The Winnipeg Jets’ proximity to both the salary-cap ceiling and their American Hockey League team may force a change in the way they do business this season, their eighth in the league.
General manager Kevin Cheveldayoff and head coach Paul Maurice said Friday the club may only carry 22 players at times this season, one below the maximum roster size of 23. That would allow them to pinch some valuable pennies in the process, which could be used down the road should the team want to add a player through a trade.
“We’re in a whole different cap era,” Maurice said. “If you can tell me all our defencemen are going to be healthy for the first three months, I don’t want to carry eight, because you don’t get enough reps in practice that way, believe it or not. I don’t like eight when you’re healthy because practice is too slow, but if you’re going to be banged up, you like to have an extra defenceman out there so you’re not running five D into the ice to run practice. So, there’s lots of stuff. You can’t make that commitment on Day 1.”
NHL teams typically carry either 14 forwards and seven defencemen, or 13 forwards and eight defencemen. By the sounds of it, the Jets may go 13/7.
“That’s the perfect model, and being that we’re with the Moose, that’s the right way to do it. We’ve just never been able to do it, in part because we’ve run some injuries right from the starts of camp,” Maurice said.
Cheveldayoff said having the AHL team in the same city as the NHL club makes calling up a player much easier.
“The development side of the game and everything like that was certainly what propelled us to bring the Moose to Winnipeg. But now, when we are in these types of crunches, it can be a real positive type of thing from that aspect. How we choose, or have to move forward, you do what you have to do,” he said.
There was no grim news out of Jets medical testing.
The readiness of Dmitry Kulikov, who had back surgery just days after the team’s Game 5 defeat to Vegas in the Western Conference final, is likely the most pressing health question within the organization.
The Russian-born defenceman had been skating in a no-contact yellow jersey earlier this week but was a full participant in Thursday’s physicals and Friday’s fitness tests at Bell MTS Iceplex. Maurice said he could be cleared for full contact as early as today.
Cheveldayoff said neither Kulikov nor the rest of the training camp participants had any issues that presented a red flag for team doctors.
“Not to my knowledge. I haven’t got the full report from the guys doing testing. That’s another hurdle you have to get through for the on-ice, off-ice testing. You want to make sure you get through that and all goes well,” he said. “Kulikov passed everything. He’ll probably be managed in training camp as far as how hard they push him early.”
The 27-year-old left-handed defenceman was paired most of last season with Tyler Myers before aggravating a back injury in March.
As for Friday’s on-ice testing, it’s safe to say Jets players are happy to put it behind them for another year.
Gruelling skating drills like the beep test — basically, a pile of man makers where players skate sections of the ice to a series of beep tones to measure players’ aerobic fitness and endurance — took their toll.
“It was bad. It was tough. You guys saw it, it was tough. I was gassed, that’s pretty much it,” forward Patrik Laine said.
“I did better than last year, so I’m satisfied. But there’s a lot of room to improve and you can always do more levels. It’s that kind of day that you only want to do once a year, and now it’s done. I guess we got to wait another year to enjoy this day.”
Mark Scheifele was unable to finish, bailing out midway through to take a seat on the bench and, eventually, leave the ice entirely. There’s no cause for alarm, the Jets’ No. 1 centre said.
A leaner Laine — down 14 pounds to 215 — limited his candy intake this summer and ramped up his on-ice training in Finland. He said for nearly half of last season his quickness wasn’t there.
“Yeah, until like January it felt like that. I probably would have had more goals if I would have started to play in October but I really started to play in January, so I gave some other guys some of a (head start). But the first half of the season I felt like my legs weren’t there and it wasn’t feeling really good,” he said.
“I think I’ve been working my back off every summer, but this year I was doing the same stuff but trying to be maybe more of a pro athlete.”
It might be one of the biggest defence duos in NHL history.
On one side stands 6-5, 260-pound Dustin Byfuglien. And beside him is 6-8, 229-pound Tyler Myers.
Maurice confirmed he’s giving the pair a look during the pre-season as he tries to find a suitable partner for Byfuglien, who has traditionally been paired with the now-departed Toby Enstrom.
“He’s comfortable with it right now, he’s excited about it, so we’ll just take it by the day,” Maurice said of the experiment.
The right-shooting Myers is comfortable moving to the left, although Maurice said there are other options including Joe Morrow, Ben Chiarot and Kulikov. Young prospects Sami Niku and Logan Stanley may also get a look in exhibition games.
Maurice isn’t worried about potentially moving Myers around to both sides of the ice.
“What I want is Tyler feeling really good about himself and his game, and that’s priority one — confident hockey player,” Maurice said.
The Western Conference arms race was a hot topic of conversation on the opening day of camp.
Just this week, Vegas acquired Max Pacioretty from Montreal, Dallas handed Tyler Seguin an eight-year contract extension worth US$78.8 million and San Jose traded for two-time Norris Trophy winner Erik Karlsson from Ottawa.
The Golden Knights added unrestricted free agent centre Paul Stastny — a huge contributor to the Jets’ playoff run last spring — on July 1.
“It’s crazy. You see these teams that are really trying to build their team up and make another push for it. At the end of the day, we’ve just got to make sure that we’re doing everything that we can to be better. We have a big season ahead of us,” Winnipeg goaltender Connor Hellebuyck said.
“Teams get better and you can’t afford to take a step back because you’re going to pay for it. Every game, especially in our conference, is going to be tough,” Scheifele said.
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