragged by that point due to the Moose having no viable backup.
Between then and the season cancellation, Comrie went 6-9-0-0 with a 2.51 GAA, .918 SV%, and one shutout in 16 Moose appearances.
Like Comrie, Gustafsson was well-traveled in 2019-20. The rookie two-way forward made the Jets out of training camp and played 22 big-league games, scoring one goal.
He then went to the Czech Republic to play for Sweden in the 2020 World Juniors before being reassigned to the Moose in early January. However, an injury he suffered in the bronze medal game kept him out of the lineup until February.
Gustafsson took a few games to get up to speed after getting healthy, but made a good impression overall, scoring two goals and adding five assists for seven points in 13 games and finding chemistry with Kristian Vesalainen. He’s already a strong, smart, and responsible player who is very much part of the Jets’ future.
The 26-year-old Suess had his best AHL season since being selected in the fifth round of the 2014 NHL Entry Draft. The St. Paul, Minnesota product recorded 14 goals and 13 assists for 27 points in 57 games, good for fifth on the Moose.
Like Chibisov and Gustafsson, Suess also made his Jets’ debut in 2019-20, suiting up for a game against the San Jose Sharks on Nov. 1 and skating 6:36.
The 21-year-old had an up and down season, his first full one in North America after deciding in 2019-20 to go back to Europe and play for Jokerit rather than sticking around with the Moose to learn the North American game.
The first-round 2017 pick did record 12 goals and 18 assists for 30 points, but struggled with consistently. While possessing a great shot and power play prowess, he was often invisible at even strength and unwilling to use his 6-foot-4, 230-pound frame to his advantage.
He is still on his way to becoming an impactful NHLer, but his development has been slower than most hoped and he doesn’t seem ready for a full-time roster spot next season. He could surely benefit from some summer work.
The Moose Coaching Staff
Cheveldayoff also touched on bolstering the Jets’ coaching staff.
Moose head coach Pascal Vincent, a close compatriot and trusted ear of Jets’ head coach Paul Maurice, could take the spot behind the bench vacated by former assistant Todd Woodcroft, who recently took a job as the head coach of the University of Vermont Catamounts.
Vincent — who just finished his fourth season as Moose bench boss — worked as a Jets’ assistant coach for five seasons between 2011-12 and 2015-16, with two-and-a-half of those being under Maurice.
“There’s going to be limitations as to what and who is going to be able to be around the team… but I think what we would probably do is have Pascal being a part of the group,” Cheveldayoff said.
Cheveldayoff said other Moose staff could also be involved. That staff includes video coach Richard Bue, goaltending coach Rick St. Croix, defensive coach Eric Dubois, forwards coach Marty Johnston.
Jets Young D-Men Likely Won’t Join Club
When asked if Dylan Samberg — who signed an entry-level deal with the Jets in April after his third season at the University of Duluth — or Ville Heinola — who impressed with the Jets in eight early-season games before heading back to Finland — could join the team to give them some seasoning, Cheveldayoff said, “In a perfect world, you’d love to have that.”
However, he explained the bubble of players they could associate safely would be quite small and he wasn’t sure if it was something the team would be allowed to do. “The primary focus here is going to be about the safety of the players, the coaches, the support staff — the people that are around this group that is coming back — not so much the great experience that it might be for anyone else,” he said.
Phase III Still a Long Way Off
There’s still plenty that needs to happen before we get to Phase III. Phase II — which allows players to work out together in groups of six or fewer with a number of restrictions in place — needs to go well first.
The Jets also need to find a way to get their players — most of whom are not currently in Winnipeg — back to the city. Currently, anyone coming into Manitoba from the U.S. must self-isolate for 14 days, which means players Stateside are better off staying put so they don’t have to sit idle for two weeks. Cheveldayoff has said moving training camp to the U.S. is not something he’s “contemplated at this point.”
Like everything else in the COVID-19 era, plans remain in flux and could easily change between now and next week or month. Regardless, it’s nice to talk about a potential return to hockey action and how that return could play out.