Johnny on the spot

Kovacevic makes NHL debut on Jets depleted blue-line

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The recent injection of youth into the Winnipeg Jets lineup continued Thursday as defenceman Johnny Kovacevic earned his first taste of NHL action against the Vancouver Canucks.

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Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 27/01/2022 (303 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

The recent injection of youth into the Winnipeg Jets lineup continued Thursday as defenceman Johnny Kovacevic earned his first taste of NHL action against the Vancouver Canucks.

With several Jets in COVID-19 protocol in recent weeks and a rash of injuries to the blue line, Kovacevic is just the latest example of a young player getting thrust into action with little to no NHL experience.

The 24-year-old isn’t new to pro hockey — he’s played 106 games for the AHL’s Manitoba Moose over the past three seasons — but the NHL provides a much stiffer challenge. And it’s one Kovacevic, listed at 6-4, 208 pounds, was eager to face head on.

THE CANADIAN PRESS/John Woods Winnipeg Jets' defenceman Johnny Kovacevic made his NHL debut Thursday night against the Canucks.

“I’m kind of trying to keep it all in check right now, not get too excited. I’m sure after the game I’ll probably reflect on it,” he told reporters, following the Jets morning skate. “It’s been a long journey. Proud of myself and happy to be here. Just hoping to play a good game.”

Dylan Samberg and Declan Chisholm, fellow defencemen who also suited up with the Moose, made their NHL debuts in a 3-0 road win over the Detroit Red Wings on Dec. 13. Austin Poganski also played his first game with the Jets — and seventh in the NHL — that night in Detroit, while forward Cole Perfetti skated in just his fourth.

Kovacevic has performed well with the Moose this season, chipping in seven goals and seven assists in 32 games. While there, he developed chemistry playing with Ville Heinola, and Jets coach Dave Lowry hinted they’d likely form a pairing against the Canucks.

Heinola made his season debut Tuesday in a 5-3 loss to Florida.

“Just relax and play to your strengths, that’s really the biggest thing,” Lowry said, when asked to divulge his pre-game pep talk to new players. “Some guys get extremely nervous. Yeah, it is your first game in the NHL but enjoy it.”

Kovacevic isn’t exactly entering a playful environment with the Jets, who were mired in a five-game winless streak prior to the battle with Vancouver and remain below the Western Conference playoff line.

Veteran players have taken Kovacevic under their wing, offering advice and support to help ensure a smooth transition.

“All throughout this year, with the COVID and guys getting injured, the Cole Perfettis on down to Johnny, it’s something where you want to have those conversations, you want to talk about certain plays, and hockey is so fast that it’s not going to be exactly how you mapped it out or exactly how a breakdown might be,” defenceman Brenden Dillon said. “But, overall, I think we’ve got a good group of guys that are able to lend a helping hand and, for myself, specifically, with the (defence), I’ll definitely do as much as I can.”

Kovacevic went through the familiar steps leading up to his first NHL game. He called his parents immediately after finding out the news, and also spoke to his brother. He also called his sister, who moved to New Zealand about a year ago and works as a mental-health therapist.

His mom, dad and brother made it to Canada Life Centre in time for the game.

“Just really happy to be able to share that moment with them,” he said. “I feel like I’ve kind of been through the journey with them, they’ve known how much I’ve put into it.”

Kovacevic said he’d reflect on the experience after the game was over but did mention a few motivating factors swirling around in his head, such as the AAA hockey team that cut him in Grimsby, Ont., or getting ignored by the Ontario Hockey League and taking the U.S. college route (Merrimack College in Massachusetts), instead.

There’s also the fact he was passed over in two NHL drafts before the Jets selected him in the third round (74th overall) in 2017 in Chicago. Winnipeg had taken forward Kristian Vesalainen in the first round and Samberg in the second. Both are currently with the team, although Samberg is out week to week with an injury.

“I kind of feel like I’ve taken a bit more of the scenic route, kind of staying to it, having faith and working hard on my game,” Kovacevic said. “There’s been a lot of times, and I will reflect on it more after. Right now, I want to focus on the task at hand.”

MILESTONE NIGHT: Adam Lowry played his 500th NHL game — all in a Jets uniform.

Lowry was selected in the third round (67th overall), in the 2011 NHL Draft and made his NHL debut three years later, playing 80 games with the Jets during the 2014-15 season. He’s evolved into a dependable third-line centre for Winnipeg, a shutdown specialist that’s been relied on for much of his career to play against the opponent’s top line.

Dave, his father and head coach, played 1,084 NHL games, splitting 19 seasons between Vancouver, St. Louis, Florida, San Jose and Calgary.

“It’s a very proud moment,” said the elder Lowry. “If you have kids, if they make the National Hockey League it’s something they’ve dreamed about. You like to see your kids have success. We’ve been fortunate that he’s been able to play this being his 500th National Hockey League game.”

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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