With COVID-19 and all the uncertainties that come with a global health crisis acting as a backdrop to the start of the 2021 NHL season, Adam Lowry offers this piece of advice as his Winnipeg Jets get ready to kick off a fresh campaign at home Thursday night against the Calgary Flames. Puck drop is at 7 p.m.
"It’s cliché to say but expect the unexpected. We don’t really know how it’s going to play out," the Jets centre said following Wednesday’s practice.
"We don’t know what it’s gonna be like playing a team nine, 10 times and playing such a condensed schedule. It’s all new to us. You look at all the young, talented players across the Canadian teams and you get to watch them almost every night. It’s a real unique opportunity for us, an unprecedented time."
The Jets have already had to deal with the effects of the novel coronavirus. Forward Nikolaj Ehlers was absent from Wednesday’s practice for what is being referred to by the NHL as a COVID Protocol Related Absence (CPRA). A CPRA doesn’t necessarily mean the player(s) in question has contracted COVID-19, but rather includes a wide range of possibilities — from displaying flu-like symptoms to being a close contact of someone who has tested positive.
The Jets didn’t disclose what the issue is with Ehlers, but head coach Paul Maurice noted he hadn’t ruled out the speedy winger against the Flames. Andrew Copp was skating in Ehlers’ place on the top line with Mark Scheifele and Blake Wheeler.
Thursday’s tilt will be the first of a truncated 56-game regular season. The Jets will play only teams within the Canadian Division, with nine games each against the Flames, Vancouver Canucks, Edmonton Oilers and Montreal Canadiens and 10 each versus the Toronto Maple Leafs and Ottawa Senators.
Despite playing few games in recent months and only a short training camp to fine-tune systems and develop chemistry among linemates, the Jets shouldn’t have to manufacture intensity against the Flames. Calgary knocked Winnipeg out of the bubble playoffs back in August, defeating the Jets three games to one in the best-of-five, play-in series.
The Flames were certainly the more physical bunch. A questionable collision by forward Matthew Tkachuk in the early minutes of the first game knocked out Scheifele with an Achilles injury, while Patrik Laine (sprained left hand) and Mason Appleton (shoulder) were also unable to finish the series.
"We got beat in the series and I’m still bitter to this day because I want to win," Jets goalie Connor Hellebuyck said. "They ruined our chances at a Stanley Cup so for me personally, I’m going to use it as motivation and I’m a little angry that they ruined it for us. They’re a good team and hats off to them, they played a good series, but I think it would be crazy for us not to use it to try to get a little jump on them energy-wise."
The biggest makeover for the Flames has come in the crease, with Calgary bringing in goalie Jacob Markstrom to join backup David Rittich. Markstrom is coming off a strong season with the Canucks, posting a career-best .918 save percentage. He finished fourth in Vezina-trophy voting.
The Flames forwards are still mostly intact, highlighted by the likes of Tkachuk, Johnny Gaudreau and Sean Monahan. On defence, the Flames said goodbye to Travis Hamonic and T.J. Brodie. Softening that blow, however, is the addition of Chris Tanev, who signed a four-year, US$18-million deal.
"You can sense that kind of excitement in the room that everybody’s going to be ready when the puck drops," Jets sniper Patrik Laine said. "Everybody’s been waiting for this moment for a long time now."
Following an off-season that saw his agent publically request a trade, Laine said all that is behind him now that he’s here and playing. Laine is in the final year of a two-year, US$13.5-million deal and will be motivated to perform. Laine is on the Jets’ second line, alongside centre Paul Stastny, who returned to the mix after being acquired in a trade with the Vegas Golden Knights, and winger Kyle Connor.
"I wasn’t stressed too much," Laine said. "I used the off-season to work on my game and try not to hear all the other stuff. These are the things that we play for and nobody wants to just work out."
Jets general manager Kevin Cheveldayoff said expectations for this season are "obviously very high." After reaching the West Final in 2018, Winnipeg has suffered early playoff exits the past two seasons. With a team loaded with top-six forward talent, an improved defence, if only by experience, and the best goalie on the planet, it seems safe to assume another first-round loss won’t do.
"When you have a player like (Hellebuyck), you’ve got a good basis. I like the different look on defence. I think we’ve talked a lot about our penalty killing and hope some of the additions can help that improve. And then I look at, and I’ve said it over the years, but every year you get a year older and our players that have grown up through our system are a year older, they’re that much more mature," Cheveldayoff said.
"One thing that the long off-season did was allow them to continue to work on their bodies, where sometimes that maybe wasn’t the case in a normal off-season. We’re excited to get started. It’s not going to be easy, this is a division that I think will create a lot of excitement amongst hockey. Certainly there’s going to be a lot of attention paid to it, being in the passionate hockey market of Canada. I think that excitement level is going to drive everyone."
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.