Sports

Roster taking shape, but not set in stone ahead of Opening Night

WINNIPEG – If you’ve made it this far, you’re going to get into games with the Winnipeg Jets this season.

When those come and how many you might get, now that’s a different story.

Earlier this week, Jets head coach Paul Maurice made it known that he’s been impressed with an abundance of players in training camp, many of whom were returnees and some of whom fell into the little-bit-more-of-an-unknown category.

While we wait for those final cuts for the opening roster to be made, it’s important to remember that’s just a starting point – and still leaves open room for minor modifications for opening night or parts of the three-game road trip to start the season.

The moral of the story is that if a player doesn’t make that initial roster, it doesn’t mean he’s being banished to the minors for good or that he won’t get an opportunity to show what he can do at some point here during the 2021-22 season.

When the curtain lifts on Wednesday in Anaheim with a game against the Ducks, the Jets will open the season with great expectations.

Many of the storylines heading into camp revolved around battles on the edges of the roster: backup goalie, third-line right wing and basically a brand new fourth line.

Eric Comrie has the job behind Connor Hellebuyck and now it’s up to him to ensure he’s capable of handling it.

Kristian Vesalainen still has the inside track on the opportunity to replace Mason Appleton and his final game of the exhibition season was his best, but that competition remains open and still features a variety of candidates pushing behind him.

As for the fourth line, Riley Nash looks like he’s going to be the man in the middle, Jansen Harkins was one of the most noticeable players during camp and Evgeny Svechnikov did everything he could to secure an NHL contract, while Dominic Toninato quietly impressed the coaching staff.

So, the pieces of the puzzle appear to be coming together and it won’t take much longer before we know what it’s going to look like – at least for opening night when Mark Scheifele is going to be unavailable as he serves the final game of his suspension.

On to your questions for the October mailbag:

Editor’s note: Some questions have been edited for brevity and clarity.

All of Morrissey, DeMelo, Schmidt, Pionk and Dillon are signed at good deals for the next three seasons, and Stanley for two more. Heinola, Samberg, and maybe Kovacevic will need an NHL shot sooner than that. So, what gives? Does one of the regulars make a great trade deal when they are sure youth is ready or do they trade the youth, or over-ripen with the Moose? – Brad Ritchie

It’s natural that thoughts about the defence corps continue to be top of mind for the Jets’ faithful.

Logan Stanley has done nothing to see anything but an enhanced role on the third pairing, so a rotation seems unlikely while Dylan DeMelo will be a staple on the right side.

It was an uneven camp for Ville Heinola – definitely some flashes of the many impressive qualities he possesses but the best place for him – at least for the time being – is with the Manitoba Moose, playing 20-plus minutes a night while being used in all situations.

The high ankle sprain for Dylan Samberg on the opening day of main camp was an unfortunate event, as it robbed him of the chance to see regular work in NHL exhibition games.

He’s expected to be out for at least another month and he’ll need extensive action in the AHL before he’s back to being under consideration as a call-up.

Johnathan Kovacevic had an excellent camp and showed he’s a viable option on the right side, while Declan Chisholm also showed what he was able to do – especially on his heads-up pass to Scheifele against the Vancouver Canucks.

Leon Gawanke is a good bet to suit up for Germany at the Olympics in February, while Simon Lundmark is set for his first taste of the pro game in North America.

All to say that the Jets defence corps looks like an organizational strength, with plenty of options to consider.

Given the contract lengths of the core pieces, there isn’t going to be room for all of those prospects to win jobs.

But as Maurice likes to say, nothing is permanent. Deals can be made and opportunities sometimes come up when you least expect them.

When it comes to the trade deadline, it’s too early to project whether the Jets will potentially be looking for a top-six forward or someone to either play with Lowry or fill a spot on the fourth line.

During a return to an 82-game schedule, having depth on defence is essential.

While frustration and disappointment are natural reactions to being sent down, the quicker players put that behind them and get down to focusing on the present, the better chance of getting recalled will come.

In the last two playoffs, the Jets struggled after losing Mark Scheifele. Do you think they are in a better position this year to stay in the fight even when they are missing key players for extended periods? – Bjorn Bjornson

It’s true that the Jets’ offensive well ran a bit dry in both the qualifying round series against the Calgary Flames and the second-round sweep at the hands of the Montreal Canadiens.

By virtue of upgrading the defence corps, the Jets should immediately be in a better position to survive a significant absence but much of that will have to do with which player is lost and how some of the guys around him are playing.

It’s going to take some time to see if the line configurations stay the same and how they produce together, but the Jets have some additional depth up front. Although they won’t have quite as much experience on the fourth line, there are some young players coming in with some offensive potential.

