WITH Vegas in town, talk has naturally gone back to the expansion draft and how Winnipeg Jets general manager Kevin Cheveldayoff managed to avoid losing a roster player.
You’ll recall defenceman Toby Enstrom agreed to waive his no-trade clause, allowing Cheveldayoff to protect seven forwards and three defenceman. Had Enstrom not done that, he would have only been able to protect four forwards and four blue-liners, meaning a valuable skater likely would have been lost to the Golden Knights.
As it was, Vegas agreed to select pending unrestricted free agent Chris Thorburn in exchange for the Jets swapping first-round draft picks with them. Winnipeg used the lower pick to select Kristian Vesalainen, while Thorburn never signed with Vegas and ended up with St. Louis.
Sunday, several players said that move by Enstrom brought this group closer together.
"I wasn’t surprised. Toby, he’s loved being part of this team and he’s been here since the beginning with me, to see him do that was very unselfish. He was putting the team ahead of himself," centre Bryan Little said.
Coach Paul Maurice said that definitely had an impact.
"It’s kind of an idea of what maybe goes on in our locker room. He’s willing to take that risk for the team, with the idea that we can keep those guys. You can figure out who the names might have been and then you watch our game (Saturday) and realize how important those guys are to our team and what we would have lost," Maurice said.
"That was really significant, and you don’t do that if you don’t care about the team, the city or the organization. You want to keep the team together and you want to be a part of it, so he put himself at risk for the good of the team, and we benefited greatly from it."
Nobody knows the impact Dustin Byfuglien can have better than Nikolaj Ehlers.
The flashy Winnipeg forward felt the wrath of "Big Buff" earlier in these playoffs when he took a couple gloved shots to the face from his own teammate during a bizarre goal celebration. They also share a bit of a pre-game routine where Byfuglien uses him as a bit of a punching bag.
"He always gives me a shove, so now I’m kind of ready for it and try to give him a shove first but he’s a little bigger than I am," Ehlers cracked Sunday. "It’s the way he is. Everybody in here loves him. He’s a great guy. He loves doing stuff like that. It gets the boys fired up. Right now, me, I’m just trying to give him something back, and it gets us both a little more ready for the game. It’s great.
"You practise with him and when you get down into the corners, you’re glad he’s on your team. I think we’re all pretty happy that he signed a long extension."
Blue-liner Jacob Trouba, meanwhile, caused some chuckles from the assembled media members when someone asked if he’s ever looked up and wondered, "Why is Byfuglien there?"
"All the time, all the time. But that’s just who he is and that what makes him as good as he is," Trouba said. "He’ll be in spots that you kind of scratch your head, and then he’ll make something happen and do something crazy and that’s just who he is."
Vegas sniper William Karlsson was asked Sunday to compare Byfuglien to other premier defenders in the NHL.
"He’s kind of one of a kind."
Mark Scheifele is a self-professed hockey nerd who eats, breathes and sleeps the game. He leads all NHL players with 12 playoff goals and has clearly taken his game to another level.
"I don’t think that’s in his DNA, I don’t think he can take a break. He’s just one of those guys that loves hockey so much, and has to constantly watch clips or watch games. I’m sure he hasn’t missed many playoff games on TV, he’s probably watching them. He’s just one of those guys where it’s just hockey around the clock. That’s what makes him who he is," Little said.
Maurice was asked Sunday if he ever needs to tell Scheifele to take a well-earned day off.
"Well, recovery is part of his program. So he’s got that factored in, too. But there’s a big chunk of things that I don’t coach, when you get players like that. Players like Blake Wheeler, I’m learning from him. I ask a lot of questions, why they train that way, how they train. But they’re experts, far more so than I, in preparing to play a hockey game," Maurice said.
It’s rare to get this far in the playoffs and be fully healthy. But that’s the situation the Jets find themselves in. Which is why Dmitry Kulikov may have a hard time finding a spot in the lineup, despite working his way back from what looked to be a season-ending injury in early March.
"So, the first (thing) is you’re going to have a need in your lineup. Do you feel you have a need? We feel comfortable with our back end. And he’s been out for a while now. You watch (him on) the ice, to see where he’s going. We’re comfortable with where he’s gotten to, we also really liked Joe Morrow’s game when he was in, so we have some depth there as well," Maurice said.
Chicago Blackhawks forward Jonathan Toews earned the nickname "Captain Serious" much earlier in his career, although the Winnipegger has definitely lightened up in recent years.
Jets captain Blake Wheeler has that no-nonsense demeanour as well. He doesn’t strike an imposing figure only because of his 6-5, 225-pound frame; some of it is his body language, particularly with microphones in front of him and when cameras start rolling.
He has the occasional moment of playfulness with reporters, but most of the time speaks in measured tones, with an unflinching stare.
Trouba was asked whether he believes the Jets leader and all-star right-winger — who seems to carry the weight of the squad on his shoulders — is allowing himself to enjoy this remarkable post-season run.
"Yeah, he is (having fun). I don’t think you’ll find a guy in here who’s not having fun right now — it’s pretty impossible not to," Trouba said. "He’s a good leader, and he doesn’t let things get out of control."
He’s one of the "Black Aces" — healthy Jets who practise daily with the team but watch the intensity of the playoffs from the press box.
Veteran forward Shawn Matthias won’t see any action during the drive to the Stanley Cup unless Winnipeg gets decimated by injuries up front.
It’s been a challenging season for the 30-year-old from Toronto, who has played just 27 games, and has a goal and two assists. He’s an unrestricted free agent this summer.
But Matthias said he’s enjoying being part of the team’s success and is blown away by the response of an adoring community.
"You’ve got 25,000 people outside the building cheering loud, you’ve got the jets flying over the rink when the game starts. The atmosphere is just amazing. It’s something you just dream about being a part of, and it’s a big part of our success and getting our game going," he said.
"I’ve never experienced anything like it. Every shop you walk by has a "Go, Jets, Go" sign. Flags are all out on the houses and cars. Everywhere you go, everyone is saying, ‘Good luck, boys.’ It’s been amazing."
Read more by Mike McIntyre and Jason Bell.