The calendar is lurching ever-closer to the start of the 2022-23 NHL season and the Winnipeg Jets’ opening game on Oct. 14 is less than two weeks away. Here, we’ll take a look at some of the biggest stories of the preseason thus far.
1) Jets Roster Is Coming into Clearer Focus
As that tilt with the New York Rangers nears, the number of bodies in training camp has been reduced drastically and the roster is closer to how it will be when games start to count.
Most recently, Arvid Holm and Kristian Reichel were sent to the Manitoba Moose for the start of the AHL team’s training camp, and Kevin Stenlund was placed on waivers with the intention of being assigned to the Moose as well.
A 16-man cut on Saturday saw forwards Wyatt Bongiovanni, Alex Limoges, Chaz Lucius, Henri Nikkanen, Daniel Torgersson; defensemen Tyrel Bauer, Declan Chisholm, and Simon Lundmark; and goaltender Oskari Salminen all assigned to the Moose.
Forwards Mikey Eyssimont and Jeff Malott, and defensemen Leon Gawanke and Ashton Sautner assigned to the Manitoba Moose pending waivers, which they all cleared. Forwards Nicholas Jones, Cole Maier, and Evan Polei were all released from PTOs and will report to the Moose as well.
Not a ton of the cuts are surprising as they are mostly prospects or waiver-exempt players. Lucius and Torgersson had strong preseason showings — Torgersson scored a pair of goals last week against the Ottawa Senators — and Chisholm and Gawanke were outside chances to crack the big club’s back-end, but will at least begin the season on the farm.
In late September, the Jets sent 2022 draft picks Domenic DiVincentiis and Danny Zhilkin back to their OHL teams (the North Bay Battalion and the Guelph Storm, respectively) and loaned Dmitry Kuzmin to the Flint Firebirds.
The roster needs to be reduced to 23 by opening night and while most spots are spoken for, there will still be a few battles on the bottom six and blue line to keep an eye on. More on all that below.
2) Brad Lambert’s Electric Play
Brad Lambert was so good on Saturday night he was actually trending on Twitter.
He didn’t record a point in the eventual 3-2 shootout loss to the Edmonton Oilers, but the 30th-overall 2022 pick was flying and obviously turning observers’ heads.
“Big Bad Brad,” as defenseman Nate Schmidt has called him, has been extremely impressive in his two preseason games and the biggest surprise of training camp, recording a goal and an assist. After returning from a minor injury, the 18-year-old has showcased a heady mixture of speed, skill, effort, and craftiness that is far beyond his years and he looks motivated to leave an uneven 2021-22 behind and begin his professional career on a good note.
So far, so good on that front. His solo dash to the front of the net in overtime Saturday, which he almost scored on, is just one example of the many plays he’s made that make him look NHL ready.
If he continues to impress, head coach Rick Bowness will be hard pressed to leave him off the opening night roster and should give him a chance to strut his stuff in at least a few regular-season games.
Lambert’s WHL rights are owned by the Seattle Thunderbirds, but sending him there doesn’t seem like it would do much for his development, considering he’s played against men in Liiga for two seasons already. If he doesn’t stick in the NHL, the Moose would be a better option.
3) The Battle For The Sixth Defensive Job
It’s not clear yet who has the upper edge for the only defensive slot available, with Ville Heinola, Dylan Samberg, and Logan Stanley all jockeying for it.
General manager Kevin Cheveldayoff did not clear the path for a couple of young blue liners as expected, hence the logjam. Brenden Dillon and Nate Schmidt were the subject of many offseason trade rumours, but remain Jets alongside other blue-line locks Dylan DeMelo, Josh Morrissey, and Neal Pionk.
Heinola, a slick Finnish product, has played in three games and has shown offensive flair with one goal and two assists. Watching the 2020-first rounder quarterback the power play on Saturday night against the Oilers was something to behold; he’s simply an outstanding puck-mover.
While Heinola’s upside is huge and his skillset screams “modern top-four defenseman,” he still sometimes struggles with the defensive side of the game. He had a bad turnover that led to a goal against on Saturday, but Bowness laid some fault at the feet of the forwards as well.
Samberg has played in two preseason games, has an assist, and is plus-one. The 23 year old looked right at home in 15 NHL games last season and recorded five assists, and may have the advantage over Heinola when it comes to heaviness, maturity, and overall defensive acumen.
Stanley, of 95-career NHL games, is sticking around as well despite having puck-handling skills and speed exposed a number of times through preseason. The Jets have invested a lot in the towering 2016 first-rounder and aren’t willing to give up on their long-term project as yet.
