Stenlund making his case
Jets centre making the most of his opportunities since call up from Moose
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BOSTON — Kevin Stenlund is a man of few words, a reflection of his workmanlike attitude and razor-sharp focus on his craft. That approach has worked just fine for Stenlund, whose recent play with the Winnipeg Jets has put him in the conversation for an extended stay with the NHL club.
Stenlund has played the last five games with the Jets, slotting in at centre on the fourth line, between two fellow Swedes in David Gustafsson and Axel Jonsson-Fjallby. He registered an assist in his Jets debut, helping setup a second-period goal by Sam Gagner in a 6-5 loss to Vegas on Dec. 13, and scored his first with Winnipeg in Tuesday’s 5-1 victory against the Ottawa Senators.
Not too shabby for a player whose signing over the summer garnered little attention and was viewed by many as a longshot to make the team.
“It’s about being consistent, being a guy you can count on every night,” Stenlund said following the morning skate at TD Garden on Thursday ahead of the Jets tilt against the Boston Bruins. “Just play my game and eventually it will work out.”
The 6-4, 211-pound forward has been a notable contributor for the Jets during their time of need, a consistent presence as they work their way through several injuries. Despite a strong training camp, Stenlund was one of the team’s final cuts, spending the Jets’ first 27 games with the AHL’s Manitoba Moose, where he totalled 14 points (4G,10A) in 19 games.
Stenlund said while it wasn’t what he envisioned after signing a one-year contract, he benefitted from his time with the Moose, earning lots of ice time and playing in all situations. With the Jets, the 26-year-old is averaging slightly more than 12 minutes, including time on the penalty kill.
His call-up from the Moose on Dec. 13, while certainly the result of injuries — with forwards Nikolaj Ehlers, Blake Wheeler, Mason Appleton and Saku Maenalanen all sidelined for at least a few more weeks — it was also brought on to spark a fourth line that had started the season well, only to struggle in recent weeks.
“He’s doing the job we needed him to do. Give him credit for stepping in and doing that. He’s a big strong kid. He’s been really good in the face-offs, we’re putting him out more and more for those,” Jets head coach Rick Bowness said.
“He controls the puck, he doesn’t throw it away, he’s reliable defensively in that fourth line. As you know, we weren’t happy with it, we had to tweak it a little bit. We’ve liked what we’ve seen from it. Gus hasn’t played a lot of left wing, but he looks good over there. He’s doing a good job for us. It’s worked so far, it’s up to them to keep doing it.”
Moving Gustafsson from centre to the wing to make room for Stenlund came as a bit of a surprise. Maybe it shouldn’t have been, given that Bowness has been lamenting the club’s lack of success winning face-offs for some time, the Jets currently ranked 28th of 32 teams with a winning percentage of just 47.3.
Though a smaller sample size compared to his fellow centreman, Stenlund has won 56.8 per cent of his draws, including a team-high nine face-off wins in a loss to the Seattle Kraken on Sunday. Pierre-Luc Dubois is next at 50.4 per cent, followed by Adam Lowry (49.7), Mark Scheifele (46.1) and Gustafsson (41.9).
“I feel more involved in the game at centre,” Stenlund said. “At wing, I feel a bit spread out and not engaged as much.”
Stenlund was selected in the second round (58th overall) by the Columbus Blue Jackets in the 2015 NHL Draft. He played 71 games over parts of four seasons, spending most of his time with the AHL’s Cleveland Monsters.
While the Blue Jackets opted to let him walk as a restricted free agent, there are no hard feelings. Stenlund enjoyed playing for John Tortorella, who is among the more polarizing coaches in the NHL, while also sparking a friendship with Dubois, who was dealt to Winnipeg early into the 2020-21 season.
“I liked Torts and I hope he liked me. He gave me a chance. He saw my abilities and helped my game improve,” Stenlund said, before turning his focus to Dubois. “He’s so strong and can just make plays whenever he needs to. He’s an unbelievable player and to be able to watch that every day, it’s just fun.”
As for playing on a line with two other Swedish players — something Bowness said is a mere coincidence, even if Stenlund and Gustaffson both admit it’s to their advantage, as they speak in their native tongue during games — the team has yet to give them a nickname. That would be viewed as a bit premature given it’s been just three games, but if they can continue to play together and have success, it’s certainly not out of the question.
“It’s probably coming if we can keep playing together,” said Gustaffson. “You don’t get many chances to play with your fellow countrymen, especially if you’re a Swede. We’re trying to take advantage as much as we can and cherish it.”
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.