Reichel right where he wants to be
Jets forward proving he belongs in NHL
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Hockey can be a cruel game at times. Kristian Reichel knows that all too well.
The Winnipeg Jets’ forward was just getting into a groove last season before it all came to an abrupt halt in Calgary, after taking a shot off the skate.
Reichel’s foot was broken, effectively ending his first campaign in the NHL after just 13 games.
“It’s tough,” Reichel told the Free Press after the Jets skate Monday. “You work so hard and you get there and you feel like you’re proving yourself, you’re getting better every day. And then, suddenly, from nothing, it came to an end.”
“It was a tough pill to swallow, for sure. But at the end of the season, you can’t do anything about it, it’s a part of hockey. It made me stronger and I got ready for the next season and to prove I can play here and belong here.”
The 24-year-old product of Most, Czechia spent three seasons — and the first 30 games of 2021 — with the Jets’ American Hockey League affiliate Manitoba Moose before getting his crack in the Show. While he registered two points during his time with Winnipeg, he offered some important depth with his right-handed shot and showcased his versatility as an option on the penalty kill.
Reichel conceded it took a couple of games for him to shake the nerves of playing in the NHL, and it took him a couple of weeks to acclimate to the pace of the big game, but that he felt was beginning to stack some good days before going down.
“Towards the end when I got injured, I was feeling that I really can play on this level — and then the injury happened,” he said.
“I think I showed how I play, what I can bring to the table. The coaches started to trust me and that helps a player’s confidence when the coach knows you try hard and that you’re making the best of it. He puts you in a situation you can succeed, and for the player, it helps to know that if you make a mistake, it happens but you’re still confident that you can make the play.”
After being sidelined for three months — and re-signing with the Jets on a two-year deal worth US$1.55 million — Reichel returned to the Moose to start the season, where he would have to work to prove he deserved another shot in the NHL.
While his nine points in 25 games doesn’t jump off the page, the Czech forward got the chance he longed for, being recalled to the big club on Dec. 29 and quickly injected into the lineup on the fourth line.
“We had a couple of lefties playing that right side and were getting hemmed in our own zone sometimes because it’s hard for a left-hander to get that puck out of our zone off the boards,” said Jets head coach Rick Bowness. “He’s a righty and it helps and that’s one of his strengths, his ability to get that puck off the boards and get it out or make a play. That’s his reputation and he did a good job of that (against the Edmonton Oilers on Dec. 30).
(Manitoba Moose head coach) Mark (Morrison) tells us about all the good things he does all over the ice. He’s responsible. He showed that. He also made a really good play on the winning goal, got the puck and made the right play. And because he was in good position, you where his positioning was on that play, he wasn’t chasing the game, the game came to him. He got the puck and made the right play. He deserves another look.”
A good play he made indeed. Despite starting on the bottom line, Reichel made his way up to the second line with Kyle Connor and Pierre-Luc Dubois to start the third period, where his efforts earned him an assist on Connor’s game-winning goal.
“That was a nice bump for me,” Reichel said with a smile. “Playing with these players, it’s so nice to play with these players. They’re such good hockey players and I’m trying to do the hard work for them so they can generate chances.”
“I’m trying to make the best of it and get ready for the next one.”
Rick Bowness takes pride in icing a disciplined team.
The Winnipeg Jets bench boss has built a reputation for being a leader of teams that stay out of the penalty box over his 34 years of coaching — and when they do take penalties, playing sound, defensive hockey on the penalty kill.
“Very much so,” Bowness said of the pleasure he takes in heading a composed squad. “You want to stay out of the box. We want to keep the penalties down. This league, special teams are becoming more and more important.
“Your special teams are going to win you or lose you a lot of games, especially when it is this tight and the standings are this tight. Discipline is a huge part of any success any good team has.”
Statistically speaking, this season the Jets are icing their most disciplined squad since the 2019-20 campaign, when the club finished second to Columbus for the fewest penalty kills in the league (174). Winnipeg has been shorthanded 102 times through 39 contests, the third-fewest behind Vegas and St. Louis.
What’s more is when the Jets have found themselves in a pinch, the special-teams unit has got them out of it 82.4 per cent of the time, sixth-best in the NHL. The penalty kill once again stood tall against the Edmonton Oilers on Saturday, going five for five against the league’s top power play, led by Connor McDavid.
The Jets will face a less imposing power play Tuesday evening when they host the Calgary Flames, who own a bottom-ten unit with the man advantage (19.2 per cent).
Bowness has had a heavy impact on just about every phase of the Jets in his first season at the helm, but his work on the special-teams units may be some of his best, as they have been large contributors to the team staying afloat throughout the onslaught on injuries it has faced.
“I don’t know… you’re selling that team-first mentality no matter what. You’re selling check with your feet, moving your sticks on the ice, no lazy penalties. You’re talking about keeping your shifts short so you don’t take lazy penalties. You’re talking about puck management so you don’t have to react,” Bowness said.
“There’s a lot of things involved with that. It’s not as simple as one thing this, it’s all involved, it’s all-encompassed. If you’re taking long shifts, you’re going to take lazy penalties. If you turn the puck over, you’re chasing the game. If you’re not going to check moving your feet, keeping your stick on the ice, you’re going to take penalties. We preach all of those things.”
Defenceman Dylan Samberg is one player who has embodied the team-first mentality, as sacrificing his body has become a specialty of his since joining the club this season.
“I guess at this point in my career, it’s just kind of transforming into my job, especially on the penalty kill,” Samberg said. “That’s one of those things you have to do and even though you see a guy wind it up to do a slap shot, you just gotta get down.
“Once I grew, it became a more important part of my game. I settled into my game, being more of that defensive defenceman. Right now, it’s working to my advantage, it’s keeping me on the penalty kill and down the road, I’d say I’d like to keep it a part of my game. I like killing penalties.”
Monday’s practice was an encouraging one for the Winnipeg Jets on the injury front.
Forward Nikolaj Ehlers participated fully for the first time since Oct. 18. The bright blue jersey he donned signalled that he is close to returning from a sports hernia that required surgery. His status for tonight’s game will be determined during the morning skate.
Defenceman Nate Schmidt is in the same boat after practicing for the first time in two weeks. Schmidt also donned a light blue jersey as he works his way back from an upper-body injury.
Cole Perfetti is the third Jet who wore a light blue jersey and whose status for tonight’s game will be determined during the morning skate. The forward suffered an upper-body injury last week.
Blake Wheeler remained in a red non-contact jersey Monday. Bowness confirmed that he is still far from playing after undergoing surgery on his groin Dec. 18.
Forward Saku Maenalanan also skated in a non-contact jersey, signalling fans should not expect his return from an upper-body injury anytime soon.
Josh Morrissey did not skate, taking “a maintenance day,” according to Bowness.
Joshua Frey-Sam happily welcomes a spirited sports debate any day of the week.