Preparing for takeoff

The Winnipeg Jets’ weekly schedule outlines the on-ice session Saturday morning at the Bell MTS Iceplex as a practice. Take note, the wording is critical here.

This isn’t training camp anymore. No longer is the Jets roster more than double the required size, as most of the supplemental pieces have been shipped down the hall to the American Hockey League side of the business.

No more medicals, fitness tests or split squads with two skates a day; three, if you count pre-season game nights.

GM Kevin Cheveldayoff, head coach Paul Maurice and the rest of the Jets brass spent two weeks assessing the NHL readiness of their stable of players, whittling down the group to something resembling an opening-night roster, but there are adjustments yet to be made over the next five days.

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The Winnipeg Jets’ weekly schedule outlines the on-ice session Saturday morning at the Bell MTS Iceplex as a practice. Take note, the wording is critical here.

This isn’t training camp anymore. No longer is the Jets roster more than double the required size, as most of the supplemental pieces have been shipped down the hall to the American Hockey League side of the business.

No more medicals, fitness tests or split squads with two skates a day; three, if you count pre-season game nights.

GM Kevin Cheveldayoff, head coach Paul Maurice and the rest of the Jets brass spent two weeks assessing the NHL readiness of their stable of players, whittling down the group to something resembling an opening-night roster, but there are adjustments yet to be made over the next five days.

From here on in, Maurice will prepare the Jets for a season-opening road trip against a pair of Central Division rivals starting Thursday in St. Louis, followed by Dallas two nights later.

On Sept. 13, we delivered a training camp package in the Free Press, suggesting several compelling storylines as players battled for employment with a squad that finished second overall in the NHL (52-20-10), advancing all the way to the 2017-18 Western Conference final.

Two weeks later, we look at the same questions, some now answered, some still unresolved.

Eight key storylines

Josh Morrissey

MIKAELA MACKENZIE / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS

Josh Morrissey

1) MORRISSEY SAGA

 This turned out to be much ado about nothing. Just three days into training camp, Josh Morrissey, 25, signed a two-year, US$6.3 million bridge deal (with an average annual value of US$3.15 million) and laced up his skates. Right now, the contract provides great value for the Jets, who lock up a talented two-way defenceman who logs big minutes on the left side of the top pairing with partner Jacob Trouba. He’ll be a restricted free-agent once the deal is done in the summer of 2020. Then, when the bill comes due, the asking price for a smart, mobile blue-liner smack dab in his prime will be massive.

2) GREAT EXPECTATIONS 

Nothing much changes here with the culmination of training camp. The Jets remain one of the early Stanley Cup favourites to host a parade next June. The lineup boasts star-power forwards such as Mark Scheifele, Blake Wheeler and Patrik Laine, youngsters up front on the cusp of greatness in Kyle Connor and Nikolaj Ehlers, a shutdown line in Adam Lowry, Andrew Copp and Brandon Tanev as solid as any in the league, a deep blue line led by Morrissey, Trouba and Dustin Byfuglien, and a Vezina-calibre goalie in Connor Hellebuyck. But as we stated before, last year’s success is a speck in the rear-view mirror, and there can be no sense of security within the organization.

Bryan Little

JOHN WOODS / THE CANADIAN PRESS

Bryan Little

3) CENTRE OF ATTENTION

 Concerns abound regarding the Jets’ middle men, Scheifele and Lowry notwithstanding. Bryan Little is the de facto second-line centre with Laine to his right, while it’s looking more and more like Mathieu Perreault will be to his left. There’s been only faint glimpses of a connection between the veteran centre and Laine, who collected just one measly assist but clanked a bunch of posts in the pre-season. For now, Jack Roslovic will anchor the third line with Ehlers, Kristian Vesalainen, Brendan Lemieux or Nic Petan. In the offensive zone, Roslovic is a shrewd playmaker with a quick release. But the pre-season showed in the defensive zone he struggles to tread water.

