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The Winnipeg Jets organization is stacked with highly touted, flashy young prospects at both the NHL and AHL levels — whether it’s Kyle Connor and Jack Roslovic with the big club or Sami Niku and Mason Appleton getting ripe on the farm.
C.J. Suess may not bring the same level of sizzle, but there’s ample reason to believe this meat-and-potatoes type of player might just carve out a lengthy career for himself.
Suess, 24, has opened plenty of eyes at training camp this month — including those of Jets head coach Paul Maurice. He’s got a goal and two assists in three pre-season games and will suit up again tonight in Minnesota for another close look by the club.
“Coming in, I just wanted to work as hard as I could and show the coaches what I could do. With that, I feel like I’ve gotten some opportunities and I’ve made the best of them. And I hope I can keep going,” Suess told the Free Press on Tuesday at Bell MTS Iceplex.
Suess has showed off the many aspects of his game — from a beautiful rush down the wing and feed to linemate Skyler McKenzie for a goal Sunday night against the Edmonton Oilers, to a nifty finish for a goal Monday night against the Flames in Calgary. He’s also played physical, using his 5-11, 190-pound frame to get in on the forecheck while also being responsible in his own end.
“I just came here and showed them I can keep that going to the next level and I hope I’ve done that,” Suess said. “Just a gritty style of play, along with playmaking. Working from the defensive zone out, as little time as I can spend in my zone, the more I can spend in the O zone. I’ve always liked the physical aspect of the game, and I like to keep that in there, too.”
Winnipeg picked Suess in the fifth round, 129th overall, of the 2014 draft. Suess went by the name C.J. Franklin at the time, but legally changed it to his mother’s last name of Suess last year. He wanted to pay tribute to both her and his grandmother for the role they’ve played in raising him.
The native of Forest Lake, Minn., spent the past four seasons playing with Minnesota State in NCAA Division I. He put up career highs in goals (22), assists (21) and points (43) in 40 games last season and was a Hobey Baker top-10 finalist as the top collegiate player in the United States.
Suess got a taste of pro hockey last spring when he signed a one-year entry-level deal — staving off potential unrestricted free agency — and joined the Manitoba Moose. He scored once and added an assist in six regular-season games, and had an assist in three playoff games. He will be a restricted free agent following this season.
“It’s always a new step coming in. Systems-wise, it’s a whole different game, and the AHL is a lot closer to the NHL than college is. It’s not so much the speed for me or the adjustment, it’s knowing where to be on the ice and knowing if you make one mistake it can come back to hurt you. Being responsible, I feel like that’s the biggest difference for me,” Suess said of how that experience has helped him this fall.
Suess will begin this season with the Moose, where he can be used in a variety of situations such as power play and penalty killing. He’s also potentially played his way on to the list for an in-season call-up to the Jets should the need arise.
“That’s what training camp is all about. You’re not taking (Mark Scheifele’s) job. That’s a fact. But you want to put yourself in a position when you need a player and Kevin (Jets GM Cheveldayoff) says C.J.’s the guy down there, you go, ‘Darn right, he had a great camp.’ I have a better understanding of him as a player. The more games in exhibition you get, the more the staff here gets to understand your game a little better and you have a better comfort level of bringing a guy up,” Maurice said.
Having several years of college experience under his belt, where he’s played against bigger, stronger, older opponents, has helped Suess’s cause.
“Coming from college, it’s a great place to play. It definitely gets you ready. There’s no time and space out on the ice, so you have to make plays quick. It really helps you get into a routine and keep your body and really respect the game. I feel that really prepared me to come into here, and that was a great choice for me to go there,” Suess said.
He knows the Jets organization is loaded with blue-chip prospects, especially at the forward position, but doesn’t get caught up worrying where he might fit.
“Surrounding yourself with good players only makes you better. And I feel like that’s definitely helped here. Watching the older guys and what they do, and people who have been here, the veterans, the little differences they make in the game and what they do on the ice and off the ice. I take that from them and learn from that,” Suess said.
One of the positives is that the Moose play out of the same building as the Jets, meaning it’s easier to feel like you’re remaining on the organizational radar.
“It’s a blessing, being able to play in the same rink as the top-level team. The closer you are, the more you feel involved. No matter where I’m at, just keep playing and hopefully it’ll work out,” Suess said.
“My job is to come here and perform and play my best and let everyone else decide where I go from 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.