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Marko Dano believes he has all the tools to be a full-time NHL player.
But whether he has the confidence of Winnipeg Jets head coach Paul Maurice and his staff — and the continued opportunity to prove himself — is another story.
Dano, 23, spent last season in hockey purgatory, of sorts. He couldn’t crack a talented Jets roster with any regularity, yet was deemed too valuable as a potential depth forward to risk losing on waivers should he be sent to the minors and claimed by another team.
So Dano sat, becoming a press box regular as a healthy scratch as the team enjoyed its best season in franchise history. He played in just 23 regular-season games (two goals, one assist) and not a single playoff contest.
However, rather than try to find the quickest exit out of town and a fresh start with another franchise, Dano re-signed with the Jets this summer, on a one-year, US$800,000 contract. He put his nose to the grindstone, determined to arrive at training camp in the best shape of his life and muscle his way into the lineup.
The result was 15 pounds lost, and a positive outlook on what he needs to do to get his career back on track.
“Everybody’s trying to earn a spot, everybody’s trying to impress the coaching staff and the managers. I’m going to just try to do my best and, hopefully, it pays off,” Dano said Thursday, before he suited up for a pre-season game in Edmonton.
“The body’s lighter. You think you might be a little quicker, so that was the point why I tried to lose some weight. I tried to become a little faster because that was my issue last year. I feel real well right now on the ice.”
Dano got off to a good start in his pre-season debut Monday night against Minnesota, scoring the first goal of the game while playing on a line with a pair of young players likely also fighting for the same spot or two in the lineup (Nic Petan and Brendan Lemieux).
Petan has temporarily left training camp to deal with a serious personal family issue, so Seth Griffith was slotted at centre between Dano and Lemieux against the Oilers. Griffith was a July 1 free-agent signing who is expected to start with the season with the Manitoba Moose in the AHL.
There’s no doubt Dano possesses NHL-calibre skill, which is what prompted the Columbus Blue Jackets to draft him in the first round (27th overall) in 2013. However, it’s noteworthy he’s already with his third NHL team, following trades to the Chicago Blackhawks and then Winnipeg.
In a league where drafting and developing is paramount, there’s something about Dano that’s already allowed two teams to move on from him.
At some point, the chances are going to run out. And Dano is getting dangerously close to that happening in Winnipeg, where several younger, skilled prospects (such as Kristian Vesalainen and Mason Appleton) are now knocking on the door.
Another extended stint this season watching games from above isn’t out of the question. Or perhaps the Jets would risk losing him for nothing and send him down to the Moose, if they don’t believe there’s a spot for him.
Dano has scored 19 goals and added 26 assists in 130 career NHL games, but hasn’t come close to matching the production he put up in his rookie season with the Blue Jackets in 2014-15 (eight goals, 13 assists in 35 games).
Although 2017-18 was difficult on a personal level, Dano said he learned plenty about himself and should benefit from the experience as he enters his fifth NHL season.
“Team was doing great, so I was happy for them. And happy for us. I was just trying to do my job and stay positive every day and work on those little things that you’re not able to if you’re playing. So when we stayed longer on the ice with the coaches, we worked on some plays in the corners, some tight turns. That’s part of a game I’m trying to improve and trying to get better,” said Dano.
“So last season helped me in that way. It got me a little mentally stronger. Hopefully, now I can earn a spot and be part of the team and play on the ice more and more.”
It is an attitude that didn’t go unnoticed by the coaching staff.
“He is going to get a certain benefit of the doubt, based on the way that he handled the year. We haven’t had that a whole lot, where we stayed pretty healthy for stretches or guys came in and I didn’t take them out. He just lost minutes to other guys. But he handled it so well. He worked so hard and then he went home and did what we asked him to do. So he’s going to get some room to play on that,” Maurice said Thursday.
However, the coach cautioned goodwill will only go so far, and Dano’s play will ultimately determine how this season goes for him.
“You’re going to put your best lineup out on opening night, so… it’s not a free ride to a job,” said Maurice. “(Dano) has made some big improvements in his game, and the (caveat) though is that the other players coming in are good players, too. Those decisions that are going to get made are tough and it’s going to be real close.”
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.