If the Winnipeg Jets want to be successful through their next stretch of games, they’ll need their youngsters and depth players to step up.
COVID Outbreak Sidelines Regulars
The Jets are currently dealing with a COVID-19 outbreak as the ultra-contagious Omicron variant sweeps through North America.
Nikolaj Ehlers went into protocol Monday, and a number of players followed him. Joining Ehlers Tuesday were a trio of defensemen in Nathan Beaulieu, Ville Heinola, and Logan Stanley, along with forward Kristian Reichel. Joining the list Thursday were Paul Stastny, Brenden Dillon, and Eric Comrie.
The outbreak seems to have started sometime last week, when Dylan DeMelo and Jansen Harkins — along with taxi-squad goaltender Arvid Holm and video coach Matt Prefontaine — were placed in protocol prior to last Thursday’s game against the Avalanche in Colorado.
All were unavailable to the Jets for their matchup against the Detroit Red Wings Thursday, as were Blake Wheeler and David Gustafsson, who are both sidelined with injuries.
Meanwhile, the Manitoba Moose, out on a seven-game road trip, are going through an outbreak of their own. They placed five players of their into protocol Wednesday, including defenseman Jonathan Kovacevic, who would have been a strong candidate for a call-up. This has limited the available call ups.
COVID Situation Hastens a Trio of Debuts
The outbreak thrust a trio into the spotlight for their debuts: defensemen Declan Chisholm and Dylan Samberg — who were already on the taxi squad — made their NHL debuts. Forward Austin Poganski, called up Thursday after the Moose defeated the Milwaukee Admirals Wednesday, made his Jets’ debut.
Chisholm, 22, is a Jets’ 2018 fifth-round pick in his second season with the Manitoba Moose. In 27 games this season, the left-shot defenceman recorded 6 goals and eight assists for 14 points and a plus-three rating.
Samberg, also 22, is one of the Jets’ most highly-regarded defensive prospects and a 2017 second-round selection. Also in his second season with the Moose, he suffered a high-ankle sprain early in training camp that kept him out until mid-November. In 16 games since his season debut, he has recorded five assists and a plus-six rating.
Speaking on integrating two defenders without any NHL experience into the lineup, interim head coach Dave Lowry said after practice Wednesday: “We tried to pair them with veteran guys today, just to get them a little bit comfortable, just to get them through practice… so we can have a look at them playing with a veteran guy who should be able to help them out.”
Chisholm and Samberg have “NHL qualities written all over them,” Craig Button said in the second intermission of TSN’s broadcast. Both had strong games and neither were sheltered.
Chisholm played on the left side with Nate Schmidt and skated 13:44 while recording four shots. He made good reads offensively, pinched when appropriate, and moved the puck well.
Samberg played on the left side with fellow Minnesotan and offseason workout partner Neal Pionk and skated 17:52. He looked sturdy and comfortable, making smart plays at high speed. Dave Lowry showed immediate trust in him, as Samberg played 3:57 on the penalty kill, most of any Jets’ defenseman. He blocked a team-high five shots and dished out three hits.
To put the cherry on top of a near-perfect debut, the 6-foot-3, 190–pound blueliner recorded his first NHL point, assisting Andrew Copp’s first-period game-opening goal.
Poganski, who has recorded seven goals and 13 assists for 20 points in 30 games this season with the Moose, got his first taste of NHL action since last season, when he played five games for the St. Louis Blues. He played third-line right wing alongside Jansen Harkins and Adam Lowry, recording 11:20 of ice time, one shot, and one hit.
Depth Players Slot In By Necessity
The Jets’ lines for Thursday’s game versus the Red Wings and featured five players with less than 10 games of NHL experience. It also featured five players searching for their first NHL point — Cole Perfetti, CJ Suess, and Poganski in addition to Chisholm and Samberg (who, as previously mentioned, got his.)
The highly-touted 2020 first-round pick Perfetti got a top-six opportunity, playing first-line right wing with a talented duo in Pierre-Luc Dubois and Kyle Connor. This is a huge chance for him to strut his offensive stuff after spending the first three games of his NHL career on the bottom six.
Perfetti skated a career-high 14:10, and while he didn’t record any points, showed good awareness on a number of strong offensive-zone shifts.
While no one wants to see a COVID outbreak on their team, depth players — Harkins, Poganski, Suess, and Kristian Vesalainen — have been given a chance to prove their worth and improve their organizational stock because of it.
Time for Jets to Adapt, Overcome
The Jets have arguably been put at a competitive disadvantage with so much time off recently and a number of cancelled games that all have to be made up in what is set to be a very hectic February. It depends on which side you fall on the old “rest versus rust” argument.
Unlike some other teams such the Philadelphia Flyers — who had their Tuesday game postponed due to COVID issues — the Jets were not afforded the same treatment by the league (even though they have far more players in protocol than the Flyers.)
Playing with slapped-together lines and inexperienced players is less than ideal, of course, but all teams either have or will go through this sometime this season — COVID continues to call the shots. The best teams adapt and overcome. They win by committee. New players step up.
If the Jets want to live up to the image of a contender they’re trying to cultivate, they’ll have to do just that. They should look to their own farm club for some inspiration: despite being without most of their regulars due to call ups and positive COVID tests, the Moose continue to pile up the victories.
Josh Morrissey had two quotes Wednesday speaking to the reality of the situation. The first: “You have to be ready to adapt and adjust your lineup at the last minute.” The second: “Nobody’s going to feel sorry for us. We have to be ready to go.”
The Jets’ depth has often been hyped, especially the depth up front. Like Morrissey said, whoever’s available will have to “be ready to go” lest the Jets fall out of the playoff conversation.
The 3-0 victory over the Red Wings was a good start. The Jets’ four-game road trip continues next week as they face the Washington Capitals Tuesday, the Nashville Predators Thursday, and the Boston Bruins Saturday.
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.