ANALYSIS: Optimism high as Jets shift back to contender status

The roster has been augmented and expectations are on the rise.

Optimism is always high at this time of the year, but the narrative surrounding the Winnipeg Jets certainly changed during the off-season.

The holes on defence have been patched up, the forward group looks deeper and the crease is in good hands with Connor Hellebucyk.

Instead of remaining in the bubble team category, the Jets are on the verge of shifting back into contender status even as they return to the meat grinder that is the Central Division.

Following a five-day pro mini-camp for prospects and players on the periphery, training camp officially gets underway on Thursday morning and Jets head coach Paul Maurice made it clear there are spots that are up for grabs and not nearly everything is set in stone.

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“I’d say every year you come back there is one area that there is either going to be some development or adjustment; for us, it was our defence last year,” Maurice said last week.

“Then, maybe even personnel changes, right? That now is our fourth line this year. You never come to camp with everything set. Why bother having camp? That’s our area. I’d say the fourth line, especially, there is some room on the right side.”

As for the forwards, there is a spot open on the third line with Adam Lowry after Mason Appleton moved on to the Seattle Kraken in the expansion draft.

The entire fourth line is set to be replaced after the departure of Mathieu Perreault (Montreal Canadiens), Nate Thompson (Philadelphia Flyers) and Trevor Lewis (Calgary Flames) in free agency.

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There are line combinations and defence pairings to test out and Maurice has already said that the open competition means that there are plenty of young players that will see plenty of game action during the six-game exhibition slate, which gets underway against the Ottawa Senators on Sunday night at Canada Life Centre.

“We’ll take a look at those guys. I’ve got lots of faith in the young guys we have for those positions,” said Maurice.

“The question will be does it make more sense to have them here or playing with the (Manitoba) Moose? Let’s get them through a camp.

“We play a lot of exhibition games. I think I’m going to allocate more games to the kids this year to get a better look at them, then scrimmage more in the camp portion.”

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Even when the vacancies are scarce, there are almost always surprises that come out of camp or injuries to deal with.

Those things often create opportunities and another thing to keep in mind is that Mark Scheifele must sit out the season opener on Oct. 13 against the Anaheim Ducks as he serves the fourth and final game of his suspension.

That won’t have any long-term ramifications, but it does mean a spot is available for one night for one of those forwards to get another look — unless Maurice chooses to dress seven defencemen instead, which is something he mentioned as a possibility during the pro mini-camp.

With all of that in mind, here are seven players to watch during the coming weeks:

Winnipeg Jets 2020 first-round draft pick Cole Perfetti addresses media following day one of mini pro camp/Kelly Moore. Kelly Moore / Global News

F Cole Perfetti: The 10th overall pick in the 2020 NHL draft is set for his first NHL training camp and he’s got his sights on getting his grasp on a roster spot. Perfetti had an outstanding season in the American Hockey League and suited up for Canada at both the world junior hockey championship and the men’s world hockey championship. Now he’s poised to try and show he’s ready to take the next step.

While he projects to be a top-six forward, Perfetti’s smarts and ability to play either centre or wing should serve him well.

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“Personally, I want to be able to slide in anywhere in the lineup and help the team in any which way I can. Whether it’s a scoring role, a middle-six role — whatever that is — I want to be able to slot in anywhere,” said Perfetti.

“I think management has a plan for me, has a vision for where they see me slotting in. Whatever it is and wherever it is, whenever the time is, I’m just going to be ready and giving my best and helping the team in any way that I can when I’m given that certain role.”

The Winnipeg Jets drafted David Gustafsson in the second round of the NHL draft on Saturday. Winnipeg Jets / Twitter

C David Gustafsson: After suiting up in 22 games as a 19-year-old rookie in 2019-20, the Swedish forward was limited to four NHL games last season but his game developed nicely as he was named most valuable player of the Moose (seven goals, 19 points in 22 games).

The fourth-line centre role is there for the taking and Gustafsson’s ability to kill penalties should give him a leg up in that competition.

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“For sure, there’s always motivation when you see that there is actually a chance, that you might take a spot and you might keep it, too,” said Gustafsson.

“I like to think I’ve improved my skating, like we talked about before. It’s still the primary thing I need to improve but I feel like I’ve improved the most over these past two years. I feel like it’s going way better than it was when I came here in my first camp. And also, I feel a lot better at keeping the puck in the offensive zone and not giving it away, using my body to my advantage to keep the puck down there. Just being the guy the coach can trust.”

Defenceman Ville Heinola prepares to speak to the media following day two of Jets pro mini camp at Bell MTS Iceplex.

D Ville Heinola: The addition of Nate Schmidt and Brenden Dillon is well-documented and there could be an obvious impact on where the 20th overall pick in the 2019 NHL draft ends up playing.

But the skills that make Heinola a prized prospect are still very much apparent and it’s up to the Finnish blue-liner to play as well as he can in order to force his way into the discussion, no matter who might start ahead of him on the organizational depth chart.

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Winnipeg Jets goaltender Eric Comrie. Trevor Hagan/The Canadian Press

G Eric Comrie: Despite suiting up in only five games last season (one with the New Jersey Devils and four more with the Moose), the 2013 second-rounder has been given the opportunity to show he’s ready to handle the backup job behind Hellebuyck after the departure of Laurent Brossoit in free agency (Vegas Golden Knights).

With only nine NHL games on his resume, it’s incumbent upon Comrie to show that he’s ready to handle the increased responsibility, as the Jets are likely going to need 20 to 22 starts out of him.

The Winnipeg Jets’ Kristian Vesalainen (42) carries the puck in front of the Minnesota Wild’s Justin Kloos (82) behind the Minnesota goal during second-period pre-season NHL hockey in Winnipeg, Monday, Sept. 17, 2018. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Trevor Hagan. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Trevor Hagan

LW/RW Kristian Vesalainen: Viewed by many as the front-runner in the quest to replace Appleton, the 2017 first-rounder took an important step forward in his development last season, appearing in 12 games with the Jets and four more during the playoffs.

Vesalainen looked more comfortable, but now it’s important for him to find a way to utilize his heavy shot and showcase his offensive game in the way he’s done in the minors.

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The Winnipeg Jets’ Jansen Harkins (12) checks the Montreal Canadiens’ Phillip Danault (24) during third-period NHL hockey action Thursday, April 8, 2021 in Montreal. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Ryan Remiorz

F Jansen Harkins: After enjoying some success in his first taste of the NHL in 2019-20, the 2015 second-rounder managed only a goal and two points in 26 games last season while averaging only 8:24 of ice time per game. Harkins suffered a lower-body injury in the first scrimmage of training camp and never really got fully on track as the condensed season got going.

He’ll be looking to get off to a strong start. Maurice mentioned Harkins as one of the players in the mix for that fourth-line centre role, so it will be interesting to see if he’s used more in the middle or on the wing.

Evgeny Svechnikov during his tenure with the Detroit Red Wings.
Evgeny Svechnikov during his tenure with the Detroit Red Wings.

RW Evgeny Svechnikov: One of the most intriguing players in this camp, the 19th overall pick in the 2015 NHL draft is excited about this fresh start with a new organization after parting ways with the Detroit Red Wings, who chose not to tender a qualifying offer to him this past summer.

Svechnikov, who is six-foot-three and 208 pounds, can really shoot the puck and he’s played more on his off side than most of the candidates for the third-line right-winger job, so that should serve him well.

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Ken Wiebe covers the Winnipeg Jets for Sportsnet and is a regular contributor to CJOB.

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