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At 6-4, Johnathan Kovacevic rarely has to look up when meeting another player face to face. But that hasn’t been the case this week at Winnipeg Jets development camp, where the 20-year-old defenceman is among a number of towering young prospects on the blue line
“It’s obviously no secret that Winnipeg really likes their big D. So coming in I’m not used to being an average-sized guy, but on the back end there’s definitely a lot of tall guys,” Kovacevic said Thursday.
Logan Stanley is 6-7. Croix Evingson is 6-5. Dylan Samberg and Jacob Cederholm are both 6-3.
“There’s not a lot of small guys out there, right? And they move well for big men. And the smaller guys move exceptionally well. A lot of those guys are good size but they move well,” Jets head coach Paul Maurice said Thursday following the latest on-ice session.
Kovacevic was picked in the third round of the 2017 draft and came to development camp days later. He said this year’s experience is much less of a blur.
“This year it’s been a lot, I wouldn’t say easier, but just more comfortable knowing the guys on ice and in the weight room still trying to push myself. It’s a comforting feeling knowing some of the guys, they’re all great guys here. I just feel a little less on edge, it’s been great for me so far,” he said.
Kovacevic finished his second year at Merrimack College in the NCAA with two goals and 15 assists in 34 games. He’ll return for a third season this fall, then explore the possibility of turning pro next year.
“I’m just trying to live in the moment and take every year as it comes and hopefully have a great year next year. Right now my focus is on next year and I’m not really giving that too much of a thought,” said Kovacevic, who plays more of a shut-down role on his team.
“For me personally, trying to put together the complete package is one of the keys to becoming a pro,” he said. “I think defensively I have just more ability back there, I worked to improve my speed and my strength. I hope that shows and it translates on the ice. I think as I move forward getting stronger, I’ll be able to just have a good ability to shut guys down.”
Kovacevic is studying civil engineering in college, following in the footsteps of his father and brother who are engineers.
“It’s just kind of neat to figure things out. It’s a little bit of a challenge, managing school and hockey. But it’s what I like to do, something I’m passionate about,” he said.
The Ontario native followed the Jets closely all season and cheered on their playoff run while at home after his season ended. He had plenty of contact all year with the Jets, specifically Jimmy Roy and Mike Keane on the player development side.
“It was great to see, all the support was crazy, it was really awesome to see. It was a great run and hopefully a sign of good things to come,” he said. “They did a great job aiding me and assisting me in developing. I know they’re going to continue doing that moving forward, and me as a young player just trying to take the wisdom from them and implement it into my game.”
Jets head coach Paul Maurice met with the media Thursday to discuss several topics. Here’s a sampling:
On his role on the ice with the young prospects this week:
“Talk to them if you can, just make some contact but mostly to watch them. Everybody has a different style, so assess where they’re at. A big chunk of these kids come back to our main camp. It helps to be out there at ice level, so you put your teams together, your lines together, groups, so you can start getting an idea of who might be a good fit, so they all have an opportunity to do what they do well at camp. Familiarity, I guess, is at the end of it. They get used to having conversations with the NHL coaches and the AHL coaches and then I get an assessment of what kind of player they are.”
On getting Joe Morrow re-signed earlier this week:
“He gets the tag of depth player attached to him all the time but to find players that come in and out of the lineup but have a skill set that fits your group… he skates well and moves the puck well and that’s a bit part of what we do. I’m pleased he wanted to come back. He was in and out of the lineup and sat for a while and played but he had a really enjoyable experience here as a player and wanted to be a part of it. And you’d like to think your franchise has now turned a corner where you think you’ve gone from a hard time getting guys that players want to play here now. The room’s good. We have a good hockey team and certainly if you spend any time in Winnipeg during the playoffs, it’s a great town.”
On top prospect Kristian Vesalainen:
“He was good (Thursday). I’d liked what I had seen last year, I like what I see now. It’s still a ways away before getting through a main camp and getting him with professional hockey players in North America and on the NHL stage but there are lots of good tools there.”
On being a coach heading into July 1 free agency:
“It’s exciting, but you are a bit on the outside. You’re not taking calls, so you’re watching all of the other teams and where they think they’re getting better.
“You know all the work that has to be done with your group, there are so many players that have to get signed. It’s an interesting time for coaches and we do it, too, we decide after the first week of free agency who got a lot better and who didn’t. Usually, by Christmas time, you realize none of that was true. It didn’t quite work out that way. This is an exciting time. We’re in a different position with our team this year than we’ve ever been. So, again, it will be interesting.”
On the highlight of last season:
“If I was to identify a single piece, being able to play the Game 7 that we played against Nashville would be something that I thought was really important for our team. So all of the things that, and they are legitimate things that we talked about, but very, very little playoff experience.
“The Game 7, all the new firsts that we had in that one-month stretch that we were able to play without any fear and play with lots of confidence and courage that game and come out and be excited in Game 7 and handle it on the road.
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.