Kovacevic watching, learning, improving Steady progress has D-man on verge of landing spot on Jets blue line

Jonathan Kovacevic only has to a look down the Winnipeg Jets bench during pre-season for inspiration.

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Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 01/10/2021 (493 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

Jonathan Kovacevic only has to a look down the Winnipeg Jets bench during pre-season for inspiration.

Logan Stanley, a 6-7, 228-pounder currently writing the book on a how a size-large blue-liner can blossom into an NHL regular, is putting on a clinic. And, he’s available for free consultations.

“When I first came to the Moose I was paired with Logan for a while and he kind of helped me out there,” said Kovacevic following practice at the Bell MTS Iceplex Friday afternoon. “And then even in these exhibition games he’s been helping me out, talking to me and kind of just being a steady partner… I watched what he did last year I watched him go from the Moose up to the Jets.

Johnathan Kovacevic was a third-round pick in the 2017 NHL Draft and spent the last two seasons with the Manitoba Moose. (John Woods / Winnipeg Free Press files)

“I know sometimes, especially (because) he’s a first-rounder, he obviously wanted to be there right away and he kind of took a couple of years to really work on his game and then made the most of it when he did get that chance to get called up to the Jets. That’s that’s exactly the path that I want to try and follow.”

The 24-year-old product of Grimsby, Ont., is entering his third season in the Jets organization and he’s getting tantalizingly close to breaking into the big leagues.

A third-round pick in the 2017 NHL Draft, Kovacevic has had two productive seasons with the AHL’s Manitoba Moose while adapting his 6-5, 218-pound frame to the pro game.

Jets head coach Paul Maurice has taken notice of Kovacevic’s smarts and improving skill set — playing him in two NHL pre-season games with more likely to come.

“He’s a big man, he moves well, but that’s something he’s worked at — his foot speed,” said Maurice. “If you can process the game quickly, then you can speed your own game up. Everybody has strengths and weakness and being able to process the game allows you to hide some of your weaknesses and improve on your strengths… Because of intelligence, whether you’re a big man like he is or if you’re a very small guy on the ice, you need that extra time to approach the task.

“He’s a bright man. Because the systems in the NHL are probably more important than anywhere else, it’s really important that you adhere to a game plan for the other players on the ice. Sometimes the game gets easier — the higher the level, the easier the game is to play — if you can process it.”

Kovacevic is pleased the brass is taking notice.

“That’s something I’ve been working towards and I’ve been working hard on my game and kind of trying to bring something to catch their eye to think, ‘Maybe he brings this to our team,'” he said. “So I’m just trying to be a steady guy, someone they can rely on and work from there.”

Kovacevic (left) wants to avoid obsessing over his position in the pecking order. (Jessica Lee / Winnipeg Free Press)

While a training camp injury to fellow blue-line prospect Dylan Samberg has surely improved Kovacevic’s stature on the organizational depth chart, its reasonable to assume the off-season additions of NHL veterans such as Nate Schmidt and Brenden Dillon have delayed his arrival with the big club.

Kovacevic wants to avoid obsessing over his position in the pecking order.

“It’s definitely human nature because of how bad you want it and you kind of want, I guess, that carrot or whatever it is at the end of the road,” he said. “So when you see them acquire a lot of guys, yeah, it could be a distraction… But I think the biggest thing to focus on is that it doesn’t change what kind of player you are…

“What I’m focused on is what I can do and even during these games, I’m not thinking I want to make this team this game — you know what I mean? I’m just thinking, I want to play the best game that I can right now.”

Kovacevic said the biggest improvement has come with his gap control and he credits former Moose head coach Pascal Vincent, now an associate coach with the Columbus Blue Jackets, for a firm but encouraging approach to his development. Vincent is a skilled communicator, is able to deliver the unvarnished truth without messing with a player’s confidence.

“He was really supportive of me and he tells it as it is and I appreciate that with him,” said Kovacevic. “And also he’s been at the NHL level and he was kind of telling me last year like, ‘I’ve been there I know what it takes and I know that you have what it takes.’ I know he’s not the kind of guy to BS you.”

Although a promotion to the NHL appears inevitable, the timing is unclear.

“I don’t know yet,” said Maurice. “(He’s) closer than he was, for sure. We had heard he had a very good year last year. He was going to get into some exhibition games based on that. I hadn’t seen him play in any of those games (last year). I really liked his first one, so he got another one…

Jets head coach Paul Maurice has taken notice of Kovacevic's improving skill set and dressed him for both NHL pre-season games. (Jessica Lee / Winnipeg Free Press)

“It’s stages for him. He’s moved into a stage where he’s getting exhibition games, which means if there is a call-up and they say ‘Johnathan is coming up,’ now you go, ‘Sure.’ I have a pretty good idea who he is, I have a pretty good idea who I should play him with, I have an idea what line I can play him against on the other team. You just know him a little bit. He has to continue here at this training camp to do that. He’s been a real nice find for us.”

Kovecevic wants to earn a trip to the big time.

“It’s something that I carry, I guess, internally. I would never want to feel like I’m owed something or feel like I deserve to be in a certain spot because I had a good year last year. I feel like that’s something that, ‘Yeah, I had a good year last year and I want to show the show the Jets staff why I had a good year.'”


Twitter: @sawa14

Mike Sawatzky

Mike Sawatzky

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

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