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Opinion

He’s a two-time college champion, an imposing figure who appears to be still be growing into his massive frame and has all the tools to be a future shutdown star on the blue-line.

For all of those reasons, defenceman Dylan Samberg sits on top of my top-10 list of Winnipeg Jets prospects participating in this week’s annual summer development camp at Bell MTS Iceplex.

Unfortunately for the organization, Samberg’s pro debut appears to still be a year away pending a last-minute change of plans. He’s returning to the University of Minnesota-Duluth for a third season this fall, looking to make it back-to-back-to-back national titles. He put off turning pro despite a push from the Jets, apparently wanting to stay in school for one more year.

The 6-4, 215-pound left-shooting rearguard was easy to pick out Tuesday as he hit the ice with more than a dozen other defensive prospects for the first on-ice session. Pretty much everything about his game looks polished and poised, and it’s no surprise Jets general manager Kevin Cheveldayoff is loving what he’s seeing from the 43rd-overall pick from the 2017 NHL draft.

"He’s had two exceptional years in college, can’t have any better, back-to-back national champions and he’s had a lot of experience over a very short period of time and we’re extremely excited about his development," Cheveldayoff said Tuesday.

Samberg, 20, had seven goals and 12 assists in 39 games last season, but it’s not his offence that makes him such a valuable asset.

Looking at the rest of the top 10, it’s clear to see the real strength of the future Jets sits on the blue line. There are a number of quality prospects, including a pair of European skaters taken last weekend at the NHL draft in Vancouver.

Here’s how my list shapes up. Of note, Sami Niku and Mason Appleton are not on it. The two members of the 2015 draft class have aged out of the development camp process and played enough games for the Jets last season to be excluded from consideration.

2. LW Kristian Vesalainen, 20 — The 6-3, 207-pound winger had a cup of tea with the Jets last season, putting up one assist in five games before being sent down to the AHL. Of course, he then went home to Finland for several months to play in the KHL before returning to the Manitoba Moose for the stretch drive. Big and powerful and filled with confidence, he appears to be on the cusp of regular work with the Jets. His entry-level contract also fits in nicely with their salary-cap constraints.

3. LHD Ville Heinola, 18 — Taken 20th overall last weekend in Vancouver, Heinola is the kind of smooth-skating, puck-moving defenceman that seems perfectly suited to today’s NHL game. He’s at least a year away from turning pro in North America, as he’ll return to the top Finnish men’s league this season, but his raw talent is certainly reason for optimism. The Jets had him even higher on their list and were licking their lips when he was still available.

4. LHD Logan Stanley, 21 — The 18th-overall pick from the 2016 NHL draft certainly stands out in a crowd with his 6-7 frame, but Stanley has started to nicely round out his game after a very solid first season with the Moose. He’s likely to get even more responsibility with the AHL club this fall and could be in line for call-ups with the Jets.

"Certainly during the period of time (last season) where we got really decimated on the Jets and had several players called up, we toyed with the possibility of maybe calling him up. But we felt it was more important for him to continue to play and play a tremendous amount of minutes. So that’s part of the maturation process, you saw Josh Morrissey play a full year there in the American Hockey League. There’s lots of players that just need that time, that experience at the pro level. Logan had a really good first pro year," Cheveldayoff said Tuesday.

5. G Mikhail Berdin, 21 — Yes, goalies can be voodoo. But it appears the Jets have a really good one in the ultra-athletic Berdin, taken in the sixth round of the 2016 NHL draft. He turned many heads with his outstanding play with the Moose last season after being called up from the ECHL, where he was dominating. Berdin is likely going to be the No. 1 netminder on the farm this season, and his flashy style is a bit of a throwback to the days of Dominik Hasek.

6. LW/C C.J. Suess, 25 — The oldest player on this list, Suess is certainly taking the slow path to the NHL. He turned pro after four years of college with Minnesota State, then had a terrific training camp with the Jets last fall. Suess got off to a red-hot start in his first full pro season with the Moose (eight goals, four assists in 26 games) before suffering a season-ending shoulder separation in December that required surgery. Big things are expected out of the two-way power forward this fall.

7. C David Gustafsson, 19 — The 60th-overall pick from the 2018 draft has been out of sight, and perhaps out of mind, for many Jets fans as he spent last year playing in the top Swedish men’s league for a second season. He’s under contract for a third but should begin working his way to the NHL as early as next fall, likely beginning with the Moose. He’s a well-rounded, two-way centre with plenty of skill who isn’t skating this week due to injury, but is taking in the off-ice sessions in Winnipeg.

8. RHD Simon Lundmark, 18 — Another left-shooting defenceman, but prefers to play on the right side, which is perfectly fine for an organization suddenly rich in left-shot prospects. Lundmark, taken last weekend with the 51st-overall pick, has good size at 6-2, 197 pounds and is seen as another solid puck-retrieving and puck-moving blue-liner. He is under contract in Sweden for two more seasons and did not make the trip to Winnipeg this week, despite attempts by the Jets to get clearance from his club.

9. LHD Declan Chisholm, 19 — It’s starting to sound like a broken record, but here is yet another promising left-shooting defenceman in the system. Chisholm, taken with the 150th-overall pick in the 2018 draft, put up solid numbers last season with the Peterborough Petes of the Ontario Hockey League, scoring five times and adding 43 assists. He’ll likely spend one more year in junior before turning pro.

10. RHD Johnathan Kovacevic, 21 — Another potential gem, the 74th-overall pick from 2017 finished up his college career with Merrimack, then made quite a debut with the Moose late in the regular season, with a goal and assist in his only game. A much bigger role awaits on the farm this season for the 6-4, 215-pounder from Ontario.

AND FIVE HONOURABLE MENTIONS: LHD Giovanni Vallati, 19; C/LW Santeri Virtanen, 19; C Henri Nikkanen, 18; RHD Leon Gawanke, 20; RHD Luke Green, 21.

Yes, the present for the Winnipeg Jets is pretty solid, with two straight playoff seasons under their belts. But it also appears the future is pretty bright, as evident by what’s on display this week.

mike.mcintyre@freepress.mb.ca

Twitter: @mikemcintyrewpg

Mike McIntyre

Mike McIntyre
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Mike McIntyre grew up wanting to be a professional wrestler. But when that dream fizzled, he put all his brawn into becoming a professional writer.

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