The Winnipeg Jets have wrapped up the first week of their truncated training camp, and their 2020-21 season opener is less than a week away.
The Jets are off today, so it’s the perfect opportunity to break down all of the biggest storylines that have emerged since our last update on Tuesday.
Midweek Scrimmage Takes Centre Stage
Normally, an inter-squad scrimmage game wouldn’t be anything to write a column about, but with no preseason prior to the regular season, Wednesday’s tilt was one of few chances the players will have to get up to game speed.
At the Bell MTS Iceplex, Team Blue came from behind to beat Team White 3-2, with Jansen Harkins one-timing a Trevor Lewis cross-slot feed past Connor Hellebuyck for the the game-winner with six minutes remaining in the third period.
Lewis also scored a goal for Team Blue, as did Nelson Nogier, who jumped up to play forward. Kyle Connor and CJ Suess scored for Team White.
As the winning side, Team Blue got to stand at centre ice while Team White took a couple of hard laps.
Observers noted that the veteran Lewis, in Winnipeg on a PTO, stood out as determined to make the team against the odds.
The Free Press’ Mike McIntyre noted that in addition to Lewis and Harkins, Patrik Laine was notable for his attention to defensive details, the reigning-Vezina-winner Hellebuyck looked locked in, and Connor showed off slick hands and plenty of offensive flair. (From ‘Observations from the perch,’ Winnipeg Free Press, Jan. 6, 2021.)
New-Look Top Six Has Stayed in Tact
There’s really no time for head coach Paul Maurice to experiment with different line combos this training camp as there are only 10 practices in total.
Once again Friday, Nikolaj Ehlers skated on the top line with Mark Scheifele and Blake Wheeler, while Kyle Connor skated on the second line with Paul Stastny and Patrik Laine. Historically, Connor has skated on the top line.
The new combos should provide plenty of problems for opponents in the all-Canadian North Division, who will have to figure out which line to deploy their top lines against.
Connor, Scheifele, and Wheeler were a formidable trio last season, combining for 211 points. However, Connor doesn’t see being moved as a demotion.
“It’s not an issue for him,” Paul Maurice said Thursday. “He’s going to tell you ‘(Stastny and Laine) are two phenomenal players. They’re different than Scheif and Wheels, but I’m going to get my opportunities with either line.’ I told him which line he was going on and he said ‘that’s great.'”
“Getting to know Stastny, he’s a smart player, he takes care of his body, he really pays attention to detail. It has been fun to learn from him and take everything I can,” Connor, who scored a team-high 38 goals in 2019-20, said.
“I’ve got some familiarity with Patty,” he continued. “We had some great chemistry right from the get to last year. Even in past years, we’ve been together for a limited time. I’m just kind of getting to know (Stastny), I haven’t really played with him much, when he was here for that playoff run back a couple of years ago. But he’s a smart player, really takes care of his body and has really good attention to detail, and it’s been fun to kind of learn from him and take in everything I can.”
As for Ehlers, the new face on that line said “That chemistry is already there. We know what our game plan is as a line. It’s going to be exciting for me to just go out there and skate as fast as I can, as much as I can, create space for those two guys and find holes.”
Ehlers said he wants to fire more pucks on goal this season. In the past, he’s often given up good scoring shot opportunities in favour of a pass to Laine.
“(Maurice) is right when he says I play my best hockey when I play as a shooter,” the dynamic Dane said. “You’re going to make your plays, but I play faster, I skate more when I play with that shooter’s mentality. So I felt I did well last year. I want to be doing it more, obviously.”
D Pairings Far from Status Quo
Many thought Dylan DeMelo — who signed a four-year extension in October — was a lock for the right-side top-pairing role alongside Josh Morrissey. He shouldered the role in 2019-20 soon after being acquired from the Ottawa Senators.
