Jets lineup coming into focus While some players are a lock, there’s still plenty of competition at depth positions
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The Winnipeg Jets opening-night roster is starting to come into focus. And the first 10 days of training camp have offered a handful of surprises — not to mention opportunities — which could impact some of the final decisions that must be made before the puck drops on a new season Oct. 14.
There are still 47 players hanging around (27 forwards, 15 defencemen, five goalies) but a big wave of cuts is expected to come this weekend.
It can be a fool’s game to make snap judgments based on small sample sizes, especially when it comes to exhibition contests where the quality of teammates and level of competition can vary wildly. There’s been three of those so far (no Jets player has appeared in more than two), with three more to come starting Saturday evening at Canada Life Centre when some semblance of the Edmonton Oilers pay a visit.
Veterans are mainly just trying to work off the rust and not get hurt, while those on the bubble have a lot more motivation to make their presence felt.
New head coach Rick Bowness and his staff have a bigger body of work to look at including everything they’ve seen on, and off, the ice when it comes to daily practice skates and film study sessions as a whole new set of offensive and defensive systems are introduced. Other factors, including age and experience and, yes, contract and waiver status will also have to be weighed, with general manager Kevin Cheveldayoff having signficant input as well. It’s a fact of life in the modern NHL, where salary cap and asset management are key.
It says here that at least 16 of the 23 spots are spoken for. Barring some out-of-the-blue trade, you can write the names of forwards Mark Scheifele, Kyle Connor, Nikolaj Ehlers, Pierre-Luc Dubois, Blake Wheeler, Adam Lowry, Mason Appleton, Sam Gagner and Cole Perfetti down in permanent ink. Same with defencemen Josh Morrissey, Neal Pionk, Nate Schmidt, Brenden Dillon and Dylan DeMelo. And goaltenders Connor Hellebuyck and David Rittich are locked in.
There’s plenty of competition for the remaining jobs. Let’s look at whose stock is sliding, and whose stock is rising, based on what’s gone down to date:
Defenceman Logan Stanley: His two pre-season games have included several rough patches. The Jets are heavily invested in the 2016 first-rounder, so I don’t expect them to give up on Stanley anytime soon. That said, he’s likely outside the top six when the season starts and might have to get used to press box duty as the seventh or eighth blue-liner for the foreseeable future. Dylan Samberg (the most likely to win a starting job), Ville Heinola, Johnathan Kovacevic, Declan Chisholm and Kyle Capobianco have all had solid camps so far and are pushing for work.
Forward Morgan Barron: Through no fault of his own, it should be noted. But an injury has taken the 23-year-old out of the mix so far, and that’s unfortunate for a guy looking to build on a promising debut late last year after coming over in the Andrew Copp trade. He’s getting closer to full health and could play in the final pre-season home-and-home next week against Calgary. I firmly believe he’s here to stay, but there are others knocking on the door. He’ll want to hit the ground running once he gets the green light.
Forward Jansen Harkins: You’d like to think there’s another level there for the 25-year-old, but it’s been a rather quiet camp so far. Again, he’s likely making the team, but where exactly he slots in — fourth line? 13th forward? — is very much up for debate at this point. The Jets are looking for greater production from their bottom-six this year, and Harkins (22 points in 132 career games) needs to show he’s capable of more.
Forward Dominic Toninato: I had always assumed he makes the team, if for no other reason then I wasn’t sure there was a better option waiting in the wings. As you’ll see below, that may no longer be the case, and the 28-year-old journeyman isn’t a slam-dunk. Not only are the likes of Barron and 20-year-old David Gustafsson right on the cusp of full-time work, but a few skaters who maybe weren’t on the immediate radar prior to camp are coming on strong, too.
Goaltender Mikhail Berdin: Winnipeg’s third-string goalie has taken a personal leave from camp, and his immediate future isn’t clear. There are rumblings the “Birdman” may be looking for a better fit overseas, perhaps back in his native Russia and the KHL. That will have a ripple effect on the netminder depth chart, especially if Hellebuyck runs into any injury issues or Rittich struggles in his backup role. The writing was somewhat on the wall when the Jets went out and signed Finnish free agent Oskari Salminen this summer.
Forward Brad Lambert: Here’s where I ignore my own advice up top and make a bold proclamation based on a teeny tiny sample size: But this kid has the chance to be something special. The 18-year-old first-rounder was dynamic in his debut on Thursday, showing no signs of an injury that sidelined him during the first week of camp. A goal, an assist, all kinds of speed and skill and creativity. At the very least, Lambert has earned himself a longer look. The NHL, AHL and even the Western Hockey League are all options.
Forward Saku Maenalanen: There is a lot to like about the 28-year-old, who made his NHL debut in 2018 with Carolina, then went back to Europe for four years. He’s versatile, good in both ends of the rink and brings some much-needed size to the forward group (along with another player who has caught my eye in Kevin Stenlund). Bowness is clearly intrigued, playing Maenalanen in the first two games and bringing him to Montreal on Thursday as a contingency in case a forward who was iffy couldn’t play.
Forward Mikey Eyssimont: He reminds me a bit of a gone but certainly not forgotten player around here, Brandon Tanev. The motor is always running, he’s not afraid to mix it up, and he’s got some skill, to boot, as we saw on Tuesday night when he scored a nifty power play goal when given the opportunity to play with Scheifele, Ehlers, Connor and Morrissey. Likely still a longshot to make the club out of camp, but he’s certainly given coaches and management plenty to ponder. The 26-year-old played his first NHL game last year in Winnipeg. It feels like there could be more to come.
Forward Daniel Torgersson: All this young man does is score, it seems. He had two goals in four games with the Moose last spring after coming over from Europe. He had a pair of goals in the World Juniors in August for Sweden, helping them win a bronze medal. And he had two goals in his Jets pre-season debut on Tuesday against Ottawa. The 20-year-old has surged up the depth chart, and while he’s likely going to start the year in the AHL, we could see him sooner than later.
Goaltender Arvid Holm: Meet the new Moose starter. With Berdin likely out of the picture, Holm should be given every chance to blossom. He was solid in stopping 13 of 15 shots Thursday in Montreal, including a five-alarm save off Cole Caufield that will be on many highlight reels. His size, and mobility for a big man, is impressive, something I’ve been watching closely during training camp skates. The 24-year-old appears to have a bright future, and you wonder if he might ultimately challenge Rittich for that Jets backup role.
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.