So Grant Clitsome returned to Winnipeg after a summer spent wake-surfing at his cabin an hour outside of Ottawa, rested and itching for the ice, ready to get started on what will be his fifth season around this league.
That career, already, has flown by so quickly. There are these high-flying kids in camp to remind him of that, defencemen Jacob Trouba and Josh Morrissey: They're good, Clitsome nodded after practice on Monday. They have a lot of composure with the puck, especially since -- and what grizzled grown-up can wrap their mind around this -- they were born in the mid-90s.
'I'm just trying to make sure that I'm not too complacent, and being too happy with it'
"Yeah, I think more than anything it makes me feel old," Clitsome said, with a wry smile. "Looking at their birth years and seeing that there's eight years, nine years difference, it puts things in perspective. And you kind of think back to when you first started, and you realize that much time has already gone by. But it's good to see, I think it brings energy to the roster."
It's a roster that, maybe for the first time in his career, gives Clitsome a little room to breathe. In the off-season, the Jets handed the stocky defender a three-year, $6.2 million contract, the longest he's ever had. There's some security in that, a vote of confidence.
"It's kind of a different feeling for me," Clitsome said. "But it's definitely nice. I'm just trying to make sure that I'm not too complacent, and being too happy with it."
Not that there seems to be much risk of that. There's no doubt Clitsome earned this place: just 18 months ago, despite his decent campaign on a very bad Blue Jackets team, Columbus put him on waivers en route to the AHL. The Jets swooped in to pick him up on that very first trade deadline day, and Clitsome took it as a second chance to make a first impression.
For instance: remember that first game he played here, against Buffalo in March 2012, where he threw a hit, blocked a shot and almost sent a puck past Sabres netminder Ryan Miller in his first six on-ice minutes?
"The guys here were great to me from day one," he said. "When I came here... I'd been pretty much the only change all year, so it was tough to get in. But once I got in, they gave me some opportunity, and I tried to take advantage."
And yet, Clitsome's presence on the back end still feels a little fresh. Thanks to the lockout, he's only played 56 games with the Jets, so when TSN 1290 radio host Rick Ralph still jokingly calls him "New Guy" it's easier to see why. But even in that short time, even buffeted by a waiver claim and a labour dispute, Clitsome has settled into the Jets' on-ice plans.
See, Clitsome has always been a solid offensive depth guy on the back end, with his big shot and knack for threading pucks through traffic. His defensive game wasn't as reliable, but in Winnipeg he's finding it anew. Last season, he looked quite settled by the training camp eye test, and stats bore that out: as the season progressed, the number of shots directed against the Jets when he was on the ice charted a decidedly improving path.
Maybe it was the fact Clitsome spent much of last season tasked with being the rock for Dustin Byfuglien to leap from. Maybe it's working under Jets defence coach Charlie Huddy, or a little bit of both. He's certainly not the first blue-liner to thrive under Huddy's hand in Winnipeg: the coach is a calming voice, Clitsome said. If some coaches might dump 20 video clips of squicky play on a player, Huddy will take his guys through two, or three.
"He'll just show you so that you can concentrate on just a few things, and try and build on that little by little," Clitsome said. "He does a really good job of not hounding guys, and making sure that he is pointing stuff out."