Jets’ blueline stronger than ever

Defensive corps operating at 100 per cent

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Other than Connor Hellebuyck standing on his head nearly every night, the most consistent thing about the 2019-20 Winnipeg Jets was the fact they were constantly battling injuries on their blueline.

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Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 20/07/2020 (931 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

Other than Connor Hellebuyck standing on his head nearly every night, the most consistent thing about the 2019-20 Winnipeg Jets was the fact they were constantly battling injuries on their blueline.

From Josh Morrissey to Sami Niku, nearly everyone on the D-unit was on the shelf at some point this season. But if all goes well between now and when the Jets kick off a best-of-five series against the Calgary Flames in Edmonton on Aug. 1, the Winnipeg side will finally be able to say they’re at full strength. Logan Stanley made his training camp debut on Sunday morning at Bell MTS Iceplex leaving fellow D-man Anthony Bitetto as the lone Jet to not yet make an appearance.

In a pandemic world, however, it’s an even bigger victory to claim you have a team at 100 per cent.

Jets defenceman Dmitry Kulikov says the team is looking surprisingly sharp in practice. (John Woods / The Canadian Press files)

Feeling grateful these days, Paul Maurice?

“Absolutely,” admitted the Jets bench boss.

“It’s also a function of — knock on wood and fingers crossed — having our hockey team in the best NHL city for a lot of reasons, but for health and safety. Manitoba has done a great job, Winnipeg’s done a great job of people adhering to sensible rules to stay safe. On our hockey club, we certainly encourage that. You don’t get to see what goes on in our locker room down here, but it’s extensive. I don’t have a mask on but when this camera goes off, my mask goes on and I’m wearing it 100 per cent of the time as we move through the room.”

“There are just a lot of things that we’ve done and I think that’s helped our players understand how serious it is. After they walked in on Day 1 (and went) ‘Oh my God,’ the stalls were getting sterilized every time somebody was in it. All the things they see, they continue to do that. So we kind of looked at it that we would take the hit, maybe, of losing a slight competitive advantage early by putting everybody through the quarantine, even if they weren’t coming from a high-risk area, and maybe being a little bit behind it on Day 1 or 2, because the health of this group, all these players coming in are coming in negative and they all understand they’re all negative, then we can have our whole group working the entire time. You don’t want to be off the ice right now.”

After a week of training camp, Maurice is giving his squad a passing grade. While Week 1 saw players ease back into things to get their feet underneath them, the coming days will have a focus on special teams work while raising the intensity level up a few notches.

“There are still a few guys who have a ways to go but we have time,” Maurice added. “But we’ve got a bunch of guys that are moving now and you can’t tell it’s not a normal regular season day for me. They’ll argue that their hands maybe aren’t right but their bodies are moving right.”

Veteran defenceman Dmitry Kulikov was also asked to assess the team’s performance in the opening week of camp.

“To be honest with you, I’m surprised with how well everybody got ready for this camp,” Kulikov said. “The guys are looking sharp on the ice. There’s none of that summer rust, as you could call it. For me personally, I just try to keep up with everybody.”

Kulikov is heading into his third postseason with the Jets and is still looking for his first playoff point in a Winnipeg uniform. With this year’s version of the Stanley Cup playoffs featuring a play-in round, players coming off of long layoffs, games played without fans allowed, and teams being forced to live in a bubble, it’s a little difficult to use past experiences to prepare for this time around.

“To be honest, you never know what’s going to happen in the playoffs. That’s what kind of game that it is, especially in this (best-of-five) elimination series,” said Kulikov, who had 10 points in 51 games this season.

“You get off to a great start. If you think about the past, there’s been some tough series. Two years ago was a tough one against Nashville. And then Vegas, the one we lost — and then last year, we lost to St. Louis. You’re never out of it. You lose one game and you just have to forget about it and move on to the next one and go into the next game with a fresh mind and a good attitude.”

The Jets were playing some of their best hockey when the NHL was forced to press pause on the season. Kulikov said camp isn’t about fighting for jobs — it’s about trying to get back to where they were as a team in March.

“With our season, we almost never had a full group on the D corps. At the end, when we started to really play well, that’s when we got our full group together. Just playing the right way. When you’re having fun playing the right way, the game just comes to you and the bounces come to you,” said Kulikov.

“You give up less scoring chances and you create more. Injuries played some role in that, but once we started playing fun hockey, it just started going our way.”

As for packing for the bubble, it’s not exactly a priority for Kulikov, who lives in Boca Raton, Fla., now.

“I don’t know, to be honest with you. Just pack some stuff. Whatever I have. I didn’t bring much with me,” said Kulikov.

“There’s just a lot of uncertainty about this and packing the clothes was the least of my worries.”

taylor.allen@freepress.mb.ca

Twitter: @TaylorAllen31

Taylor Allen

Taylor Allen
Reporter

Eighteen years old and still in high school, Taylor got his start with the Free Press on June 1, 2011. Well, sort of...

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