The Connor-Laine line, eh?
Jets spotlight touted rookies, pair them with Perreault for opener
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Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 13/10/2016 (2247 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.
The Winnipeg Jets, eager to unleash two of hockey’s most-celebrated rookie forwards on the NHL, are expected to have Patrik Laine and Kyle Connor on the same line tonight when they open the regular season at home against the Carolina Hurricanes.
Eighteen-year-old Laine and 19-year-old Connor will debut with veteran centre Mathieu Perreault on the club’s newly formed third unit. It’s an interesting, surprising twist but Laine said it has all the makings of a productive trio.
“It’s a good line. Connor is a young, talented guy who can score and is a very fast skater,” said the right-shooting Laine, who had been playing left wing with veteran centre Bryan Little earlier in training camp but slides over to the right side to play with Connor and Perreault. “He can read the game so well. And Frenchie, he’s a good centre. He has so much skill and he can score and he can pass real well, so I think we have a good line there.”
The two teams collide at 7 p.m. at the MTS Centre. Winnipeg plays seven of its first 10 games on home ice.
Laine, whose every move Wednesday was followed by two Finnish television camera crews, was sounding calm and composed heading into his Jets debut.
“I’m feeling pretty normal. Normal morning practice,” said Laine, Winnipeg’s prize catch with the No. 2 pick in the 2016 draft. “I don’t have too many feelings in my head right now but I think tomorrow it’s getting more and more exciting and a little nervous, too. I feeling pretty good.”
Connor, coming off a superb freshmen season at University of Michigan and who was the No. 17 overall pick in 2015, was soaking in the atmosphere Wednesday. Like Laine, he seems unfazed by the daily media attention and scrutiny he’s been getting.
“It’s absolutely a big step in my career but I’m ready for this,” said Connor, who will have both of his parents in attendance tonight. “It’s exciting. I played with Matty a bit in pre-season, with Patrik, too. He’s a great player, a great finisher and an all-around player. It’s gonna be exciting to play with those guys.”
Another rookie, blue-liner Josh Morrissey, will be playing his second NHL game tonight after a strong pre-season push to make the club. Paired with all-star Dustin Byfuglien, the 21-year-old plans to keep things simple.
“When you’re playing with Buff, if you give him the puck you’re probably making a smart play,” said Morrissey, a second-year pro. “… We talk about plays. We talk about options before each faceoff.”
The captain’s viewpoint
Blake Wheeler is coming off career highs in points but as the club’s newly installed captain, he isn’t taking anything for granted.
“Numbers are a byproduct of the work you put in — both in the off-season and during the year,” said Wheeler. “If I’m able to match what I put into every game last year, I’ll be satisfied even if the numbers are down… You want to contribute to wins. I feel like the way I prepare myself to play each night give myself the best chance to help our team win.”
He’s also heard to talk about how young the Jets are this season.
“The start of the season always has a little bit of anxiety just from the standpoint you don’t know how it’s going to play out,” said Wheeler. “With that comes excitement, so there’s a lot of different emotions. I’m not worried we’re so young or excited we’re so young and talented. It’s a little of both.”
Last line of defence
The competition is over and the Jets have their goaltenders. But which of Michael Hutchinson, 26, and Connor Hellebuyck, 23, gets top billing won’t be determined for some time.
Maurice wouldn’t tip his hand on who’ll face Jeff Skinner, Jordan Staal, Teuvo Teravainen and the rest of the Carolina roster.
He believes in both – and both must deliver the goods.
“There’s pressure on these two guys now to perform, in a positive way,” said the head coach. “The pressure is a gate they have to pass through. To become a No.1 guy you have to deal with that pressure, and then once you do it’s a whole different kind of heavier pressure they’ll have to deal with.”
Hellebuyck had the better numbers in 2015-16, his rookie season, posting a 13-11-1 record in 26 starts, with a 2.34 goals-against average and a .918 save percentage.
Hutchinson, who was 9-15-3 in 25 starts, with a 2.84 GAA and .907 save percentage, said the tandem shares a common bond.
“It’s all about the team now — getting two points every night and working toward winning a Stanley Cup,” he said. “That all starts (Thursday), and from here on out it doesn’t matter if it’s Helly or me in net, all that matter is our team is winning.
“At the NHL level, you’re expected to make saves. That’s the pressure you put on yourself every single night. You’re going to have to cover for your guys sometimes and, you know, you hope that sometimes the guys score one for you or they lay down and block shots and bail you out of a tough situation.”
Turning on the power
The Jets and veteran defenceman Tyler Myers are well aware they’ll need a major upgrade to their power play, which was last out of 30 NHL squads in 2015-16.
“Obviously we weren’t happy with our power play,” said Myers. “We weren’t happy with all of our special teams last year but I think when you look at the power play, it’s not how much skill you have. You’re always going to have a highly skilled unit on the ice. It’s a matter of the little things, like retrieving pucks on a power-play dump, moving pucks quick. You look at the best power plays — they’re simple. They’re not tic-tac-toeing all the time. The good power plays have a very simple mentality, getting pucks to the net and getting bodies to the net and shots come.”
The Jets found some early success in the pre-season, scoring nine times in 27 opportunities with the man advantage. But they were shut out in their last two contests, going 0-for-6 against the host Edmonton Oilers and failing on two chances against the Minnesota Wild in St. Paul, Minn.
But there’s no denying there are signs of improvement, said Perreault, who had six goals and nine assists on the power play last season.
“There’s a game plan. We’ve been working on it all training camp. We have some very good players here that can make plays. It’s a good set up, a good game plan, and I think it’s fair to say it’s a part of the game we’re very excited about,” he said. “It can really make a difference in close games. Special teams are crucial. We’re aware of that and we’re definitely working on improving, and it’s going to be a big part of our game.”
Jason Bell wanted to be a lawyer when he was a kid. The movie The Paper Chase got him hooked on the idea of law school and, possibly, falling in love with someone exactly like Lindsay Wagner (before she went all bionic).
Mike has been working on the Free Press sports desk since 2003.
Updated on Thursday, October 13, 2016 8:21 AM CDT: Corrects handedness.