Skyler McKenzie had a lot more fun a year ago at Winnipeg Jets training camp than he’s having now.
McKenzie stole some of the spotlight from the usual cast of stars, scoring three goals while suiting up in two NHL pre-season games last fall. But he’s been relegated to the shadows at this camp, through no fault of his own.
The 21-year-old forward skated away from the crowd for several days but finally shared the ice Thursday with a large group of Jets hopefuls, as his road back from surgery for an undisclosed lower-body injury continues. McKenzie donned a yellow no-contact jersey during drills at the morning skate at Bell MTS Iceplex, demonstrating in small doses that the dexterity he possesses to dart in and out of traffic is slowly returning.
He won’t be ready to absorb any punishment in drills until Manitoba Moose training camp is well underway next week — at the earliest. His sights are set on accompanying the American Hockey League squad on a season-opening swing through Texas the first weekend of October.
"It’s been a slow process, for sure," McKenzie said. "The frustrating part is not being where I want to be at. Even throughout the summer, I wanted to do more. I wanted to start walking, I wanted to run, I wanted to be out on the ice. I had to set those goals. Now, I want to play contact hockey and I want to be in the lineup when the season starts, and that’s what I’m looking forward to now, hoping it’s sooner rather than later.
"Patience is a tough thing for me, and I’m my biggest critic in a lot of things. So, I’m frustrated to know I’m not where I want to be right now."
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Missing the opportunity to suit up with the Jets in pre-season action is no minor annoyance for the 5-9, 170-pound product of Sherwood Park, Alta., who, Jets supporters might recall, made a fine impression in his first-ever NHL exhibition game.
Playing the visiting Edmonton Oilers a year ago, McKenzie dazzled with a two-goal effort in a 5-3 victory, with the first goal coming on a deflection from a Joe Morrow shot and the other on a great pass from C.J. Suess to finish off a two-on-one.
Four nights later, he scored in a 5-3 defeat to the New Jersey Devils at Bell MTS Place.
Those were heady days for the small but skilled seventh-round selection in the 2017 NHL entry draft, who joined the Moose for three playoff games in April 2018, scoring one goal. He went on to score eight goals and add eight assists in 47 games for the AHL club in his first pro campaign.
"Yeah, that was amazing," said McKenzie, who posted a pair of 40-goal seasons with the Portland Winterhawks to close out a his Western Hockey League career. "Getting in those (pre-season) games was something you don’t forget. Just being here has been unbelievable.
"I take huge pride in playing in Winnipeg. I have a lot of family in Winnipeg (on his father’s side), so they followed the Winnipeg Jets before they moved, and then they came back and I remember it was such an exciting time. So, to be part of it and play in front of family and friends is so huge for me and I’m so blessed to be here."
Goaltender Mikhail Berdin, expected to share the Moose net with Eric Comrie this season, says braving the blistering shots of Mark Scheifele, Blake Wheeler and Josh Morrissey at Jets camp is no big deal.
He’s done it many times before. Sort of, kind of... not really.
"I actually don’t feel like they shoot better than AHL guys," he said Thursday. "A couple years ago, I play on PlayStation (against) these guys. Now I practise with these guys."
The 21-year-old from Ufa, Russia, a sixth-round pick in 2016, is a major hit each time he gets in front of a microphone. His English is improving and his sense of humour has never been stronger.
Asked about his role as translator for new forward Andrei Chibisov, Berdin offered this: "I think he’s like me... he smile every time. I ask him every day, before game, ‘Hey, bro, don’t (be) nervous. Feel good. Enjoy your game.’ He say, ‘I don’t (bleeping) care. I’m not nervous. I’m ready to play.’ This guy awesome."
Berdin, or "Birdman" to his teammates, split the 2018-19 season — his first as a pro — between the Jets’ two minor-league squads, the Moose and the Jacksonville Icemen of the ECHL. With the Moose, he was 12-11-0 with a 2.34 goals-against average and .927 save percentage.
The Jets will go with Connor Hellebuyck and Laurent Brossoit this season, while Comrie remains very much in the future plans.
Berdin, who backed up Comrie in the first pre-season game against the Oilers, might still appear in a pre-season game, Jets head coach Paul Maurice hinted.
"Have you spent some time with him? Have you had a little bit of his personality laid on you? He’s got a big smile on his face. He’s come an awfully long way and we’ll just say if he can stay on this trajectory, well, we’ll have a real good goaltender that plays the puck better than half the guys in the league," Maurice said.
"He certainly loves coming to the rink and he loves playing, so the sky’s the limit, possibly. Goalies are different, but his personality is valuable. Having these kinds of people that we’ve brought in, and they’re starting to emerge now with a little bit more enthusiasm for life, I like it and I like having those guys around. You may see him get a few minutes (of playing time) here."
Jason Bell Assistant sports editor
Jason Bell wanted to be a lawyer when he was a kid. The movie The Paper Chase got him hooked on the idea of law school and, possibly, falling in love with someone exactly like Lindsay Wagner (before she went all bionic).
High-flying forward Nikolaj Ehlers will make his pre-season debut and Connor Hellebuyck is expected to start in the Winnipeg crease tonight as the Jets host the St. Louis Blues at Bell MTS Place. Game time is 7 p.m.
Up front, the Jets will also go with Adam Lowry, Mark Letestu, Andrew Copp, Jack Roslovic, Mathieu Perreault, Kristian Vesalainen, David Gustafsson, Andrei Chibisov, Gabriel Bourque, Michael Spacek and Mason Appleton.
Neal Pionk, Cam Schilling, Ville Heinola, Luke Green, Nelson Nogier and Logan Stanley will man the blue line, while Eric Comrie backs up Hellebuyck.
The Blues’ lineup will include goalie Jake Allen, blue-liners Carl Gunnarsson, Joel Edmundson and Jay Bouwmeester and forwards Zach Sanford, David Perron and Ryan O’Reilly from the Stanley Cup-winning roster in June.