Jets bevy of talented D-men a nice problem to have

Heinola and Samberg among young blue-liners ready to make leap to big club

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The Winnipeg Jets have a problem — whether it’s a good or bad one depends on who you ask.

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The Winnipeg Jets have a problem — whether it’s a good or bad one depends on who you ask.

Heading into training camp this week, the biggest storyline outside of all the individual drama involving several players and their futures with the club, was the direction the Jets would go this season with their defence. And who they might look to, to fill the holes.

As it stands, Winnipeg has as many as 12 players with a legitimate shot at cracking the roster, to varying degrees, with only six spots on the blue line up for grabs — along with likely two additional spots in the press box. That’s assuming the Jets plan to keep eight defenders as part of their 23-man roster, which, given the number of bodies, seems like a safe bet.

MIKAELA MACKENZIE / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS

Ville Heinola has been paired with Brenden Dillon early in training camp.

Jets general manager Kevin Cheveldayoff earlier this week called it a good problem to have, adding: “you can never have too many defencemen.” As for head coach Rick Bowness, who will be responsible for making what will be some tough decisions over the next three weeks, the veteran bench boss noted these things have a way of working themselves out.

“You get into camp, and players don’t quite grasp the fact that eventually they cut themselves. Just based on their play,” Bowness said Friday, midway through Day 2 of training camp at Bell MTS Iceplex. “That’s what it comes down to, can we win with this? You win by your compete, your team systems, buying in and all that. And the guys that don’t quite grasp it show you they’re not quite ready. That goes for everybody in camp, not just one or two guys.”

While the Jets have plenty of defencemen to evaluate before making any final decisions, there are two players in particular who have garnered a lot of attention as a new season inches closer.

Ville Heinola and Dylan Samberg — the Jets first-round pick in 2019 and second-rounder in 2017, respectively — are undoubtedly viewed as a big part the team’s future. Whether they’ll be a big part of the present remains to be seen.

“I feel like, for me, it’s been the same thing every year, battling for a spot on the team,” Heinola said. “Every year I come here and I say I want to make the team. But of course I want to do that. Now, I feel like it’s enough speaking from me, and I just want to do those things and earn a spot.”

Heinola has had an interesting run with the Jets since the club drafted him with the 20th overall pick. He made the opening day roster in his rookie season, in 2019-20, but lasted just eight games before heading back to his native Finland. He’s played only 17 NHL games since then, including 12 last season, spending most of his time in the AHL with the Manitoba Moose.

The 21-year-old has been partnered with Brenden Dillon so far in camp, as part of Bowness’ plan to group a younger, less experienced player with a proven veteran. Heinola admitted he has long wanted to play with Dillon, a stay-at-home, physical defender who he believes compliments his skillset as a fast and puck-carrying D-man.

“(Ville’s) got lots of skill. I want to give him the puck. He can have it all day long,” Dillon said. “We’ve only had a couple of scrimmages and a couple of practices, but already you can just feel when there’s chemistry there.”

Samberg, 23, didn’t have the start he’d hoped for to begin last season after suffering a high ankle sprain on the first day of camp, an injury that kept him out of action for nearly two months. By the end of the year, he had climbed his way up the depth chart, even surpassing Heinola, having played 15 games with the Jets.

He spent the summer training in Minneapolis, where he spent time skating with Nate Schmidt, another Minnesota native. It just so happens that the two have been paired together in camp, a duo that brings a lot of size and speed.

At 6-3 and 190 pounds, Samberg looks NHL ready, and has been putting in the work to carve out more of a role this year after making strides last season.

“I loved my time up here, and I feel like I showed what I can do,” Samberg said. “We got a whole new coaching staff here, so it’s about just trying to show them what I do best. There’s opportunity here, so I’m looking to make the most of it.”

Bowness, who was hired in early July, has completely overhauled how the Jets will play, implementing new systems in all three zones.

MIKAELA MACKENZIE / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS

Dylan Samberg trained in the off-season with fellow Minnesotan Nate Schmidt.

He wants the Jets to be a hard team to play against, which Bowness plans to achieve by being more aggressive on the puck. The new coach also wants his defencemen to be more engaged, joining the rush more often.

That shift in philosophy should bode well for Heinola and Samberg. Few are better on the Jets defence than Heinola when it comes to carrying the puck up ice, and you don’t need to give Samberg an excuse to be more aggressive.

The biggest obstacle might just be status of their contracts. Both players are on their entry-level deals and therefore don’t have to clear waivers to be assigned to the Moose.

The same can’t be said for a majority of the remaining players vying for roster spots. While Dillon, Schmidt, Josh Morrissey, Neal Pionk and Dylan DeMelo are all locks to make the team, there are others, such as Logan Stanley, Johnathan Kovacevic, Kyle Capobianco and Leon Gawanke that are at risk of being claimed if they hit the waiver wire.

A strong camp by Heinola and Samberg would, of course, render a potential demotion to the AHL moot, but it could be the tiebreaker in the event someone has a stronger camp than expected.

“That’s where Chevy and I will work together on that stuff,” Bowness said. “But there’s some good young D, I love their mobility, and they can get physical because they have the size. Those young D are all going to be given a great opportunity to show if they can help us now. Or show maybe down the road, maybe by Christmas. There are always tough decisions at the end of camp for every team, not just the Winnipeg Jets.”

There’s also the chance Cheveldayoff could still swing a trade before the season starts, which could be expedited if an opposing club gets hit with a string of injuries in camp and is looking for an experienced replacement. Injuries on the Jets could just as easily create room for more opportunity.

“Things happen very, very quicky in this game, where you think that you might have a surplus and things change,” Cheveldayoff said Thursday. “Reading some stories around the league on different players that aren’t participating in training camp for one reason or another, we’re on day one. There’s lots of stories to unfold yet.”

Jeff.Hamilton@freepress.mb.ca

Twitter: @jeffkhamilton

Jeff Hamilton

Jeff Hamilton
Multimedia producer

After a slew of injuries playing hockey that included breaks to the wrist, arm, and collar bone; a tear of the medial collateral ligament in both knees; as well as a collapsed lung, Jeff figured it was a good idea to take his interest in sports off the ice and in to the classroom.

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Updated on Friday, September 23, 2022 8:05 PM CDT: corrects spelling of bevy

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