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As final auditions go, no one with aspirations of joining the Winnipeg Jets’ cast of characters burst to centre stage and commanded the spotlight Thursday night.
That’s not to say any of the Jets’ ambitious youngsters, hoping to land on the roster of one of the NHL’s upper-crust clubs, played their way off the radar in a 5-3 defeat to the New Jersey Devils at Bell MTS Place.
But forward hopefuls such as Kristian Vesalainen, Brendan Lemieux and Marko Dano, playing their second games in as many nights, generated little in the way of offence and were only adequate, while defencemen Tucker Poolman and Sami Niku looked uneasy at times coping with the Devils’ predatory forecheck.
None of the wannabes did anything interesting, which makes things even more intriguing for Jets general manager Kevin Cheveldayoff, head coach Paul Maurice and the rest of his coaching staff in the war room as cut-down day looms. Maurice stated Thursday morning at Bell MTS Iceplex the bloated training-camp roster will be sharply reduced today.
Later, in his post-game address, the coach was asked if any players on the bubble distinguished themselves against the Devils.
“I don’t know that it’s a whole lot different than what I’d have on my board in August. To get to 25 (players), let’s say, I don’t think will be particularly difficult. After that it becomes more of a challenge,” he said.
“I wasn’t looking at the game as a barometer, (I’m) still watching guys, older guys trying to get their timing. The young guys, it was a bit of a test on back-to-back nights in the NHL. I thought that they got better as the game went on and it’s a good lesson, right?”
Vesalainen, Lemieux, Dano and likely Nic Petan, currently on leave from the team after the sudden death of his father last week, are all in the conversation. No more than two will likely be on the plane bound for St. Louis this coming Wednesday as the Jets open the 2018-19 regular season Thursday against the Blues.
The loss to New Jersey was the last of seven pre-season tests for the Jets, who finished 4-3 after consecutive defeats to end the week.
Mathieu Perreault and Kyle Connor scored their first pre-season goals, while Skyler McKenzie, with his third goal in just two pre-season games, also scored. Mark Scheifele and Blake Wheeler each registered a pair of assists in an odd exhibition clash with an Eastern Conference opponent.
Andy Greene, Kyle Palmieri, Travis Zajac, Damon Severson and Sami Vatanen scored for the Devils.
If the Scheifele-Wheeler-Connor connection is set, then a line of Adam Lowry centring Brandon Tanev and Andrew Copp is recorded somewhere in indelible ink. Meanwhile, some mixture of Bryan Little, Patrik Laine, Perreault, Nik Ehlers and Jack Roslovic will comprise the second and third lines, leaving a single job opening up front for some worthy recipient.
It’s been apparent since the onset of camp that Vesalainen, a 19-year-old from Finland, was being given every chance to make the team, and he’s done his part to earn the spot on merit. Rarely has he been out of position and at 6-3, 207 pounds, he’s handled the cruelty of an NHL corner and his vision in the offensive zone is evident.
If he took a step forward Wednesday night in St. Paul, Minn., against the Wild with his first pre-season goal, he didn’t stumble but didn’t shine, either, 24 hours later in the second half of the back-to-back. He joined Roslovic and Dano on a third trio that produced only moderate chemistry, while occasionally getting hemmed in the defensive zone.
Speaking with reporters after Thursday’s morning skate, Vesalainen said he’s had mixed feelings about his performance during his inaugural NHL training camp.
“I feel confident but I know I can do better. I think I have to shoot a lot more and be better with the puck in the offensive zone and to work on that,” said the 2017 first-round pick. “The game is faster than the European game and the guys are stronger, too, so, you have to be quicker with the puck and make good decisions.
“It’s not easy to come to a new team but I’ve been through that a lot in my previous years. It’s a little bit easier for me. I’m pretty confident here.”
Does Vesalainen believe he’s made enough of an impression to crack the opening-night roster against the Central Division rivals?
“You have to ask them. I’m not the guy who can answer that.”
Lemieux, who skated Thursday night for two periods with Seth Griffith and McKenzie, wasn’t nearly as conspicuous as he’d been in previous exhibition games when he used his body effectively along the walls while taking a direct route to the net.
He joined Dano and Roslovic to start the third, and the unit immediately surrendered Zajac’s goal just 17 seconds in, although the defensive pairing of Tyler Myers and Joe Morrow made a total mess of things on the play and the Winnipegger was left unattended at the side of goalie Connor Hellebuyck.
Hellebuyck had a so-so night, offering a belated glove as a shot by Vatanen sailed past him early in the second period to put the visitors’ lead to 3-1. He finished with 22 stops.
The Devils iced a tough lineup featuring Hart Trophy winner Taylor Hall, 2017 first-overall pick Nico Hischier, Zajac and rising young blue-line star Will Butcher
The veteran Perreault sounded like a guy relieved the exhibition slate was complete.
“I don’t think we’ll look at (pre-season results) too much, to be honest. It was a good training camp, some great skates, we played some good games and now we have to focus on what’s ahead. The season’s starting and we have to be excited for that,” he said.
The jack-of-all-trades winger has shared time with a revolving door of linemates and he’s still not sure how things will ultimately shake out.
“The next few days of practising will tell us more. We’ll just make sure we’re ready for Game 1,” Perreault said. “It’s been like that for me my entire career, so I’m just used to coming to the rink and looking at what jersey I’m in today and go from there, work as hard as I can every day and make whatever line I’m on a good line.”
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).