The one constant these days for Adam Lowry is change.
Previously the centre of attention on an effective, stable checking trio for the Winnipeg Jets, Lowry is heading to the rink lately not sure who's going to be his two wingmen. He's had a rotating cast of linemates so far this season, from Mark Scheifele and Blake Wheeler to Paul Stastny and Evgeny Svechnikov. On Tuesday night, it was youngsters Jansen Harkins and Kristian Vesalainen, the result of another shuffling of the deck due to circumstances beyond his control.
"I had a lot of consistency in previous years," Lowry told the Free Press prior to puck drop against the Buffalo Sabres at Canada Life Centre. "Now, in today’s world, you’re dealing with missing guys because of COVID and missing guys because of injuries and things like that. So, it has been different and it’s sometimes a challenge. You get different guys with different skill sets and now it’s about trying to maximize what they’re good at."
Flexibility is key, especially in the middle of a global pandemic that continues to have an impact on society, including the sports world. Fifteen players alone entered NHL COVID-19 protocols on Tuesday, and the postponement of Minnesota versus Carolina makes it nine games and counting so far this year.
The Jets had a pair of early-season cases of their own in Wheeler and Scheifele, which contributed to the line blender. Now Wheeler is out with a serious knee injury, which has led to more changes. Andrew Copp moved from the second line to take Wheeler's spot beside Scheifele and Kyle Connor. Stastny moved from the third line to take Copp's spot beside Pierre-Luc Dubois and Nikolaj Ehlers. And Harkins moved up from the fourth line to take Stastny's spot beside Lowry and Vesalainen.
"We had been pretty fortunate (in recent years), that we weren’t dealing with COVID and we weren’t dealing with injuries. So, in that sense, it makes it a little easier to keep the consistency and keep things the way that they are," Lowry said.
"... in today’s world, you’re dealing with missing guys because of COVID and missing guys because of injuries and things like that. So, it has been different and it’s sometimes a challenge. You get different guys with different skill sets and now it’s about trying to maximize what they’re good at." — Adam Lowry
Lowry, Copp and Brandon Tanev formed the popular TLC line for a couple seasons. After Tanev left in free agency to sign in Pittsburgh, Mathieu Perreault and Mason Appleton became fixtures with Lowry and Copp. But now Perreault (Montreal, free agency) and Appleton (Seattle, expansion draft) are gone, and Copp has spent the season playing an elevated top-six role.
And so it feels like a bit of an open audition to find regular partners for Lowry, who still skates a regular shift with Copp on the penalty kill.
"I’ve been lucky, the guys that I have played with this year have played well. It seems like for the most part, the transition has been good. Obviously, the scoring hasn’t been there for (many) of us (on the third line) this year. So we’d like to contribute there, but I think for the most part, the guys that I’ve played with have played well. Now it’s just about kind of getting that part of the game going too," said Lowry.
Indeed, Lowry's numbers have taken a bit of a nose-dive. He has just three goals and two assists through 27 regular-season games, after scoring 10 times and adding 14 helpers in 52 games last year. Jets coach Paul Maurice isn't always using Lowry to match-up against the other team's top offensive threats, with that assignment often falling to either Dubois' or Scheifele's lines.
"His minutes come down because of that, but what we’re starting to see — and what we need to continue to see — is they’re starting to spend some offensive zone time. Now they’re starting to generate time and chances inside the dots, and getting pucks to the net. I think all three of them that will play together (Tuesday night) have more offence in their game," said Maurice.
"He’s graduated into being the player that will drive the line. He knows the game, he understands his role very well." — Winnipeg Jets head coach Paul Maurice on Adam Lowry
"Adam has scored 15 (in 2016-17, a career-high). He can put the puck in the net. Now he’s playing with two younger guys that are trying to find their way, but they can both shoot the puck. Changing their offensive game a little bit has to come in that style they’re going to play. We really like where they’re getting to, where they’re starting to get some opportunities."
And the key to all that, said Maurice, remains Lowry. The 28-year-old is a solid mentor to players such as Harkins and Vesalainen who are still trying to find their way as full-time NHLers.
"He’s graduated into being the player that will drive the line. He knows the game, he understands his role very well," said Maurice.
Wheeler's injury does open the door for Lowry to take on a slightly bigger role, as he's now being used as a net-front presence on the second power-play unit, along with Stastny, Ehlers and defencemen Josh Morrissey and Nate Schmidt.
"It’s always fun. You get more touches on the power play and you get to handle the puck more, it’s a little more of an offensive role. I know my job out there is to get in front of the goalie’s eyes so (Morrissey) and (Ehlers) can rip some pucks and I can get some puck recoveries," said Lowry.
Wheeler, who was injured last Friday in Vancouver, is expected to miss significant time. Just how much won't be clear until the swelling in his knee goes down and a further assessment can take place. Surgery will not be required.
"This is a rehab situation. He’s going to get, I don’t even know if it’s a second opinion, enough people have looked at it, they all agree, they all have a very good handle on what it is. They’ll let the swelling come down for three or four days. The problem is if you talk to Blake yesterday he thinks he’s ready to play pretty soon. But this is going to be a while," said Maurice.
Lowry said that puts the onus on everyone to step up their play.
"He’s a guy that kind of drags everyone into the fight, he forces everyone to play up to their potential. To kind of bring their best. He’s a calming influence in the room and then on the ice," said Lowry.
"It’s unfortunate. He saw what he was starting to get back to. He was really taking over that game in Vancouver. The weight of the world was off his shoulders, he broke through and made some great plays. He’s a guy that when he’s on his game, he’s tough to deal with. He’s tough to replace in our lineup but the benefit we have is that we’ve got a lot of depth. Hopefully some guys can step in and try and lessen the blow of losing him."
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.