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It is a temporary job opening the Winnipeg Jets would prefer not having to fill, given Josh Morrissey’s importance to the team’s overall success.
But, as long as the young defenceman remains out of training camp without a contract, someone is going to have to take his spot. Throw in the off-season departure of veteran Toby Enstrom (not re-signed by the club, has gone back to Europe to finish his career) and the shaky health history of a couple other players, and suddenly the left side of the blue-line is wide open.
And that’s where players like Joe Morrow, Ben Chiarot, Sami Niku and Logan Stanley stand to gain the most. All are left-shot rearguards who will be given plenty of opportunity over the next couple weeks to strut their stuff.
Take Stanley, for example. With Tyler Myers unable to participate in the first day of full on-ice sessions Saturday because of an apparent minor ailment, Stanley was moved out of the afternoon “B” group — comprised of players not expected to compete for a spot in the opening-night lineup — and into the main morning “A” group with all the Jets regulars and top prospects.
Stanley was immediately put into a pairing with veteran Dustin Byfuglien for a series of drills.
“He definitely makes the game easy. He’s loud out there, he’s obviously very experienced. For a young guy, he makes it easy and does a lot of talking and helps you out. It’s fun playing with him,” Stanley said. The 20-year-old, who stands 6-7 and weighs 231 pounds, is about to begin his first season of pro hockey after being selected by the Jets in the first round (18th overall) in the 2016 NHL draft.
Coach Paul Maurice hinted the duo may get a look in at least one pre-season game, and singled Stanley out for some praise Saturday, saying he’s clearly worked on his quickness and foot speed.
“He knows the drills that we’re running, but he’s faster, there’s no doubt about that. He’s covering more ice, he’s starting in the right spots, he’s got a really good confidence to keep his gaps. So some parts of the game just become easier and easier, because their starting point is better,” Maurice said.
Myers, a right shot, is expected to move to the other side and get an audition with Byfuglien. Maurice said he’s not dealing with anything serious, and could return to action as early as today. But Myers also has a history of injuries, and is entering the final year of his contract, which is why it’s never a bad thing to have depth and options on the blue line.
“You always want to show what you can bring to the table, because stuff like that always happens. Whether it’s injuries or guys are sick. Hopefully, Mo gets a deal done soon, because he’s a big part of this team. I think everyone wants him around. In the meantime, I’ll try to do the best I can to impress the coaching staff and management,” Stanley said.
With Morrissey still unsigned, it also raises the question of who would move up to play with Jacob Trouba on the top pair, should the contract stalemate drag on for a while. That honour went Saturday to veteran Dmitry Kulikov, who is coming off major off-season back surgery.
Morrow was paired with Tucker Poolman, while Niku skated with Chiarot, who moved to the right side. It’s safe to say the absence of Morrissey is forcing plenty of lineup juggling right off the hop for Maurice and his staff.
Morrow and Chiarot spent time last season playing with Byfuglien when Enstrom, his regular partner, was battling injuries. They are also expected to get a look in that spot in exhibition games.
“That’s a dream to play with Big Buff and be able to match that guy’s personality. I don’t think that’s possible for anybody to be able to do. I got to play with him a bit last year and we were pretty successful together,” said Morrow, 25, who signed a one-year extension with the Jets this summer after being acquired from Montreal at the February trade deadline.
“To have a guy like Toby step away and go play back in Europe, it does open up an opportunity here, but it’s kind of sad to see him go at the same time.”
Like Stanley, he’s hoping the vacancy created by Morrissey is short-term — even though the trickle-down effect could ultimately benefit him.
“I don’t see it lasting too long. He is a huge piece of this team and this organization. I don’t think a lot of people understand how difficult it is behind the scenes, and kind of the politics behind hockey and contract negotiations,” Morrow said.
“As of right now, with him not being here, it definitely shows whoever wants to come and slot in and be able to play in his position for now, is going to get that opportunity. It does show a lot of depth.”
The pace and intensity of Saturday’s first on-ice session was extremely high, especially when forwards took on defenceman in one-on-one battle drills.
“I think the coaching staff and everybody around here knows that’s the priority of this team is to come out with your best foot forward. Obviously, tailor the practices around competing and battling, because you can’t reciprocate that throughout the summer. And that’s your biggest component to a team, how hard you can compete,” Morrow said.
“This team plays so hard night in and night out that it’s impossible to take a night off, and it’s impossible to take anything for granted here. We made it pretty far last year, and the fact you have the majority of guys come back and come back faster and stronger than they did last year is really saying something about the taste that was left in their mouth in not making it to the final and not winning a Stanley Cup. So, I think that’s the No. 1 priority this year, and from what I can see right now, it looks pretty good.”
Maurice said that’s why he configured the two training camp groups the way he did. Everyone in Group A — which consisted Saturday of 15 forwards and eight defencemen — knows what’s at stake.
“I think there’s a sense of competition, five lines and eight D. These people are competing for jobs. There was an energy to go right away,” he said.
“We came into this last year at this time with the idea that we had to get it right, we had to drive to that level. That was our starting point (Saturday). The pace was right. We’ve got good leaders out there.”
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.