On Monday morning, the Winnipeg Jets returned to the familiar Bell MTS Iceplex for the first official day of the 2020-21 training camp. Following physicals and off-ice testing on Sunday, the 35-member team was broken down into two separate groups, with the early skate consisting of likely AHL-bound players, while a larger second group was highlighted by five forward lines and four defensive groupings.
“It feels good to be back,” Jets captain Blake Wheeler said post-skate. “There are a lot of unknowns coming into this and we didn’t really know if and when this was gonna take place, but it’s nice to get back to the day job for sure. I thought for Day 1, it’s been tough for some guys. Having to go right from quarantine into Day 1 of camp is not ideal, but guys gutted it out. There was a lot of intensity and hard work. I think it was a pretty business-like, focused Day 1. I thought all the guys coming back from our teams prior in the past looked really good. You could tell there was a lot of hard work done from the last time we saw everyone. I really liked our new guys as well, so overall it was a really good first day.”
For Wheeler – who has now eclipsed a dozen NHL training camps – to say things looked good, it certainly must mean something. Despite the near-constant wipeouts, missed passed, muffed shots, and hunched over, Gatorade-seeking players, things did, in fact, go over well for the Jets.
“You’re going to go into the most unusual year that you’ve ever had, certainly schedule-wise,” offered head coach Paul Maurice post-skate. “So we know that we’ve got a window and an opportunity to go hard and we’re going to go hard now. You’re seeing very few flow drills out there. We’re into the grind. We need to get prepared for that. It’s been a long stretch. So we’ve got a window here to go hard and then once the schedule hits, you’re just not going to be able to. So we’re going to maximize that now. Let’s make sure that, when the puck drops against Calgary, we’re ready for the grind of it.
These guys have been getting up and down the ice, wherever they’ve been, passing pucks, doing all of the little skilled things but the hardness, the man’s game part that you can’t replicate — we’ve got to get as much of that in as we can. So we’ve got to get it daily in our grinding drills but we’re going to work real, real hard. What was interesting about today was that the capacity to work has gotten better.”
With obvious attention to his defence-corps, top-six forwards and filler depth players, coach Maurice certainly has his hands full in terms of personnel.
“Kyle and Niky have a different kind of speed,” Maurice reflected. “They use their speed differently, and the best way for me to say it is the way that Kyle moves, I think Stas and Patty need. I think that’s the best use of speed for those two guys. I mean, the way Patrik was moving today, he looked powerful and fast. So that may change over time. Again these players change almost every year. The idea was if Niky can handle the minutes there with Scheif and Blake, and those are two big, big men, so that’s maybe sometimes a better play, to put a smaller player, he won’t have to fight for pucks out of the corner as much with those two guys. It’s as much a balance thing but it has to do with the way Kyle skates and the style of speed that he has that fits with those guys as well.”
With RFA forward Jack Roslovic still holding out from training camp as contract negotiations appear to have hit a standstill, depth options Mason Appleton, Jansen Harkins and Andrew Copp have become players with opportunity to rise up in the ranks in his absence.
“We’ve had that maturity from those guys,” Maurice said. “Appleton’s gone through that development time. And Hark’s still in on it but, because of the style of play… I’ve got five lines on the ice today and we looked hard through five lines. Like, we looked like we had good players on all five lines. Hark was one of them, Apples was the other. So they look like they turned pro. I know it’s overused but we looked like we had a bunch of pro hockey players on the ice today.”
Adding to the offensive mix is veteran centreman Paul Stastny, as well as the highly publicized return of seemingly disgruntled winger Patrik Laine. Despite offseason trade rumours, the 22-year-old Laine is ready to put that behind him and suit up alongside the player to whom he found the most success with back during the Jets’ 2018 Stanley Cup Playoff run.
“I think Paul’s an awesome player,” Laine said Monday. “We had some really good games when he was here and obviously a really good addition to our top-six. With him and KC on the other side, I think we can do some real damage and I’m excited to get the season going and see what we can do. That’s the thing that pushes me forward every day. Obviously, Paul’s going to help me with that, KC on the other side, I think we can do something really, really good this year. Just really excited.”
Stastny, who is ready to make a return to the Jets’ lineup after signing in Vegas two seasons back, is a welcomed addition to Winnipeg’s offensive charge.
“Stas is cut from a different cloth, more of an old-school mould,” Wheeler said. “The way he plays the game, mentally he’s a step ahead of everyone else out there. He’s incredibly reliable on faceoffs and he’s the type of centre that makes the people around him better. It’s a great complement to Schief and it’s such a steady presence to be able to deploy. A player like Stas, you can put any players on a line with him and they’re gonna flourish. He’s just a steady presence in the lineup. We know what kind of person he is. Everyone loves Stas in the room and what he brings to us on the ice is a pretty great fit for our team.”
According to the 35-year-old Quebec product, being back in Winnipeg is a blessing, to which Stastny is very grateful. Despite having to rough it out during training camp, he expects to see a very strong lineup starting the season.
“Excited. I feel comfortable here, I feel good here. Everyone’s accepted me with open arms. It almost felt like my wife and I and kids never really left Now we get to settle in a little more, get here early, do Christmas here and quarantine. It’s good to be back out here and get life going with training camp and the kids being in school. Today felt like the first day after a holiday break, so we’re excited.
Here the top-nine is pretty legit, there’s a lot of different combinations you can work with and different things,” Stastny continued. “For me, you play with a lot of shooters on this team and that’s really nice to have. For me, as someone who likes to distribute the puck and find the open guy, it’s really easy for me to play. I enjoy it. The little time I was here before playing with them I thought we had success. Now it’s a couple years later and you see guys like him and KC and Fly. The more experience they get the better they are, and it’s really fun to see some of these guys grow just kind of right under your eyes.”