DALLAS — The season couldn’t have started any better for Winnipeg Jets forward Evgeny Svechnikov.
Looking for a new hockey home after being cast aside by the Detroit Red Wings, the team that selected the now 25-year-old with the 19th overall pick in the 2015 NHL Draft, Svechnikov turned what began as a pro tryout offer with the Jets into a key role in the top-six. Reunited with Pierre-Luc Dubois, someone Svechnikov excelled playing alongside while with the Cape Breton Screaming Eagles of the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League, he made up one-third of a No. 1 line that also included the Jets leading scorer Kyle Connor.
But somewhere along the way, Svechnikov dropped from the penthouse to the doghouse, relegated to a checking role on the fourth line or out of the lineup altogether as a healthy scratch. So, after months of trying to claw his way back into the lineup and up the depth chart, it was of particular note that Svechnikov was once again skating with Dubois and Connor Wednesday night in what turned out to be a 3-2 overtime loss to the Dallas Stars at American Airlines Center.
Asked by the Free Press prior to puck drop why — or if — Svechnikov had found himself out of favour, Jets interim head coach Dave Lowry answered the question with another question.
“Where’s he playing today?” the Jets bench boss said, before expanding. “He gets an opportunity — take advantage of it. You guys can look for angles or whatever. We look for consistency and level of play. There’s a certain way guys have to play and there’s certain expectations and standards and that’s going to be for everybody.” Reading between the lines, what Lowry was saying is that while Svechnikov has shown glimpses of what he can do, he hasn’t been nearly consistent enough with his on-ice play. But to argue the suggestion that Svechnikov be considered in the doghouse as a reporter-built narrative ignores what has unfolded in plain sight.
With Nikolaj Ehlers and rookie Cole Peretti both out week-to-week with injuries, Lowry over the last week has been trying to find the right replacement to play right wing with Dubois and Connor. And while Svechnikov, who had previously logged 11 games with the line between Oct. 21 and Nov. 13, registering one goal and five assists and was a plus-4, was available, he was passed over for less familiar line mates.
That wouldn’t necessarily be a questionable move — after all, neither Svechnikov, nor any other player for that matter, is guaranteed a certain spot in the lineup — if not for who Lowry opted to play there instead.
At first it was Kristian Vesalainen, who hasn’t exactly been the model of consistently, either, with just two goals and one assist in 42 games this season. Then it was Winnipeg native Adam Brooks, who is a fun story, but hadn’t played a game in nearly two months. Because of the long layoff, Brooks inevitably ran out gas by the end of the second period against the Calgary Flames Monday and was replaced by Svechnikov for the final 20 minutes.
“It’s a tough question, but I think, as the season goes on, there’s things that happen,” Svechnikov said when asked why he wasn’t considered an option earlier in the week. “I’m trying to be consistent in every game, every day. I don’t know, I can’t really point a finger and tell you what’s exactly the reason but I’m always looking for one day at a time.”
Injuries and inconsistent play were the reasons why Svechnikov spent a majority of his time in Detroit’s system playing for the Grand Rapid Griffins in the American Hockey League, with just 41 games with the Red Wings over four seasons. In that sense, the fact he’s already played the exact same number of games with the Jets so far this year, it can’t be argued he hasn’t been given a shot to prove himself.
It was the return of Mark Scheifele and Blake Wheeler, both of whom contracted COVID-19 early in the season, that resulted in Svechnikov dropping down the depth chart. He would spend the next few months jumping between the third and fourth lines, while also missing three games due to injury and another six as a healthy scratch.
During that stretch, you could see an obvious mood change with Svechnikov, who is considered to be among the most talkative and joyful players in the locker room. Part of that could be not having success compared to ealier the year, among other things. He’s collected just four points in his last 29 games.
Svechnikov views the lows he experienced while with Detroit, none of which he’s publicly talked about, as something to help him deal what he’s going through now.
“For sure, 100 percent,” he said. “In Detroit, it happened a lot of things where I was injured or rehabbed or surgeries, everything happens. You grow from those things. I’m definitely a better person than I was two or three years ago. The things I deal with, it’s just how you respond to the things. It’s hard, it’s really hard, but you just find ways every day and there’s always a new day tomorrow.”
Not one to overshare with reporters, Lowry has used board terms like “consistency” and “playing the right way” when asked what he’s looking for in a player to fill in that slot with Dubois and Connor. But what’s clear is that with Ehlers and Perfetti expected to be out for the foreseeable future, there’s an opportunity there.
“Take advantage of the opportunity,” Lowry said. “That’s what we say to them every day.”
After a slew of injuries playing hockey that included breaks to the wrist, arm, and collar bone; a tear of the medial collateral ligament in both knees; as well as a collapsed lung, Jeff figured it was a good idea to take his interest in sports off the ice and in to the classroom.
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