“These next couple of games, they will make that decision for us,” Bowness said Monday of his young defencemen. “They’re either going to play their way on, or they are going to play their way off by showing us they are not ready… every shift, for the guys that are on the bubble, every shift is important at this point.
4) The Intriguing Bottom-Six Competition
A couple of players who have surprised in training camp may disrupt the bottom-six status quo. While the top six is pretty much set, some players who seemed locks for third or fourth line roles don’t seem so anymore.
In addition to Lambert, Saku Maenalanen — the 28-year-old Finn who spent the last three seasons in the KHL and Liiga — has stood out, impressing with his effort and instincts.
Last season, Maenalanen scored 13 goals and added 28 assists in 41 games with Liiga’s Karpat. His point totals placed him in the top 15 in Liiga, and earned him a place on the Finnish National Team, the same team that went on to win gold medals at both the Olympic Games and the World Championships last winter.
It’s possible Lambert and Maenalanen have more upside than Jansen Harkins and Dominic Toninato, who were regulars last season but should take nothing for granted considering the Jets finished sixth in the Central Division and well out of the playoff picture last season. Harkins, who had 13 points in 72 games last season, hasn’t done anything to set himself apart from the pack.
Veteran offseason addition Sam Gagner, alternate captain and workhorse centre Adam Lowry, and Mason Appleton are all locks for the bottom six. David Gustafsson has stood out for his sturdy play as well, and should be the fourth-line centre.
Morgan Barron seemed to be on the inside track for a full-time job — especially after playing well down the stretch after being acquired in the Andrew Copp trade — but has been kept out of preseason game action due to injury. He was back in a regular jersey at Sunday’s practice, but could start with the Moose to get him back up to game speed.
5) Rick Bowness Not Suffering Fools Gladly
The man who will make the ultimate roster decisions and lead the Jets from behind the bench has been doing and saying everything the previous coaching regime was afraid to do and say.
The 67-year-old Bowness has a big task ahead of him to get the team back into the playoffs, and it’s obvious he’d rather achieve that goal than make friends.
Bowness has said he’s going to do things his way and has been a breath of fresh air with his bluntness, honesty, and willingness to interrupt the status quo.
Most recently, he made it clear he has the same expectations for stars when it comes to back checking and effort, saying “in terms of when we don’t have the puck, there are no double standards.”
It’s just the latest example of veterans no longer being treated with kid gloves. He called them out after the 5-3 victory over the Senators because he was none-too-happy with their penchant for taking too-long shifts. He also stripped Blake Wheeler of the captaincy last month, a necessary but gutsy move that was an indictment of the 36 year old’s ability to lead.
Bowness, unlike previous head coaches Paul Maurice and Dave Lowry, doesn’t BS. He’s openly acknowledged that bad habits exist and need fixing, asking last week “What am I supposed to do, pretend it’s not happening? I’m going to tell you what I see happening.”
Time will tell if the Jets respond to Bowness’ way, but it’s encouraging to see he isn’t shying away from tackling the systemic culture issues that have plagued the organization since their 2018 run to the Western Conference Final.
Bowness is a taskmaster, but not heartless. He’s also trying to keep the “joy levels” high, such as on Monday when he ran a scrimmage where everyone was using the wrong-handed stick.
6) Hawerchuk’s Is Jets Royalty Forever
There’s no doubt now that Dale Hawerchuk will live on as Winnipeg Jets royalty forever.
Ahead of Saturday night’s game, True North Sports & Entertainment unveiled a brand-new statue at True North Square in honour of the star 1.0 era player who died at age 57 in August, 2020 of stomach cancer.
Throngs of fans packed Graham Avenue and Hargrave Street to celebrate the man who turned the franchise around in their early NHL days and recorded 929 points in 713 games in a Jets jersey after being drafted first overall in 1981.
Several speakers — including final Jets 1.0 captain Kris King, former teammate and current Jets associate coach Scott Arniel, Oilers legend and frequent foe Paul Coffey, current Jets alternate captain and former Barrie Colt Mark Scheifele, and Dale’s wife Crystal Hawerchuk — spoke movingly about who he was and how much he meant to them as a teammate, competitor, coach, mentor, friend, husband, and father.
The striking statue, deigned by American sculptor Eric Blome, depicts Hawerchuk at full stride and is meant to express the idea of “striving” and “trying to be the best,” True North’s Josh Dudych explained. Hawerchuk is also skating toward “True North” on the compass: “True North is our guiding principle and Dale is our North Star,” Dudych said.
The event was classy in every way and no one deserved to be immortalized more than Hawerchuk. Now, fans who remember his many outstanding exploits can visit the statue and explain to the new generation about “Ducky’s” legacy.
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Declan Schroeder is a 27-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.