Mark Lamb vividly recalls a tall, gangly teen taking runs at guys with much heftier frames and getting knocked on his can a lot.
The kid with the beanpole physique, Adam Lowry, would rise from the ice and resume his rough, rugged but unpolished routine.
"My first year in Swift Current, Adam was there as a 16-year-old," Lamb, former head coach of the Broncos of the Western Hockey League, said in a phone conversation Monday. "The thing I remember was this big, tall, skinny kid. His skating was a bit of an issue. But what caught my eye right away was his try. He really worked hard.
"He went after this one big guy, hit him, fell down, got back up, hit him again and fell back down. Right then, you knew."
Lamb, a former NHLer himself, saw a player with pedigree – Lowry’s father, Dave, played 1,084 games over 19 NHL seasons – and plenty of potential, but understood his junior squad needed to demonstrate some patience to give the teen time to learn on the job.
Lowry would go on to play four seasons with the Broncos, culminating with a 45-goal, 88-point final campaign (2012-13) — tops on his team and 12th in the WHL. He was the Four Broncos Memorial Trophy recipient as the WHL player of the year.
The Winnipeg Jets have followed that same method of development for Lowry, the second-ever player taken by the organization at the 2011 NHL Draft.
Six years later, he’s a towering figure up the middle on the Jets third line. He takes critical defensive-zone draws, plays against many of the league’s top trios, creates a tough-to-move obstacle in front of the net on the power play, delivers hits (196, 20th in the NHL) with regularity and kills penalties.
The 6-foot-5, 210-pound centre, who turns 24 on Wednesday, is also flashing some offence, firing 14 goals and chipping in a dozen assists while playing in all 76 games this season.
The Jets have a huge decision to make on his future.
Do they throw a protective blanket around the big forward prior to the June expansion draft or shield others, like forward Mathieu Perreault or defenceman Tyler Myers, from the Vegas Golden Knights?
Teams have two options when it comes to protecting players in the upcoming expansion draft: seven forwards, three defencemen and a goaltender; or four forwards, four defencemen and a goalie. Vegas will choose a player from each of the 30 squads.
First- and second-year players are exempt from the expansion draft, so Jets GM Kevin Cheveldayoff doesn't need to protect defenseman Josh Morrissey and forwards Patrik Laine, Nikolaj Ehlers, Nic Petan, Jack Roslovic, Kyle Connor and Brendan Lemieux.
With no-movement clauses in their contracts, blue-liners Dustin Byfuglien and Toby Enstrom can’t be exposed, while Jacob Trouba is a lock to be protected. If Winnipeg protects currently injured Myers, a skilled, mobile rearguard with a friendly contract, that leaves four spots up front. Mark Scheifele, Blake Wheeler and Bryan Little will most assuredly be protected, so that leaves safe haven for just one of Lowry, Perreault, Joel Armia, Marko Dano and Andrew Copp.
Lowry’s not a player who’s easy to replace, said Lamb, currently the head coach of the Tucson Roadrunners, the American Hockey League affiliate of the Phoenix Coyotes.
"Those guys don’t grow on trees," said Lamb. "You’re big, you play well way from the puck and you compete. With that type of size, every team in the league is looking for those type of guys. I know in this organization we’d love to have him."
While Lowry is producing at a similar pace to his 2014-15 rookie season (11G, 12A), Winnipeg head coach Paul Maurice says the current version is a more well-rounded, trusted and relied-upon forward.
"He’s one of those quietly, strong progressing players. It’s not as obvious, because he’s not a young guy that’s come in and scored 20 where you get really excited about that offence, He’s developing into that two-way role," Maurice said recently.
"He’s a little bigger, a little stronger a little faster. And for him, those defensive reads, which I think are the hardest things to acquire as a young player, he’s gotten better at it. He will, I think, take longer for people to notice that he’s hit his peak — that he’s hit into his prime — but he’s really been trending the right way, probably from Day 1."
Lowry spent the 2013-14 season with the Jets’ AHL club, the St. John’s IceCaps, improving his skating until he was NHL ready, and then broke through with a solid rookie campaign. He hit a bump in the road in his sophomore 2015-16 season – he was dispatched to the Manitoba Moose of the AHL after scoring just one goal and seven assists in 31 games with Winnipeg – but an injury to centre Mark Scheifele necessitated a recall just 11 days later.
Lowry, who was born in St. Louis but raised, for the most part, in Calgary, has been a fixture on the third line since, averaging about 16 minutes of ice-time each contest.
"Obviously, there was a hiccup last year. But that’s part of young guys maturing," his dad, Dave, the bench boss of the Victoria Royals of the WHL, said Monday. "They were extremely patient with him, and maybe not a lot of organizations would have shown the same patience at that time. But when there’s belief and trust in an individual, sometimes you do give them a little bit more of an opportunity.
"His game this year has really come back. He prioritized what he needed to do and it started last summer, and he’s been a very good professional in how he prepares and how he looks after himself, and it equates to getting comfortable back in the league and growing his game."
Lowry fired the winning goal – his fifth power-play tally of the season and third goal in his last six games — past veteran goalie Ryan Miller in Sunday’s 2-1 triumph over the Vancouver Canucks. He's in the first year of a two-year, US$2.25 million contract, and will be a restricted free agent when the deal is done in the summer of 2018.
Maurice sounds a lot like someone depending on Lowry’s availability to the Jets for the long haul.
"The bulk of the players that we’ve put into our lineup over the last couple of years have been highly skilled guys, skaters. (Lowry’s) one of the few that comes into our lineup as a defensive specialist," he said.
"We need to have a player like that develop into a big, strong guy where he can play against usually the other teams’ size. But again, if we can get him into those teens in goals and closing in on 20 at some point, then we’re going to have a real dominant man in the middle."