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LET’S be honest: You’ve already had your fill of pre-season hockey. But there’s still 10 more days — and three more relatively meaningless games to be played — until the Winnipeg Jets drop the puck for real on a new campaign.
Winnipeg improved its exhibition record to 3-1-0 Sunday with a rather pedestrian 5-3 win over an Edmonton Oilers squad that only brought a handful of regulars to Bell MTS Place. The Jets had a slightly more polished look to their lineup, and it showed despite being outshot 41-21.
But while the contests themselves may be nothing to write home about, there’s no shortage of intrigue surrounding the team. Some tough decisions are going to have to be made, and soon. And so as we head down the final September stretch, here’s a look at a few things we’ve learned, and others that remain a bit blurry.
DYNAMIC DUO: Mark Scheifele and Blake Wheeler appear primed to pick up where they left off. Wheeler fed Scheifele for a pair of goals Sunday night and scored one himself on a two-man advantage, while Scheifele added an assist.
“Blake’s the guy that drives this bus and I’m a guy who likes to follow him and try to help out as much as I can. I think the biggest thing is we just feed off each other,” Scheifele said after the game.
Wheeler (2G, 3A) and Scheifele (2G, 2A) have been dominant in their two pre-season games. The only thing missing Sunday was linemate Kyle Connor, who took a puck to the throat area during the morning skate and sat out as a precaution. Rookie Kristian Vesalainen took his spot.
NEW KIDS ON THE BLOCK: Welcome to Winnipeg, Skyler McKenzie, who scored twice in his NHL pre-season debut Sunday, once off a tidy deflection and another on a two-on-one after a nifty pass from rookie C.J. Suess. The undersized, but skilled winger has acquitted himself well. He’ll be a nice addition to the Manitoba Moose, as will Suess (two assists in two games).
“It felt unbelievable. I can’t even explain the happiness that’s going through me and my family right now,” McKenzie said of his big night.
Depth additions in Dennis Everberg (two assists Sunday) and Seth Griffith (two assists in three games) have looked solid and will be potential in-season call-ups from the farm. Defenceman Sami Niku (two assists in two games) has also impressed.
CREASE CLARITY: Connor Hellebuyck stopped 38 of 41 shots Sunday in his second start as the Vezina Trophy finalist gears up for the heavy workload ahead.
Behind him, Laurent Brossoit had a strong debut in Winnipeg’s pre-season opener (39 saves on 40 shots), reminding some observers of Hellebuyck’s big body, no-panic style of play. That’s not a coincidence, since the pair share the same summer training program. Eric Comrie was thrown to the wolves in his one game on the road against a much stronger Oilers team and appears destined to start the season with the Moose.
CHECK, MATE: Sure, they’ve only played one game so far. But the shutdown trio of Adam Lowry, Brandon Tanev and Andrew Copp was terrific last week in Edmonton and even potted a pair of goals for good measure.
D DILEMMA – The Tyler Myers experiment is not working. He looked lost on the left side for much of Sunday’s game, and didn’t exactly light it up in his first game last week beside Dustin Byfuglien. The duo took three combined penalties against the Oilers and were often out of position.
Adding to the questions on the blue-line is that Dmitry Kulikov, Ben Chiarot and Joe Morrow, all left-shots, have seen time on the right side in pre-season. That wouldn’t seem to be an endorsement of righty Tucker Poolman, who appeared to have an opening to crack the top six with Myers moving over.
Presuming coach Paul Maurice wants to give Byfuglien-Myers a longer look, who plays with Kulikov on that third pair? It would seem to be one of Chiarot or Morrow, with the other likely being the seventh defenceman while Poolman, who is the only one that doesn’t need to clear waivers, might be Moose-bound.
“My job is to put every player in the best position to succeed as they can. If (Myers) is fully comfortable with it and we feel a strong improvement, then we’ll talk about it continuing. If he gets uncomfortable with it then we make changes,” Maurice said following the game.
MIDDLE-SIX MYSTERY- The Bryan Little-Patrik Laine-Nikolaj Ehlers lasted only about four-and-a-half pre-season periods before Maurice shifted Ehlers down the lineup and replaced him with Mathieu Perreault in last Friday’s game. The message got even stronger Sunday night when Ehlers didn’t even dress and that trio stayed together. It still didn’t produce any tangible results.
That creates some further mystery as to how the middle two forward lines will be constructed. Perreault started the pre-season with Jack Roslovic and Vesalainen, so does Ehlers get a look now? What about Marko Dano, who has scored goals in both pre-season games he’s played so far? Or Brendan Lemieux, who has had two solid games so far.
Nic Petan would also be an option, but he’s back home in B.C., right now following the sudden death of his father, Franc. It’s not clear when he might return and how his absence impacts the decisions that need to be made before the roster is finalized.
THE VESALAINEN SITUATION – Has he shown enough to earn himself a starting spot out of camp?
He was given plenty of opportunity Sunday, playing on the top line, the No. 1 power play unit and even killing penalties. And while he didn’t hit the scoresheet, he didn’t look out of place, either. He was moved down to a line with Little and Perreault in the third period, while Laine went up to play with Scheifele and Wheeler.
If the Jets would prefer Vesalainen to start the season with the Moose to get some further North American seasoning, would he be OK with it? Vesalainen has an out clause in his contract which allows him to return to Europe if he’s not with the Jets.
“He skates well enough, he’s physically strong enough at a young age. He can get the puck along the wall and he doesn’t make an awful lot of mistakes on the ice in terms of reading the play, so his eyes and his brain are working close enough to an NHL level. He’s got nice skill,” Maurice said Sunday.
Winnipeg continues their pre-season schedule Monday night in Calgary.
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.