Instead, DeMelo’s been skating nearly exclusively with Nathan Beaulieu, while Morrissey’s been paired with Tucker Poolman (Sami Niku also skated with Morrissey earlier in the week when Poolman was out with a minor injury.) Neal Pionk, meanwhile, has been skating with Derek Forbort.
When asked Thursday if he was surprised he wasn’t getting time with the Jets’ franchise defenseman, DeMelo said “When I signed here, it wasn’t necessarily to play with a single player. It was to play with the whole team. playing with Beau, I started out with him (after coming over from the Senators) so it was an easy fit for me. I’m very comfortable playing with him…”
For me, it doesn’t matter who I’m playing with,” he continued. “I just try to bring the same approach and the same style… We’ve had a good start together. Still trying to read off each other a little bit and work out some kinks, but overall I think we can be a really good pair and that’s my expectation of us.”Dylan DeMelo on being paired with Nathan Beaulieu
Maurice said the pairings will give the Jets’ blue-line more balance, as with the condensed schedule and very few off days, no one will be playing 25-plus minutes per night.
Heinola Arrives In Winnipeg
The arrival of Ville Heinola, who played spectacularly in a starring role for bronze-medal-winning Finland at the 2021 World Juniors in Edmonton, will throw a further wrinkle into the back-end situation, so the pairings aren’t set in stone.
However, the 2019 20th-overall pick will have to complete a seven-day quarantine before joining the team.
In an interview Friday, the Finn — who suited up for 19 games for Lukko Rauma of the SM-liiga this fall and racked up 14 points — said he believes he’s NHL ready. It’s hard to argue with him based on his performance during his overseas loan and at the WJC.
Laine Trade Rumours Keep Swirling
Laine — who on Monday further stoked an already raging fire when he wouldn’t deny he wanted to be traded and wouldn’t say if he agreed with his agent Mike Liut that a change of scenery would be best — continues to be the topic of trade rumours.
According to The Fourth Period’s David Pagnotta, the Carolina Hurricanes — who already have a couple of flashy Finns in Sebastian Aho and Teuvo Teravainen — are still interested in Laine, but the Jets’ asking price is an issue.
There has also been speculation that a trade between the Jets and the Columbus Blue Jackets involving Laine and Pierre-Luc Dubois — the centre who signed a two-year extension on New Year’s Eve but reportedly still wants out of Ohio — could make sense for both sides. The Jets, in fact, inquired about Dubois earlier in the offseason.
Roslovic Remains At Home
There’s been no news on when Jack Roslovic, the Jets’ only RFA holdout, might sign a new contract or be moved.
The Jets shopped the 2015 first-rounder — who remains home in Columbus — at the beginning of Free Agent Frenzy but didn’t find a deal they liked.
With the seven-day quarantine requirement, Roslovic is guaranteed to be a spectator when the season begins, even if he was re-signed or traded today.
Perreault Back in the Fray; Harkins and Toninato Out
Veteran forward Matthieu Perreault returned to practice Friday after suffering a minor injury on Monday.
Jansen Harkins was moved to the “unfit to practice” list Thursday, joining Dominic Toninato, who for an undisclosed reason hasn’t suited up at all.
Jets Officially Cleared to Play in Winnipeg
As was expected, Manitoba provincial health officials tweaked their public health orders on Friday to allow the Jets to have home games at Bell MTS Place.
The updated orders extend current exemptions on training and exempt them and their Ontario-based opponents from self-isolating upon entering the province from the east.
Manitoba’s Chief Provincial Health Officer, Dr. Brent Roussin, said the NHL’s stringent testing policies are the reason these exemptions were made, but that they could be revoked if COVID-19 cases spike.
Dr. Roussin was asked who he thought would win the North Division, but he remained tight-lipped.
Training Camp Nearly Over Already
After being off Saturday, the Jets will be back at it on Sunday at the Iceplex. They’ll then move to Bell MTS Place for their final three practices Monday through Wednesday.
Their fan-less home-opener versus the Calgary Flames takes place Thursday evening and kicks off a 56-game-in-114-day sprint to the postseason.