Obviously, the Jets would prefer to remain as healthy as possible, but by retaining Paul Stastny and the emergence of Cole Perfetti during his first NHL training camp, the team has some options to slide into the top-six if something arises.

What is Paul Maurice’s biggest surprise in training camp? – Rob Hawley

Speaking of Perfetti, he could qualify here – and not because Maurice didn’t think he was smart or talented but rather his ability to process information at top speed and make the right reads.

The hockey intelligence and offensive gifts were well known, but Maurice has been impressed with his play away from the puck – which is where young players must earn the trust of the coach to earn additional ice time.

Perfetti has spent ample time during training camp picking the brain of Scheifele and that was a smart thing to do.

He started training camp off with an eye-popping shootout goal on Hellebuyck on opening day and finished the final exhibition game with several alert back checks while getting a chance to work with the first power-play unit since captain Blake Wheeler sat out the pre-season finale.

Although Perfetti is expected to spend the bulk of this season with the Moose, his training camp left an impression and he could make his NHL debut sooner than anticipated.

Honourable mention to Kovacevic, who showed that his development in the AHL over the past several seasons has him on the radar should something arise on the right side of the defence.

Has Paul Maurice ever really had an open competition in camp during his entire tenure here? To me, he has never steered away from how he had it on a chalkboard in the summer. It’s sadly too easy to predict. – Darren Ross

Since his first full training camp in the fall of 2014, it’s true the Jets have featured many of the same core pieces but there were usually some surprise additions.

Many of the top draft picks started seasons with the Jets, but maybe didn’t stick around – eventually sent back to junior or to the minors or returned to their club teams in Europe.

Virtually every NHL team has battles for the final roster spots. Most are on the fringes, but sometimes a young prospect forces his way into the equation earlier than anticipated.

Whether that was Kyle Connor after coming off his freshman season with the University of Michigan or David Gustafsson and Ville Heinola earning spots out of camp due to the combination of injury and opportunity, these things all took place.

Last season, it was Trevor Lewis converting a PTO into a deal. This year, history appears to have repeated itself with Evgeny Svechnikov’s strong showing.

While it’s true that most jobs were spoken for at this camp, the front-runners for those jobs needed to play well in order to hold off others trying to steal those spots.

What do you think about the Jets’ bottom-six? Do you see them starting certain lines or do you see players go in and out as the season goes? – Eric Hjorleifson

Given the composition of the Jets’ roster up front, you can put Adam Lowry in pen on the third line but the rest of the jobs are better suited for a pencil with an eraser.

And that’s not a bad thing either. It just goes to show that Maurice has viable options at his disposal to both move up into the top-six if necessary – or swing between the third and fourth lines.

Riley Nash’s last season was not his best, but he was somewhat unsettled with Columbus and the trade to Leafs. Could he be a pleasant surprise as a significant upgrade on the fourth line? Or is he just another solid vet to fill 5-8 minutes a night? – Andrew Halayko

Nash dealt with an injury that interrupted last season, and while his production was down a bit, he’s known more for his defensive acumen and penalty killing precision. While he notched a career-best 15 goals and 41 points in 76 games with the Boston Bruins during the 2017-18 season, the Jets aren’t banking on that level of production.

Maurice is familiar with Nash from his time in the Carolina Hurricanes system and knows he has the versatility to be an effective fourth-line player and could jump up onto the third line in a shutdown role while protecting a lead.

Because he will be on the second penalty-killing unit, it’s reasonable to expect his ice time to be in the 8-to-11-minute range and yes, he should fall into the dependable veteran category.

Any chance we see a deployment like this? – Charles Whitfield

1) Kyle Connor – Mark Scheifele – Nikolaj Ehlers

2A) Andrew Copp – Paul Stastny – Blake Wheeler

2B) Jansen Harkins – Pierre-Luc Dubois – Evgeny Svechnikov

4) Dominic Toninato – Adam Lowry – Kristian Vesalainen

No line combination is off the table and one would expect the blender to get some use once again this season, but there are some issues with your theory.

The Jets didn’t sign Lowry to a $16.5 million extension for him to be the fourth-line centre, nor did they trade Patrik Laine for Dubois to be a 2B – they want him to be a 1B option.

It’s certainly possible Stastny and Wheeler are used together at some point this season – they’ve got history together and mesh well.

As for Ehlers, he will likely see some time with Scheifele and Connor, but the expectation is that he will most often be used with Dubois.

It’s true Svechnikov and Dubois had some chemistry in junior with the Cape Breton Screaming Eagles and it’s possible they could see some time together, but that wasn’t a driving force behind bringing him in.

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