It was a familiar and most welcome development for the Winnipeg Jets. A young, skilled centre expected to be off the board by the time their number was called in the NHL entry draft instead fell into their laps.
Such was the case last year with 10th-overall pick Cole Perfetti. And a similar situation went down Friday night, when they grabbed Chaz Lucius with the 18th-overall selection (which really was the 17th, since Arizona forfeited the 11th pick due to violations of the combine testing policy).
"We're real excited. I think it's a real good value pick where we got it," said Jets general manager Kevin Cheveldayoff. "A real skilled player, very good character player. The interview process we went through with him was fantastic. He knows a lot about his game, knows a lot about how to play. Works real hard at it. He's real skilled."
Plenty of pundits had Lucius, 18, long gone before the Jets were on the clock. The Athletic projected he would go eighth, TSN's Bob McKenzie and The Hockey News had him 10th and Sportsnet ranked him 12th.
But an injury-shortened season with the U.S. National Development Team appeared to cause the 6-1, 185-pound resident of Grant, Minn., to tumble. Lucius missed the first two-thirds of the season recovering from surgery to repair a bone lesion in his knee. He returned with a vengeance, putting up 13 goals and seven assists in just 13 games.
"The year itself certainly played into this pick. He's had to go through some adversity," said Cheveldayoff. "He's kind of missed a year of development in a lot of ways, so looking forward to the fact he is going to college and it's a good opportunity for him to develop. Any time you can grab a centre with those kind of skills and those kinds of qualities, it's a good day for the draft."
"We're real excited. I think it's a real good value pick where we got it." — Winnipeg Jets GM Kevin Cheveldayoff on landing Lucius at number 18
Lucius is slated to play this fall with the University of Minnesota Golden Gophers
"With the injury, it wasn’t the best (thing) to happen in my draft year but I really rolled with it as it happened and (with) the recovery process," he said in a Zoom interview moments after being selected.
"I really couldn’t control it at all, so from Day 1, I wasn’t really sad or really mad. Whatever happened with the draft, so it may. I’m glad I’m a Winnipeg Jet now and I’m really fortunate that they drafted me."
Lucius had 50 points (31G, 19A) in 46 games with the USA U17 team last year, then led the 2020 U17 World Hockey Challenge tournament with seven goals and 10 points. He is viewed as one of the best pure scorers in the 2021 draft, with terrific passing and playmaking abilities. He's even drawing comparisons to another development team turned college kid picked in an identical spot six years ago. That would be Jets winger Kyle Connor, who lit it up in his only season with the University of Michigan before turning pro.
"Lucius can work the one- and two-touch snapshot with power and precision. He can send the puck on net with a deceptive, downward force-loaded wrist shot. His vision is great. If someone’s open, Lucius is going to find them, and he’s going to get them the puck. He reads his teammates so well, anticipating developing plays, and timing his manoeuvres accordingly," Elite Prospects says in their scouting report.
He's the latest in a long line of players from the state to become part of the Jets organization. Current Minnesotans include captain Blake Wheeler, defencemen Neal Pionk and Dylan Samberg, and forward Dominic Toninato.
"It’s close to home to me, so that’s a plus for sure," said Lucius. "I’d say it’s a really fun team to watch, fast-paced. There’s a really bright future for the Winnipeg Jets and I’m just happy to be a part of it at this point. I’m just looking forward to the future of the Winnipeg Jets. A lot of great players on the team already, I’m just hoping to add to that and contribute and hopefully one day win the Stanley Cup."
With Mark Scheifele, Pierre-Luc Dubois and Adam Lowry all representing the present up the middle, it would seem the future suddenly looks quite bright in that all-important spot as well.
"One of the questions we ask all the time is 'If no one had seen you play, tell us a little bit about your game.' He was really bang-on with his play, his strengths, his weaknesses, what he needs to work on. He's got a real plan on how to work on things," said Cheveldayoff. "The views that we had on him were excellent. Really excited he was there at our pick."
There were several intriguing names still available when it was Winnipeg's turn, including top-ranked goalie prospect Jesper Wallstedt, Russian centre Fedor Svechkov, Swedish winger Fabian Lysell and a pair of Canadian defencemen in Corson Ceulemans and Winnipegger Carson Lambos. But they weren't passing up on Lucius, who was one of two players they had specifically targeted for their spot.
"Obviously, the moment was really special, to share with my family and to be here with USA Hockey, who has helped me along the way," said Lucius. That includes his parents, Chuck and, Tami, and his younger brother, Cruz, who also plays for the development team.
Lucius was asked if there are any players he tries to model his game after. His answer — Connor and Scheifele — should endear him to his future teammates.
"With my game aspect, I would say if I would describe my game, I’d say what sticks out the most is my goal-scoring and offensive production. I would say I’m a good teammate, a good leader and I do the right thing and play a good, 200-foot game," he said.
Winnipeg currently owns three more picks — in the second, third and fifth rounds — when the draft concludes on Saturday.
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.