Jets back to work

But it's far from business as usual

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Boxing Day meant back to work for the Winnipeg Jets. But it was far from business as usual.

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Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 27/12/2021 (334 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

Boxing Day meant back to work for the Winnipeg Jets. But it was far from business as usual.

COVID-19 and the Omicron variant have created an air of uncertainty around the NHL, including right here in Winnipeg where a pair of players — forwards Andrew Copp and Kristian Vesalainen — tested positive on Dec. 21 will remain in pandemic protocol until at least New Year’s Eve.

“Obviously over the past couple of years that’s been what we’ve had to do to play, and at different times there’s been different protocols in place. It’s sort of the same as it’s been with the surge in (North America) the past three weeks, the cases around the league,” said defenceman Josh Morrissey.

With any luck the Jets will host the Chicago Blackhawks Wednesday. If all goes according to plan it will be their first game since Dec. 19. Last time the teams met, Winnipeg won 5-1. (John Woods / The Canadian Press files)

“It’s something that you can only do your best to try and follow what we all know by now and what we’ve had instilled into us by now over the past two years, the washing of the hands and that kind of stuff. And then listen to whatever the league has for us. It definitely is one of those things you can’t control as a player, if there’s a new variant or if things are surging. I’ve stopped trying to understand or try and figure everything out but it is what it is and we have to keep trying and get as many games in as possible and hopefully in front of fans.”

The good news is no other teammates joined Copp and Vesalainen in sick bay as they returned from an extended holiday break on Sunday, which included the latest round of testing. However, there remain plenty of questions about the status of Winnipeg’s next game.

Monday’s meeting with the Minnesota Wild at Canada Life Centre has already been postponed, just as last week’s tilts in Nashville and Dallas were as well. They are expected to be made up in February, when the NHL has a nearly three-week open window on the schedule that was originally meant for Olympic participation in Beijing.

At this point, Winnipeg is slated to host Chicago on Wednesday, which would be their first game since a 4-2 victory over St. Louis on Dec. 19. As of now, a maximum of 7,500 fans (50 per cent capacity) could witness it live at the downtown rink. But that could change between now and then, especially with a record-number of daily infections now popping up in the community. The game itself should also be written in pencil, not permanent ink, since it will be contingent on both teams having enough players available.

And so they practice, and wait, and hope for the best. And then practice some more, which is the plan for Monday and Tuesday.

“There’s a lot of variables we can’t control,” interim coach Dave Lowry said following Sunday evening’s “work off all the holiday eating” skate. “So really, as cliché as it is, we’re just staying in the moment here and preparing each day that we can control. Our plan right now is we wanted to have a good skate (Sunday). We were able to accomplish that. We’ll come in (Monday) and we’ll prepare to play the Blackhawks here in a couple days.”

Some help could be on the way for the shorthanded group. Defenceman Nate Schmidt missed the game against the Blues with a non-COVID illness, but he’s back to 100 per cent.

Forward David Gustafsson also missed that contest with an injury, but he skated Sunday and should be ready to play by Wednesday.

The Jets recalled forwards C.J. Suess and Kristian Reichel from the Manitoba Moose on Sunday. That gives them 11 healthy forwards on the roster, including Gustafsson. The club also has seven healthy defencemen, although one of those — Neal Pionk — was absent Sunday due to travel issues.

Injured forward Evgeny Svechnikov is also expected to resume skating shortly, although a return is still at least a week away. Captain Blake Wheeler remains out indefinitely.

Lowry, who took over for Paul Maurice following his departure on Dec. 17, doesn’t mind the extra time to work with his troops and try to improve on some areas of concern for the 14-11-5 club, which is three points out of the final Western Conference playoff spot with 52 regular-season games remaining.

"We’re just staying in the moment here and preparing each day that we can control," said Jets interim coach Dave Lowry.(Mikaela MacKenzie / Winnipeg Free Press files)

“(Sunday) was all about getting players up and down the ice. And just getting them comfortable again handling pucks,” said Lowry. “(Monday) we’ll go a little bit more into the detail part of our game, some areas that we want to continue to improve on. It’ll be a little heavier practice, there’ll be a bit more battle, and there will be a lot more system work.”

Assistance is also on the way for teams like the Jets that are struggling to fill out a full roster due to COVID and/or injuries. (More than 140 players were in protocols prior to the Christmas break, and more than three dozen new names were added Sunday). The taxi squad is making a temporary comeback. All teams will be allowed to designate as many as six skaters who can work out with the big club, but not count against the salary cap. As was the case during last season, they would be in a form of hockey purgatory, stuck between the AHL and the NHL.

“I just think having extra bodies around will allow us to make sure that guys that are playing big minutes will get some necessary time off. And we’ll be able to run practices with full bodies,” said Lowry. “The problem with us right now is the Moose aren’t back yet. They’re still travelling back into town here, and I don’t think they have to be back until the 28th.”

In other words, it could be a couple more days before those decisions are made. And the dilemma will be whether to park young skaters like defenceman Ville Heinola on the taxi squad at the expense of playing big minutes with the Moose.

“I think the biggest thing is if our young guys are playing a lot, we want to keep them in that environment. It was a hard position for a lot of these guys last year where they came in, they skated on their own and some of them didn’t get an opportunity to play any games,” said Lowry

“I think the big thing is from the mental and maturity state. Understanding that young guys, I don’t see the benefit if they don’t have the opportunity to get into a game. You’re taking them out of a position where they’re having success, and I think with the young guys that’s what it’s all about. The older guys have an understanding of where they are in their careers and what’s important.”

mike.mcintyre@freepress.mb.ca

Twitter: @mikemcintyrewpg

Mike McIntyre

Mike McIntyre
Sports columnist

Mike McIntyre grew up wanting to be a professional wrestler. But when that dream fizzled, he put all his brawn into becoming a professional writer.

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Updated on Monday, December 27, 2021 7:55 AM CST: Corrects typos

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