The real thing is almost here, folks.
With just three preseason games left and the smell of hockey in the air, it’s time for some camp notes and musings.
Let’s get to it.
The Winnipeg Jets have forward depth, sure, but how fragile is it?
The Jets have come into camp and the preseason with the most forward depth its had in years. With the absence of Pierre-Luc Dubois and Blake Wheeler, the top six is a little less talented, but the overall group – forwards one through twelve – are unquestionably deeper and better than a year ago.
But Winnipeg has already dealt with the reality that a deep group lacking star power can unravel quickly.
Though Nik Ehlers has shed his non-contact jersey and is skating with the main group again, and Cole Perfetti felt “fine but not one hundred percent”, according to Rick Bowness, their recent health status has given fans a glimpse into a room that seems all too familiar.
A room with Ehlers and Perfetti on the sideline.
That scenario puts the health and stability of the forward group top of mind.
How many injuries does it take for a deep group to become, well, just a group?
You figure the Jets could handle most injuries or absences to the bottom half of their group. Injuries to the Mason Appletons or Vladislav Namestnikovs and players of their ilk could be handled internally.
But what about Mark Scheifele or Adam Lowry? It’s a decidedly different looking team without one the team’s two mainstays at center ice.
It seems as though Gabe Vilardi or Namestnikov would be next in line to play center if any of the top three guys go down. Maybe Rasmus Kupari could also be included in that conversation.
On the wing, if Ehlers or Connor find poor health, you could see Niederreiter climbing the lineup or either Mason Appleton or Alex Iafallo.
Currently, my opening day lineup forecast is the following:
That lineup figures to have a good top line, a skilled, “prove it” second line, and a plus-third and plus-fourth line. It really is depth that gives this group power.
Nik Ehlers, when asked about his goals for the season, smiled and said simply, “I’d like to try and play 82 again, that’s my goal. That would be a lot of fun.”
This group needs it.
Connor Hellebuyck is as huge, poised, and calm as ever
Connor Hellebuyck played the first half of the game against Calgary on Wednesday, and let’s just say that after watching the Young Stars game in Penticton and early preseason games, Hellebuyck looked extra impressive.
He’s massive, so calm in the net, and makes gentle, fully in control pushes around his crease that keep his angles perfect and instills confidence in teammates and fans alike.
It’s hard to know whether this is shaping up to be his last season as a Jet, but if so, I’ll be making sure to fully appreciate his remarkable talent the entire way.
He’s the engine that makes these Jets fly, and he looks poised to lead the way again.
There is no more important player for Winnipeg than Hellebuyck.
Ville Heinola looks stronger, impressive so far
Ville Heinola has impressed in the preseason so far, looking sharp in transition and confident with the puck. He and Declan Chisholm possess similar skillsets as undersized offensively leaning defensemen, and they figure to be in direct competition with one another based on skillset alone.
Chisholm, however, has to pass through waivers to play in the minors this year, which gives him a big advantage toward making the team. I expect Logan Stanley to be the 7th defenseman, despite the opinion many people have of him.
That leaves Heinola as the odd man out.
But Heinola is doing his best to make those decisions difficult. You can still see him lose some footspeed battles and have a challenging time handling bigger forwards down low. But TSN color analyst Kevin Sawyer noted during Wednesday’s broadcast that Heinola “has a different physique”, and you can see his added strength contributing to his success.
He’s looked powerful rounding corners through crossovers, has succeeded in dropping a shoulder and carrying the puck wide, while continuing his sharp and poised breakouts out of the defensive zone.
You have to figure he’ll get some NHL time this season with the Jets. It’s definitely time to see if this young man’s offensive ability can outweigh his size/mobility concerns at the NHL level.
Winnipeg will play the Senators tonight for their final preseason game of the month. Puck drops at 6:00pm CDT.