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Call them the fourth line if you wish. Refer to them simply as a checking unit, if you prefer. But don’t overlook the Winnipeg Jets trio of Adam Lowry, Andrew Copp and Brandon Tanev, whose value to the team can’t simply be measured on the score sheet.
On a roster stacked with young stars who have no trouble filling the net, the importance of keeping pucks out of your own goal may sometimes get lost. But make no mistake — if the Jets want to hang with the NHL’s heavyweights this season, they’ll need another big year from Copp-Lowry-Tanev.
“We’re all on the same page. We understood where one another is going to be on the ice, and having that ability and confidence in each other to trust one another with the puck and where we need to be is very big. We definitely grew on that in the latter end of last season, and trying to build on that now in training camp,” Tanev said Wednesday.
The trio are expected to make their pre-season debut Thursday in Edmonton, where they won’t exactly be eased into action should Oilers star centre Connor McDavid suit up.
“I guess we’ll be trying to chase him around the ice,” said Lowry. “It’s always fun when you get to go up against the best player in the world. Even though it’s exhibition, you still want to go out there and do your best to shut him down and limit his opportunities.”
Although injuries prevented them from playing the entire 2017-18 season together, the line was effective down the stretch as the Jets finished with the second-best record in the regular season, then advanced to the Western Conference final. Head coach Paul Maurice routinely gave them the tough assignment of trying to neutralize opponents’ biggest threats, and expects to lean on them again.
“Andrew Copp, for me, is faster now than he was last year. So that will change what they’re accomplishing. Tanev and Lowry, their game has gotten more and more defined. They’ve got confidence that they can score… But they do have, priority one, a lot of respect for going out there and keeping other the guys off the scoresheet,” Maurice said Wednesday.
Earlier this summer, Philadelphia Flyers blog Broad Street Hockey conducted a detailed analysis of the top 10 overall lines in the NHL that played at least 300 minutes together last season. It looked at a number of factors, including: offensive production per minutes played, shot metrics (including Corsi and expected goals), and penalties both drawn and taken.
To the surprise of many, the Copp-Lowry-Tanev trio was not only ranked as Winnipeg’s most productive, but sixth-best in the league (behind Kevin Fiala-Craig Smith-Kyle Turris in Nashville, Sean Couturier-Claude Giroux-Travis Konecny in Philadelphia, Aleksander Barkov-Nick Bjugstad-Evgenii Dadonov in Florida, Brayden Schenn-Jaden Schwartz-Vladimir Tarasenko in St. Louis, and Couturier-Giroux-Jakub Voracek in Philadelphia).
A big reason for the Jets line’s success was shot metrics: No. 1 in both Corsi for and expected goals for. Pretty good value for a group that only makes about US$5 million per season combined.
“When you look back to the (2017-18) regular season, when we’re all healthy and playing together, we started to do a really good job of not only playing solid defensively, but contributing. Not necessarily nightly offensively, but on a pretty consistent basis,” said Lowry, who signed a three-year, US$8.75-million extension this summer.
Copp, 24, had nine goals and 19 assists while playing in all 82 regular-season games last season. He’s in the final year of his contract, making US$1 million, and will be a restricted free agent next summer.
Lowry, 25, chipped in with eight goals and 13 assists in 45 games; Tanev, 26, had eight goals and 10 helpers in 61 games. The three were also a combined plus-39.
“We know that for our team to have success, it’s important for all four lines to chip in offensively. As a group, we want to continue growing our game, not just defensively. You don’t want to limit yourself to just being a checker and being a shutdown line,” said Lowry.
“We know that we have some offensive capabilities. We know that we’re not necessarily going to blow the doors off teams like (Blake) Wheeler’s line or (Bryan) Little’s line. But we think we can be effective in a certain way, whether that’s off the cycle or it’s using our forecheck. We’re going to look to do that.”
On March 27, Tanev scored his first NHL career hat trick (in a 5-4 win over the Boston Bruins). The speedy winger — who signed a one-year, US$1.15-million deal this summer, and will be an unrestricted free agent next summer — believes there’s more where that came from.
“Having the opportunity to help out offensively is a big part of our game. But understanding that defence comes first, and if we play good defence the offence will come as well,” he said.
Three of Winnipeg’s four forward lines appear set in stone, with Kyle Connor-Mark Scheifele-Wheeler and Nikolaj Ehlers-Little-Patrik Laine being the others.
Lowry said it’s nice coming into training camp having an established role.
“When you look at the past few years, we haven’t been sure what the lineup is going to look like, for the most part. Or in regards to the line, where we would be playing,” he said.
“We’re kind of building off of what we were able to do last year. It’s nice going in and knowing you have the chemistry with those guys, and knowing that you have the trust in both of them and with what you’re trusted to do on the ice… You’re not kind of stuck in limbo with what your role is. It definitely helps.”
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.