EDMONTON — The journey to the NHL has not been an easy one for Jansen Harkins, who was starting to look like an afterthought from the Winnipeg Jets’ most memorable draft class. But there’s no question the 23-year-old has made the most of his limited chances so far, something that isn’t lost on head coach Paul Maurice.
“I don’t know that I’ve had a player that has been given less opportunity and stayed in the fight, and competed as hard as this guy has,” Maurice said this week.
Kyle Connor, Jack Roslovic, Mason Appleton and Sami Niku were seen as the cream of the 2015 crop, while Harkins, picked in the second round, 47th overall, seemed destined for a career in the minor leagues — especially after a 2017-18 rookie season in which he scored just two goals in 46 games with the Manitoba Moose of the AHL, and was sent down a level to the ECHL in an attempt to restore his confidence.
A 15-goal campaign in 70 Moose games followed in 2018-19, which is nothing to sneeze at but certainly doesn’t scream “NHL regular.” But then a funny thing happened on the way to relative obscurity — Harkins kept grinding away, working at his craft, and showed up to Jets training camp last fall looking like an entirely new player.
Maurice admits it took him by surprise, even if the end result was the same. Back to the farm Harkins went, presumably not to be seen again until the same time, same place next season.
“Like he had no chance of making our team. He had a good camp, but he’s not a first overall pick so he doesn’t have 10 guys pounding the table for him to be given that chance. So he’s been given nothing here,” said Maurice.
“But what he did was he forced an opportunity. With the Moose, there was no choice but to call him up. And then he gets in the lineup and he gets into practice, he works so hard that you just have to play him. So all he does is, no matter what the situation, he just catches your eye.”
Harkins put up a career-best 31 points in 30 games with the Moose this year before the injury-riddled Jets came calling. That led to 29 regular-season games with the big club, in which he scored twice and added five helpers.
Although he wasn’t in the Game 1 lineup on Saturday night, the door opened for Harkins once Mark Scheifele, Patrik Laine and Appleton all went down with injuries. He wasted no time making a great first impression on a big playoff stage, scoring the opening goal in Monday’s 3-2 victory over the Calgary Flames, which is the team that drafted his father, Todd, 42nd overall in 1988.
Harkins was held pointless and was a minus-2 in 11:50 of playing time in Tuesday’s 6-2 Game 3 loss that puts the Jets at risk of elimination in Thursday’s Game 4 of the best-of-five series.
“He was clearly the first of the three in for us, because of his training camp. That goal that he scored, he might have scored that 10 times in the last three weeks. It’s off his stick before you think it should, and it’s bar down,” said Maurice.
“So I think what you have with Hark is a guy who’s going to get into the National Hockey League, and he’s probably not going to get out for 14 years. I think it was Kevin Dineen who said to me once early on, young players don’t understand the value of an opportunity. But Jansen Harkins is the exception to that rule. He understands the value of opportunity, and he’s earned that opportunity every time he steps on the ice.”
The Vancouver native got another opportunity on Tuesday, once again skating on the third line with Roslovic and Adam Lowry.
“You obviously want to make a difference. A lot of nerves and just excitement to get in there. The last thing you want to see is guys on your team go down, some of our top guys. I just tried to step in and do my job out there and just tried to help the team any way I could,” said Harkins.
His worth ethic is noticeable, something established players on the team certainly appreciate and respect.
“He’s a guy who works his ass off every single practice and when you watch practice, you can see it. It’s fun to have guys like that come in and make a big difference,” said teammate Nikolaj Ehlers.
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