Winnipegger returns to form in WHL playoffs

Injuries could move Woo down NHL draft rankings

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Jett Woo would have scripted it differently. His NHL draft year, to be frank, has been a rocky, uphill climb.

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Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 05/04/2018 (1706 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

Jett Woo would have scripted it differently. His NHL draft year, to be frank, has been a rocky, uphill climb.

The first major obstacle came 18 games into his sophomore season with the Western Hockey League’s Moose Jaw Warriors, when he suffered a separated shoulder. Then, shortly after returning from a six-week break to rehab, he missed almost another month while recovering from a strained oblique muscle and a hip pointer.

The 17-year-old Winnipeg product, a defenceman ranked 20th overall among North American skaters by NHL Central Scouting in its mid-season rankings for the upcoming draft, went on to score nine goals and 25 points in 44 games.

marc smith / discovery moose jaw Moose Jaw Warriors 17-year-old defenceman Jett Woo of Winnipeg is rounding into form in the WHL playoffs following an injury-plagued regular season. He is eligible for this year’s NHL draft.

But all things considered, Woo feels fortunate. He’s back in the lineup and almost completely healthy, while playing for one of the finest teams in major-junior hockey.

The high-octane Warriors, who escaped with a Game 7 victory in their opening-round series with the Prince Albert Raiders earlier this week, are steaming into a second-round matchup with the Swift Current Broncos. Game 1 is tonight in Moose Jaw.

The No. 2 Broncos finished only six points behind the Warriors, who were first overall in the WHL’s regular-season standings and are currently ranked No. 2 in the Canadian Hockey League.

Moose Jaw trailed 2-0 and 3-2 in its Game 7 showdown with the Raiders, rallying each time before pulling out a 5-4 victory. How did they do it?

“I think it’s a lot of things,” Woo said. “One thing is the plan and the goals we set out at the beginning of the year with the coaching staff, as well as all the returning players and the leadership and chemistry we have in the room. I tell everyone how close we are in the dressing room and how much trust we have.”

Lately, his trust level got another boost. Head coach Tim Hunter paired Woo with Team Canada blue-liner Kale Clague, a trade-deadline acquisition from the Brandon Wheat Kings, and the match has turned into a strong collaboration.

“We’ve bonded on and off the ice,” Woo said.

Hunter was very deliberate about the move — combining a savvy vet with a talented young player who is still finding his way in the WHL.

“He could just settle in playing defence and not have to worry about carrying the puck up the ice, and skipping steps and doing things like skating the puck past the forwards,” Hunter said. “And so, we thought it would be a good fit with Clague. Clague can manage the puck more.”

Woo has been asked to resist the temptation to become a point producer, and is pointless in seven playoff games. All that offence will come in time, his coach said. Significant time on the power play will also have to wait until next season.

“When you’re developing young hockey players, you have to be careful of how you play them — how much you play ’em and where you play ’em, and yet you still have to put them into situations where he gets experience and develops and not get ahead of himself,” Hunter said. “Modern athletes today have a real sense of entitlement, without having to earn it. We have a very good team, a lot of older defencemen, and there’s just not a lot of time for Jett to play in offensive situations… (Veterans like) Kale Clague, Josh Brook, Dmitri Zaitsev — these are all better players right now than Jett.”

The hype of a player’s draft year, with the expectations placed on the top NHL prospects, can sometimes be overwhelming.

“It’s in the back of my head, obviously,” Woo said. “But, regarding pressure, there’s no pressure, really. I haven’t really thought about it that much. Right now, it’s all about the team and how well we do in the playoffs and going as far as we can. It’s helped me deal with the so-called pressure everyone’s feeling right now.

“I know my role on the team, and it was set out before the year. I’m just trying to fit that as best as I can and give us the best chance of winning.”

Hunter, a hockey traditionalist who spent 15 years in the NHL as an renowned enforcer, understands how draft aspirations can directly conflict with team goals.

“It’s a good question, and it goes back to they say they don’t watch the draft rankings — but they do,” Hunter said. “Their parents do, their agents do and it’s all part of what goes on during their draft year. You miss a few games and now you’re a little bit behind and your peers are over there in Spokane getting a bunch more points than you are and you think, ‘I’ve gotta catch up.’ So now you’ve gotta take some steps to get points. It’s human nature.”

Hunter’s job is to win games and mould young players for a future in the professional ranks. He views the WHL as an apprenticeship.

“You’ve just gotta‘ remind them of who they are and what they’re going to be when they eventually get to the NHL,” Hunter said. “Just making a good first pass, just being smart defensively, just reading the play and showing your hockey IQ and showing your physicality is the base of your game. Scouts don’t want to see you take the puck up the ice when you should have passed it four times.

“They don’t want to see that. They want to see you go back for the puck and prepare for the puck — and know which pass is the right one to make, and make it. Then, reading the rush and reading coverage, and then being dynamic with the puck when you do have those opportunities.”

mike.sawatzky@freepress.mb.caTwitter: @sawa14

Mike Sawatzky

Mike Sawatzky
Reporter

Mike has been working on the Free Press sports desk since 2003.

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