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Officially, the Winnipeg Jets gather a week from Friday for their physicals, followed by on-ice sessions a day later — but action on the ice resembled a mini training camp Tuesday morning at Bell MTS Iceplex.
Notable skaters included forwards Blake Wheeler, Adam Lowry, Bryan Little, Jack Roslovic and Marko Dano, Manitoba Moose regulars Brendan Lemieux, Mason Appleton and JC Lipon, all forwards, defenceman Nelson Nogier and goalie Eric Comrie, as well as Kristian Vesalainen, the club’s first pick in the 2017 NHL Draft.
Young prospects C.J. Suess, Nic Kerdiles and Dennis Everberg, all forwards, blue-liner Jacob Cederholm and goalie Mikael Berdin also worked out.
And Jets PR staff hinted familiar faces will join the group every day until camp opens.
Little, heading into his 12th NHL season, said he senses an unmistakable anxiousness from players within the organization.
“I think (the group) is going to be even bigger in the next couple of days. I feel like we’ve always had that, always had guys really hungry to get in and get started,” he said. “For me, as soon as August gets around and especially at the end of August, you just want to get started. You want to get into town, get set up and get ready for the season. You see that with a lot of guys now.”
The Jets (52-20-10) finished second overall in the NHL following the ’17-18 regular season and then soared all the way to the Western Conference final, a franchise first, before falling to the Vegas Golden Knights in five games.
Wheeler said finally winning a playoff round was a huge hurdle to clear but is old news now.
“When the puck drops this season, it’s not going to be Game 1 of the Western finals again. There’s a long road to get back to where we got last year and it doesn’t happen just because we want it to happen or we think we’re better than everyone else or because we had a good year last year,” offered the club’s 32-year-old captain.
“What made this team good last year is we bought into a style of play that made us really difficult to play against. We learned how to grind it out as a team, and the sooner we get back to that the better we’re going to be because then our talent’s going to come out and it’s going to make us a pretty difficult opponent.”
When the group vacated the ice, a tall, clean-shaven fellow in a navy track suit and white helmet slipped through a crowd of reporters and stepped onto the rink.
“Yeah I’m late,” said Patrik Laine, who spent about 15 minutes firing pucks into an empty cage.
The 20-year-old Finn has ripped 80 goals through his first two NHL campaigns.
It’s no secret Paul Stastny opted to go with a more lucrative deal from the Golden Knights when he became an unrestricted free agent July 1.
The 32-year-old centre, acquired by the Jets at the February trade deadline and an integral piece of their run to the playoffs, signed a three-year contract with Vegas, with an average annual value of $6.5 million.
That’s the kind of cash Winnipeg didn’t have to spend — even after trading netminder Steve Mason and winger Joel Armia to the Montreal Canadiens — despite the terrific chemistry Stastny quickly developed with Laine and Nikolaj Ehlers.
Wheeler and Stastny are close friends and share the same agent. The Jets winger said while he enjoyed the nearly three months they were teammates, the issue is in the rear-view mirror.
“In a perfect world he’d be back, but that’s not life as we know it. We’ll miss him. Vegas got a great player and a great guy but I think we’re excited about some guys that are going to get some opportunities here that showed some things last year,” he said. “It’s exciting when you have some young talent that comes in champing at the bit to win a job and something to prove.”
Roslovic is definitely one of the most intriguing options to fill the opening at second-line centre. Selected in the first round (25th overall) by the Jets in 2015, he’s been a star when he’s suited up with the Moose and a reliable performer in his brief time with the Jets.
Little, the team’s former No.1 centre before Mark Scheifele’s emergence, is also a legitimate option.
“It’s a position I’ve played before, so I know what to expect. But we don’t even know if (Laine and Ehlers) will be together to start the season. It’s a good problem to have when you’re going through different combinations and different options you have,” said Little. “That’s kind of where we’re at right now. I don’t think anything’s set in stone and we’re going to be trying to figure that out in training camp and pre-season, what the combinations might look like and who has chemistry with who.”
Wheeler stuck with only complimentary things to say about Scheifele’s golf game Tuesday but managed to fire one subtle, good-natured shot.
The Jets captain initially received a sponsor’s exemption at the Players Cup, a MacKenzie Tour — PGA Tour Canada event last month at Southwood. But he had to pull out due to a family commitment and Scheifele filled in.
The 25-year-old centre posted a 15-over 87 in his opening round and shaved a stroke off on Day 2, missing the cut by 35 shots. After making the turn at 2-over 38 on the Friday, he unravelled on the back nine with a 48.
“I was disappointed I couldn’t make it, I was really excited about doing it. Dad-duty called,” Wheeler said. “Coincidentally, (Scheifele) was pretty amped up about doing it so it was a perfect swap. I’d love to do it in the future. We were keeping track of him, saw his front nine on the second day and then flipped over to the back nine… but hey, for how little he gets to golf, good for him, sounds like he had a blast. I’d love to do it one year with him.”
Would he have fared better than his talented linemate?
“Ha, couldn’t tell you. Conditions looked tough, tees are back, long rough, people watching… probably,” Wheeler said, to big laughs from the media horde.
Wheeler and Scheifele, a fitness and nutrition fanatic, spent several weeks training together this summer, including time spent in California and, most recently, in Toronto where they were joined by a few teammates.
The elder of the two conceded he has much to learn from the club’s first-ever draft choice.
“One of the reasons we’re so lucky as a group to have Scheif is there’s probably nobody in our league — and maybe in the world — that does more to try to get themselves better. There’s not a thing he hasn’t tried or researched or gone to visit out there,” said Wheeler. “To hear some of the things that work, some of the things that don’t work, I can take some of the things that work and apply them to what I do. It makes it pretty cool to pick his brain a little bit.”
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).