There will be no tip-toeing towards a new season, no easing back into routine for the Winnipeg Jets. Not with just nine training camp skates — and no exhibition games — to get ready for an NHL campaign that is going to be like no other.
As the team hit the ice for the first time Monday in the form of a main late-morning group and a smaller early morning squad, there was a noticeable urgency to proceedings, including more battle drills, the kind of game situations coaches are usually loathe to get into off the hop for fear of a minor muscle tweak or pulled groin that can result.
"We’re going to go into the most unusual year that you’ve ever had, certainly schedule wise. Condensed schedule. 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," said head coach Paul Maurice after putting his troops through their paces.
Mark Scheifele, fully recovered from a serious leg injury that knocked him out of the first post-season game against the Calgary Flames last August, was in his usual spot centring the top line, with Blake Wheeler on his right and Nikolaj Ehlers on his left. The reacquired Paul Stastny was between Patrik Laine and Kyle Connor on the second unit. Adam Lowry and wingers Andrew Copp and Mathieu Perreault were the third line, while veteran Nate Thompson centred the fourth line with youngsters Mason Appleton and Jansen Harkins.
"If we’re going like we went today, I’m not sure how much I’m going to play around with it. I liked some things and saw some things there that I want to see a little bit longer," Maurice said of his lines.
Kristian Vesalainen, Joona Luoto and C.J. Suess were the other forwards, while Dominic Toninato and Trevor Lewis, who is here on a pro tryout, did not skate for undisclosed reasons.
"It feels good to be back. 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," said Wheeler.
"We need to battle way harder than we’ve ever battled during camp since there’s no exhibition games. It’s a good thing that we have the scrimmage (on Wednesday) that we can really push ourselves, push the guy next to you," added Laine.
On the blue line, Josh Morrissey was paired with Sami Niku, Derek Forbort was with Neal Pionk, and Nathan Beaulieu was playing with Dylan DeMelo. Luca Sbisa and Logan Stanley were the extra defencemen, while Tucker Poolman is recovering from a minor injury and got in a maintenance skate with the early morning group largely comprised of those not expected to crack the roster this season. He’ll be back with the main group once cleared.
Prospects Ville Heinola and Cole Perfetti have yet to join the team as they compete in the World Juniors in Edmonton, and forward Jack Roslovic remains home in Columbus, Ohio without a new contract as a restricted free agent, while also hoping the Jets honour his trade request.
Maurice isn’t just trying to fill out his 23-player opening-night roster, but also a four-to-six player taxi squad that will serve as a feeder group to the big club, not counting towards the salary cap. The rest of the players will be assigned to the AHL, which is expected to begin play Feb. 5.
"It’s been a long stretch. It almost feels like it is March since you were back into any kind of rhythm of a normal NHL year and clearly none of this is normal, but in terms of the hockey, we’re here. You’re not just somewhere for 10 days. You’re going to be here. It’s a season. 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," Maurice said of the mindset ahead of the Jan. 14 season opener against the Flames at Bell MTS Place.
"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. The bumping. 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."
With the clock quickly ticking, Maurice said excitement is building about the all-Canadian division, where the Jets will battle the Flames, Oilers, Canucks, Maple Leafs, Senators and Canadiens nine or ten times each over the next four months.
"When I grew up it was the Toronto Maple Leafs and the Montreal Canadiens and I don’t know if I was aware of any other teams. When you grew up in Canada, that was it. You were so wired into the Canadian culture and now it’s the scrutiny of it that will be intense," said Maurice.
"The rivalries that are gonna grow here in the Canadian cities. The message boards alone are gonna be awesome. I don’t read ‘em but you guys should cause they’re gonna be funny as hell. Everybody is gonna get wound up. We’ve had the entire country locked down for a year, it’s an all-Canadian hockey division. It’s gonna be fantastic. It’s such a terrible thing with the pandemic that this is the result of it but you couldn’t dream of anything better than this, the spectacle of it. It’s gonna be awesome. Somewhere between two and five of the coaches are getting fired, guaranteed. It’s gonna be great."
JETS DATE CHANGE AND TIMES ANNOUNCED: the NHL has moved the scheduled Feb. 28 game between the Jets and Canucks to March 1 at Bell MTS Place. The league also announced start times for all games Monday. The Jets will play their 28 home dates without fans at least to start, and possibly right through the season. Sixteen games will begin at 7 p.m. CT, four will start at 8 p.m. CT, and four at 9 p.m. CT. There’s also a pair of 6 p.m. puck drops, one at 6:30 p.m., and another at 2 p.m. Road games also vary, with early starts when the Jets are in Montreal, Toronto and Ottawa, and later starts when in Calgary, Edmonton and Vancouver.
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.