4) JOB OPENINGS

 The math was pretty simple. Heading into camp, 10 everyday forwards and seven blue-liners were back, leaving four skater spots available on the maximum 23-man NHL roster. Here’s how the candidates fared:

  • Kristian Vesalainen, the Jets first-round draft pick in 2017, used camp to silence some doubters who weren’t convinced a Finnish kid with huge offensive potential could play responsibly and engage physically in his first taste of North American-style hockey. But he did. He also banged in a goal and was effective on puck protection down low, committing few glaring errors in five pre-season contests. We say he plays on the wing Oct. 4 against the Blues.
  • Marko Dano spent the season with the big club, suiting up for just 23 games with meagre production (2G, 1A). He equalled that goal total in his first two pre-season games this fall but then turned invisible in his next three outings. We don’t envision Dano won’t be in the lineup to start the year in St. Louis, however, since like last season, a demotion to the AHL requires a stop on the waiver wire, the Jets would rather not lose their relatively cheap press-box security blanket, and he’ll be one of two extra forwards.
  • Nic Petan was in contention for a spot in the top nine but returned home to Vancouver following the sudden death of his father. The hockey club is giving the young forward all the time he needs, and there’s a chance he could be placed on the NHL’s bereavement list — which means he would not be counted against Winnipeg’s active roster list. Petan, another player who is no longer waiver-exempt, will, in all likelihood, be with the team in St. Louis but we don’t see him playing opening night.
  • Brendan Lemieux is driving ever closer to full-time work with the Jets. But he isn’t there yet. Lemieux’s work ethic is never to be questioned, his hit-first approach is instinctual and he’s a raging bull when he crashes the net, something that generated several good scoring chances in the pre-season. He’s also managing his discipline level, instigating one fight in five games after taking a questionable check. But at times he’s still confounded by things happening around him in the defensive zone and he needs to get quicker. He’s a definite call-up should injuries force a roster move.
  • Tucker Poolman had a sound, though unspectacular, training camp. But that’s his game. No real fireworks but no major tire fires, either. The problem is, he’s a right-shot defenceman, slotted behind Trouba, Byfuglien and Myers, so a demotion is likely, particularly since he’s exempt from waivers. Besides, he spent far too much time in the press box as a healthy scratch last year — playing just 43 games split between the Jets and Moose — and he needs game action to continue to develop. We give the nod to Ben Chiarot as the team’s seventh rear-guard.

5) BUFF’S BUDDY

 Right-shot defenceman Dustin Byfuglien’s long-time partner, Toby Enstrom, departed Winnipeg and is playing for Modo of Sweden’s second-tier league. Even in the summer, Maurice hinted he’d give Myers an opportunity to play his off side with the big man. But the training-camp experiment blew up in the lab, and Maurice swapped out Myers with Joe Morrow, who was paired with Byfuglien down the stretch and into the playoffs last spring. The tandem works, and the expectation is the Jets will go that route.

Connor Hellebuyck

JOHN WOODS / THE CANADIAN PRESS

Connor Hellebuyck

6) CONNOR’S CREASEMATE

The role of Connor Hellebuyck’s understudy was filled the moment Laurent Brossoit signed a one-year, US$650,000 deal with the Jets on July 1. The club made it official Friday, sending Eric Comrie to the Moose. Brossoit, who played to mixed reviews in four seasons in the Edmonton Oilers organization, had a brilliant debut in the pre-season, stopping 39 of 40 shots in a victory over Minnesota on Sept. 17. He was 2-1-0 in three exhibition starts. Assuming Hellebuyck is healthy, expect his off-season training partner to start fewer than 20 games.

7) LEANER LAINE 

It’s true, the Finnish-born sniper shed about 14 pounds during the off-season in the hopes of getting quicker. During the pre-season, Laine demonstrated another gear on bursts through the neutral zone, and he still wields a rocket-launcher, although he was held scoreless in four pre-season appearances. He hit a few posts and had some other near-misses, so there’s no great panic setting in just yet regarding a guy looking to make a run at the Rocket Richard Trophy as the league’s top goal-scorer.

8) FOLLOW THE LEADER — Rarely is the pre-season a harbinger of things to come. However, Jets captain Blake Wheeler suited up for just three games and still led the squad in scoring (2G, 5A), and he’ll be the offensive leader when the real stuff starts next week. Coming off a career year, with a new five-year contract extension and chemistry already re-established with Scheifele and Connor, Winnipeg’s captain is primed and ready to do some major damage on one of the NHL’s most lethal lines.

jason.bell@freepress.mb.ca

Twitter: @WFPJasonBell

Jason Bell

Jason Bell
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).

Read full biography