Good just won’t do; depleted Jets need great Dane

The Winnipeg Jets opening-night roster is beginning to take shape — one that doesn't include Patrik Laine, Kyle Connor or Dustin Byfuglien.

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Opinion

Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 26/09/2019 (1165 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

The Winnipeg Jets opening-night roster is beginning to take shape — one that doesn’t include Patrik Laine, Kyle Connor or Dustin Byfuglien.

Oh sure, coach Paul Maurice has multiple drafts of his lineup written down that include one, two or all three of them, but those appear to be nothing more than wishful thinking at this point, given the puzzling lack of progress on all fronts with less than a week until the real action gets underway.

“So, we have three individual ones and then a couple of pairs of what they look like, but the one that’s on my board right now has none of them on it,” Maurice admitted Thursday.

Nikolaj Ehlers will be playing on the first line with Mark Scheifele and Blake Wheeler to start the season if Kyle Connor doesn't return. (John Woods / The Canadian Press files)

That sound you hear is plenty of Jets fans screaming into the abyss. And maybe general manager Kevin Cheveldayoff, too. Laine is training in Switzerland without a contract. Connor is also waiting on a new deal as he skates in Michigan. And Byfuglien remains suspended from the team as he continues to mull over whether he wants to play hockey or retire with two years left on his contract.

And so with Plans A, B and C all gathering dust on his desk, Maurice has to keep his attention focused on what he does have in camp, all of which prompted a discussion Thursday on where some of that missing offence is going to come from.

Enter Nikolaj Ehlers. Or, Plan E, if you will.

There might not be another player on this team facing more pressure to get off to a blazing hot start than Winnipeg’s streaky scoring winger. After posting a career-low 37 points last season (21 goals and 16 assists in 62 games), the organization can’t afford anything but his best if it is going to be competitive with so many holes in its roster.

“Yes, we’re going to need his goals. We can all do the math. When you look at the number of goals that aren’t here to start the season compared to last season, that’s a big number,” said Maurice.

Ehlers is likely to take Connor’s usual spot on the top line with Mark Scheifele and Blake Wheeler, and the trio have displayed plenty of chemistry in the past. Now 23 and set to begin his fifth pro season, Ehlers appears to recognize the importance and urgency of the situation, even if it’s unrealistic to think he can make everyone forget about the 64 goals Laine and Connor combined for last season.

“I don’t look at who’s not here and what I have to make up for it, because I can’t make up for all those goals. But, of course, I’m looking at myself and pushing myself to be better all the time,” said Ehlers.

“We’ve been out here for the last couple weeks creating a bond and trying to get better as a team. And we’ve done that. I think the games have shown that and we’re going to continue doing that… I’m pushing myself to be the best I can be, but I don’t think I can make up for all those goals.”

For what it’s worth, Maurice is seeing plenty of good signs from Ehlers in the pre-season, albeit it against often inferior competition.

“The challenge for Nikky is we feel he’s at his best when he’s shooting the puck, and he’s shooting the puck an awful lot. When you play with Mark and Blake, they will create another option for you. And then there’s that young guy, old guy thing going on out there, you want to keep veteran players happy. He needs to shoot the puck at the right time, use the players around him at the right time. That takes a little bit of experience. We think he’s had enough time now in the league that he should be able to make those good decisions,” said Maurice.

Ehlers certainly put in the work this summer, including re-watching every shift of every game last season to analyze the good, the bad and the ugly. And the Danish speedster believes it’s paying off, now with top-line responsibilities staring him in the face.

“Have I noticed any huge difference in those small details I’ve been working on? Yes. But still got a ways to go. I’m excited about it, obviously, and hopefully I can continue getting better at those things,” he said.

“We’ve played a fair amount of games together since I’ve been here. They’re obviously two great players. I think the last game here in pre-season that we played together, we created a lot of chances. We brought some speed. Hopefully you create more and more chemistry as the games go on. And if you get a chance to play with those two, you gotta do your best to obviously stay there. I think we did well and if we play more games together we’ve got to continue chemistry and working together to help this team win.”

Over the summer, Ehlers re-watched every game from last season to analyze his performance on the ice. (John Woods / The Canadian Press files)

The biggest storylines in camp have revolved around who’s not here, but give the players and coaches some credit: for all the external distractions, the focus has never wavered.

“To me it hasn’t really become a main topic. I think, naturally, if the TV’s on in the morning, you notice the noise. It’s certainly a topic around the hockey community. But in the room there’s very little time spent on it,” veteran centre Mark Letestu told me Thursday.

“We know whether they’re here or not we have to prepare for what we have here. There just hasn’t been a lot of wasted energy on that. When they come back, great, but if not, we’re ready to move forward with the group we have.”

Easier said than done, although Ehlers being at the top of his game would certainly help the cause.

“We want more out of him, not that he hasn’t given us enough, but the next step for the franchise is all of those players go from young to Mark Scheifele, to Adam Lowry. They came in as kids and now we don’t talk about them, they’re driving the bus. These guys have to take that next step,” said Maurice.

“You get to 22- and 23-year-old players, maybe you’re asking a lot, but the league certainly seems to be paying ’em now, so a lot will be asked.”

Now, more than ever.

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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