You’ll forgive Dylan Samberg if he’s holding his breath right now, hoping a dream is about to become a reality.
The last time the 22-year-old defenceman was getting ready to play his first NHL game, he went down in a heap during a training camp battle drill and suffered a high-ankle sprain. That was going to be a pre-season contest, the first of what would have been a busy September slate as the Winnipeg Jets wanted to get an up-close look at the 43rd-overall pick in the 2017 draft.
Unfortunately, the injury cost Samberg more than six weeks of action and he was sent straight to the Manitoba Moose once he recovered in November. Now, opportunity is knocking in a big way, with a depleted lineup opening the door for him to make his big-league debut on Thursday night in Detroit.
Provided the game doesn’t get postponed, of course. Feel free to touch some wood.
“Yeah, it’s been a crazy last few days, from playing (last Saturday) in Texas to not getting a lot of sleep and getting on the next plane back to Winnipeg,” Samberg said following Tuesday’s skate at Canada Life Centre. “It was a long first half of the year, with the injury and coming back. It felt like I came back strong after Christmas and I feel good right now. It’s unfortunate that guys are going down, but I’m looking forward to the opportunity.”
Samberg is one of just five healthy defenceman on the roster, along with Jets regulars Josh Morrissey, Nate Schmidt, Brenden Dillon and Neal Pionk. Dylan DeMelo entered protocol last Thursday in Denver, where he remains. And Logan Stanley, Nathan Beaulieu and Ville Heinola all tested positive Tuesday, which will put them out of action a minimum of five days under NHL protocols.
Enter Samberg, a stay-at-home defender who turned pro last year after three seasons at the University of Minnesota-Duluth. He had a goal and six assists in 32 AHL games as a rookie last year, and has five assists in 16 games with the Moose this year, along with 14 penalty minutes and a plus-six rating.
“He’s played extremely well. He’s a big body that moves and get around the ice really well,” interim Jets head coach Dave Lowry said of the 6-3, 190-pound Samberg.
Samberg admits he was initially discouraged by the injury setback last fall, but quickly put it in perspective and regained his focus.
“I talked with all of the coaches and they were like, ‘You just have to keep your spirits up, keep the positivity going and you will get through it.’ I was able to get back on the ice quicker than I expected and I’ve felt good ever since I stepped on the ice when I got back,” he said. “So, I had a good three weeks of skating and doing a little bit of practising before I got back and cleared for playing. So, it was a long month, month-and-a-half, but we’re here now.”
The Minnesota product is hoping some family and friends could join him in Michigan in time to see his big night.
“I’ll probably talk to my parents after this about possibly preparing for it. I’ve had a lot of good coaches throughout the years that I’ve been fortunate enough to have. Back in high school, Bruce Plante, and on to college, Scott Sandelin. And now here, I’ve had a lucky path, and a good path,” he said.
Samberg could be joined by another Moose teammate — Johnathan Kovacevic would be the most likely candidate to also make his NHL debut — if DeMelo isn’t ready to go against the Red Wings.
“It’s been a while, five years, but this is the moment you keep in the back of your head since the day that you’re drafted. You’re always looking forward to it, you’re always pushing for it, that’s your main goal right there,” said Samberg.
“I was fortunate enough to go to college and work on my game there, and the get here and play with the Moose for a little while, work on my game and get comfortable with the program. Now, I finally get an opportunity and I’m really excited for it.”
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