As the preseason schedule draws near its close, the Winnipeg Jets’ roster also draws near its final form.
The lines the Jets iced Wednesday night in a 3-2 win against the Calgary Flames at Canada Life Centre were a lot closer to the lines they’ll ice when games start to count for real next week, with some exceptions.
With a number of prospects and depth players reassigned to the Manitoba Moose on Monday, the focus has switched from assessing young talent to getting the veterans up to speed and comfortable prior to the season-opening game against the Anaheim Ducks on Oct. 13.
While there will obviously be changes throughout the year, head coach Paul Maurice said prior to Wednesday’s tilt that “everybody that is in the room now is playing for the Winnipeg Jets this year, in my opinion. At some point they’re all going to play.”
Paul Stastny skated between Kyle Connor and Blake Wheeler, likely to prepare for the game against the Ducks where the Jets will be sans Mark Scheifele, who will be serving the final game of the overly-harsh four-game suspension he received for charging the Montreal Canadiens’ Jake Evans in Game 1 of the second-round Stanley Cup Playoff matchup.
When Scheifele returns, he, Connor, and Wheeler appear destined to spend a lot of time together again, for better or for worse.
This author would argue it’s for worse, because the trio has proven, time and time again over a number of seasons, to be too defensively deficient to compete at five-on-five. In 2020-21, Connor, Scheifele and Wheeler were all minus players (Connor and Scheifele at minus 4, and Wheeler at a team-worst minus 17.)
The second line was centred by Pierre-Luc Dubois, who is in desperate need of a bounce-back season after a very disappointing 2020-21. He was noticeable but took a retaliatory slashing penalty late in the third period with the Jets up 3-2.
The play-driving 2016 first-rounder — acquired in January in the blockbuster trade that sent Patrik Laine and Jack Roslovic to the Columbus Blue Jackets — was given high-octane line mates. On his right was the speedy and creative Nikolaj Ehlers, who was the Jets’ best forward last season, and who scored on a scintillating slap shot in the first period and a power play goal in the third.
On his left was Andrew Copp, who is getting a chance to prove he’s top-six material. Copp, who re-signed on a one-year deal this summer, recorded career highs in goals (15) and points (39) last season, while not abandoning the sturdy defensive play-style he has been known for.
If Dubois can regain his form and Copp can prove his 2020-21 offensive output wasn’t a fluke, this line will be a major threat.
Adam Lowry and Andrew Copp will not be tied at the hip this season. The pair has been very effective together on a shutdown third line in seasons past, and Lowry will continue to be the anchor of the “checking line” with Copp’s promotion to the top six. With different line mates come different expectations.
Jansen Harkins — who is having a strong preseason and had a bee in his bonnet Wednesday — skated on Lowry’s left and Kristian Vesalainen — despite being left-handed — skated on Lowry’s right.
When the regular season begins, its expected that Stastny will be the third-line left winger.
Vesalainen, 22-years-old and still seeking his first NHL goal, has not progressed as fast as many were expecting and hasn’t had a great preseason. However, the Jets are giving him every opportunity to finally claim a full-time NHL role.
With Vesalainen possessing a good shot and Stastny possessing good veteran savvy, head coach Paul Maurice expects a little bit more offensive flair and speed from a line that was traditionally built just to be heavy.
“The Jets believe if they can free (Vesalainen) up with a playmaker such as Stastny and a player in Lowry that can cause havoc in front of the net, they’ll be able to take advantage of his elite shot,” the Free Press’ Jeff Hamilton wrote recently.
“We want to be a line that’s tough to play against, responsible, not giving up goals, and obviously it’s important to chip in at the other end of the rink. That was something we did well last year,” Lowry said. “We really contributed offensively, and we took lots of tough match ups. That’s going to be a thing we try to grow.”From ‘Maurice wants more from checking line,’ Winnipeg Free Press, Oct. 5, 2021.
Shutdown free-agent signing Riley Nash centred the fourth line and was flanked by Dominic Toninato on the left and the surprising Evgeny Svechnikov — who played in his fifth straight game and is on a Manitoba Moose contract and PTO — on the right.
Svechnikov, who came into the game tied for the Jets’ preseason points lead with four (one goal, three assists) has made a compelling case to start the season with the Jets instead of the Moose.
The Jets top two d-pairings were what they’re going to be to start the regular season, with Josh Morrissey and Nate Schmidt on the first pairing and Brenden Dillon and Neal Pionk on the second. That represents a huge improvement from the past two seasons.
Sophomore Logan Stanley is expected to play on the third pairing with Dylan DeMelo, but he’s out with a minor injury, so Nathan Beaulieu played in his stead.
Connor Hellebuyck and Eric Comrie were the two goaltenders dressed, with the Vezina-winner getting the start. Hellebuyck wasn’t busy and also wasn’t particularly good, allowing two goals on 18 shots (and another goal in the final minute that was ultimately waved off because Matthew Tkachuk knocked the puck out of the air with a high stick.)
The reassignment of Mikhail Berdin to the Moose after the enigmatic Russian was given only one start — Sunday night against the Vancouver Canucks, where he performed well in front of an inexperienced lineup and stopped 30 of 33 shots — lays pretty bare that he was never going to be allowed to challenge for the backup role. For whatever reason, the organization is all in on Comrie being the number-two man.
The Jets are taking a big risk going with Comrie, as he’s inexperienced at the NHL level and has been unsuccessful in his handful of appearances. A waiver-wire pickup or free agent signing doesn’t seem to be in the cards either. Expect Hellebuyck to start 65-plus games and Comrie to be monitored closely — at least by the fan base — when he does take the crease.
Competition Remains Tight, Friday will Reveal More
There are still plenty of things that still aren’t set in stone.
Will Svechnikov make the team against the odds? Does Riley Nash getting the nod over David Gustafsson at fourth-line centre on Wednesday mean Nash will start the season in that spot?
Will Jansen Harkins and Dominic Toninato both be in the opening-night lineup, or will top prospect Cole Perfetti knock one of them out? Who will come out of the lineup when Scheifele returns for Oct. 16’s game in San Jose? Will the rugged Nathan Beaulieu be the seventh defenseman, or will it be the cerebral youngster Ville Heinola?
Friday’s preseason finale — also against the Flames — will reveal even more about the roster and lines the Jets will start 2021-22 with.
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.