Coaches and management have had to pay attention to a lot more bodies over a longer stretch of time during this year’s Winnipeg Jets training camp.
In no other year has the group been 40-plus strong this late into the proceedings.
While players are scheduled to have the day off, cuts will be made Friday, head coach Paul Maurice said Thursday morning at Bell MTS Iceplex.
“That’s the plan, yeah. Not for everybody. We’re not getting to our 22 or 23, I don’t believe. We might. That’ll be up to (general manager) Kevin (Cheveldayoff),” he said.
Because of a busy pre-season schedule with six games over eight days, including three road trips, a decision was made early to carry a hefty roster until the very end.
That certainly gave Maurice plenty of opportunity to see players competing for jobs, not only in up-tempo practices but in games, as well.
“This has been a completely different experience for me. We would have had nobody left here under normal years. So, we’re getting guys playing deeper and deeper into camp, which means you get to play better rosters from the other teams. It’s been good,” he said.
Would he consider it as a good business model for future years?
“I don’t know, yet. We’re going to have to mine this for a while to find out what value we get from it,” he said. “Some (AHL-bound) players got to play in some NHL exhibition games that may not have, and I think that’s been good for them. We’ll watch how (Manitoba Moose coach) Pascal Vincent feels that translated into their start, into their season.
“We’ll look at how our veteran players (react), not just the start of the season but how physically strong they feel two, three months into it, how heavy a camp it was.”
Eric Comrie might have seen the writing on the wall but wasn’t prepared to go down to the AHL without a fight.
Practising with the “playing group” Thursday morning, the 23-year-old goalie was the last guy off the ice. It’s a fairly routine scenario, watching Comrie spend extra time with Winnipeg goalie coach Wade Flaherty long after the rest of the group has hit the showers.
He’s a workaholic, not only due to the circumstances he finds himself in, but by choice.
Comrie is third on the Jets’ goaltending depth chart and will, in all likelihood, get shuffled to the Moose any day now. The Edmonton product has pushed himself with ferocity during training camp, despite having the sense Laurent Brossoit would, ultimately, be the backup to main man Connor Hellebuyck to begin the 2018-19 NHL season.
“I’m trying to stay in the present, trying to stay focused on what I’m doing. As much as I’d like to think I have control over where I am, I don’t know if it’s as much my choice as I would like,” Comrie said. “Teams come into camp pretty much knowing who they’re going to have in what situation. It’s unfortunate but that’s the name of the game.”
Comrie, who served as Hellebuyck’s backup Thursday against New Jersey, appeared in just one pre-season contest and was fed to the wolves, losing to a stacked Edmonton Oilers roster 7-3. He made 30 stops, including a couple of miraculous saves against Connor McDavid & Co.
“I’ve had a good camp. I felt every single practice has gone really well, I’ve felt good and I feel my game’s in a good spot right now,” said Comrie, who played three games for the Jets last season, going 1-2 with a 3.99 goals-against average. He was 18-13-3 with the Moose, posting two shutouts, a 2.58 GAA and .916 save percentage.
Comrie is convinced if his day is not now, perseverance and meticulous attention to detail will prepare him for when it comes.
“You look at the NHL these days, and most teams used three goalies last year. Some used four or five. It’s pretty unbelievable how goalie depth has become a factor, and I think the Jets have really done a good job of building depth,” he said. “It’s really important that wherever you end up, you have to push yourself as hard as you can. For myself, I just keep pushing until I get that opportunity.”
Injuries severely cut into Adam Lowry’s 2017-18 season, limiting the number of faceoffs he took, but he was still in the top 15 among all centres with more than 600 draws, finishing with a win ratio of 55.9 per cent.
During training camp, the Lowry line played three road games, matching up against opponents’ top lines, just as Maurice will task the trio with on most nights during the regular season. And with that responsibility comes the requirement to take crucial faceoffs, particularly in the defensive zone and on the penalty kill.
A clean win in the defensive zone by a good faceoff man can snuff out momentum for the attacking team, while a win in the offensive zone establishes possession and can ignite a blitz to the net.
Heading into his fifth NHL season, Lowry has designs on continuing his upward trajectory at the dot.
“I think it’s been a real important part of my game I’ve tried to improve on the last few years. I think last season I took big strides in the way I approached them, just different strategies against different guys,” said Lowry, went 69 per cent Wednesday night against the Minnesota Wild in his final pre-season game.
“I’ve added some things where you can combat what the other guys are doing. It’s an experience thing, for sure. You look how centremen evolve over their careers and it usually takes them a few years before they put up solid numbers.”
Lowry said he spends a lot of time in the film room with assistant coach Todd Woodcroft — known in the organization as a faceoff guru — and video coach Matt Prefontaine, studying the tendencies of top faceoff guys around the league, particularly in the Western Conference.
“You look at Tyler Bozak (with the St. Louis Blues), he uses a lot of speed, kind of the way Derek Ryan takes them for the (Calgary) Flames. The way they come down, it’s one quick motion. They aren’t looking for a battle. They want a clean pick of the puck,” Lowry said. “You look at Mikko Koivu (of the Wild), he’s a strong guy but he’s fast. He’s OK to lock onto your stick, to physically engage in that battle.
“As you watch guys and play against guys, you learn what they’re comfortable doing and you try and make them as uncomfortable as possible as you can in the dot.”
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).