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There was a noticeably quicker pace Saturday as the Winnipeg Jets returned to the ice, one day after a slew of roster cuts left them closely resembling the squad that is expected to be a legitimate Stanley Cup contender.
Seven pre-season games are now in the rear-view mirror, putting the focus squarely on the road ahead.
“It was good. We like that pace, we like that speed and intensity in practice. That’s a good start. Obviously, it’s the first of many this year, with this group. We like that intensity and we have to that in mind whenever we practise, make sure we have that intensity,” centre Mark Scheifele said following an 80-minute on-ice workout at Bell MTS Iceplex.
Winnipeg kicks off the 2018-19 campaign Thursday night in St. Louis.
“You want to get the intensity up. Get up to that regular-season speed. Pre-season’s one thing, guys want to get their hands, want to get their feet going. The physicality and the intensity, that really picks up during the regular-season. So, you want to get that going come Thursday,” defenceman Ben Chiarot said.
There were 24 players on the ice Saturday, while three others still in camp remained sidelined. Defenceman Logan Stanley and forward Michael Spacek have minor injuries and will be sent down to the Manitoba Moose once healthy, while forward Nic Petan remains away from the team indefinitely following the death of his father.
Petan is likely headed for some kind of non-roster bereavement designation, which could mean only one other cut is necessary to get the Jets down to the 23-player maximum by early next week.
Tucker Poolman and Brendan Lemieux would be the most likely candidates, as neither requires waivers to be sent down to the Moose. The decision may come down to whether head coach Paul Maurice wants to begin the year with two extra forwards and one extra blue-liner, or one forward and two defencemen.
Ideally, Maurice would prefer to carry just 22 skaters, and that could also help the Jets get some more breathing room under the salary cap. If so, it’s possible both players are sent packing.
Winnipeg went 4-3-0 in exhibition play while using rosters that included a mix of regulars and hopefuls split into two separate groups. They never once dressed their entire team, which might explain why Saturday was like a homecoming of sorts following two weeks of training camp.
“You can tell all the guys are excited to be back in the same room. Some of us haven’t even played together (in the pre-season games) yet.
“We’re happy to be back together, excited to get things going,” defenceman Tyler Myers said.
It’s worth noting Lemieux and Marko Dano were the two extra forwards Saturday, rotating into various lines. Scheifele-Blake Wheeler-Kyle Connor, Bryan Little-Patrik Laine-Mathieu Perreault, Adam Lowry-Andrew Copp-Brandon Tanev and Jack Roslovic-Kristian Vesalainen and Nikolaj Ehlers were the four lines.
On the back end, Jacob Trouba and Josh Morrissey were in their usual spot together, while Chiarot was skating beside Dustin Byfuglien. Joe Morrow was with Myers, and Dmitry Kulikov was with Poolman on what might be seen as the two extra defencemen.
“First of all, at the end of the season if we list all the pairings that we use it’s going to be incredibly long. There’s a factor of six. It’s going to be big number. We’re also playing with some home and road ideas. About pairings on a certain night on the road and at home,” Maurice said.
“So, there’s some pairings on our blue-line that we think give us a more defensive look, and there’s some pairings that give us a more offensive look.”
Friday’s full day off, just the second since training camp began two weeks ago, came at the perfect time to allow everyone to recharge their batteries.
“Everybody comes into camp really excited, it’s a new year. About Day 10 to 12, some of the shine comes off training camp. Getting a good day off (Friday) after almost the heaviest grind of the year for them.
“So, they come back to the rink feeling stronger, and then they get out and know their lines and most of the drills, so everything moves quite a bit faster,” Maurice said.
Chiarot pointed to Wheeler as the major motivating factor.
“Blake leads the way in that sense. He practises 100 miles an hour. I think that he expects that of everyone else in the room. You see that intensity come out in practice. I think that’s a big reason why we had success last year, it’s the way we practise,” Chiarot said.
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.