ANALYSIS: Breaking down 3 key battles in Jets training camp

The Winnipeg Jets' Blake Wheeler (26) looks on during the first day of the Jets NHL summer training camp as the NHL reopens during COVID-19 in Winnipeg, Monday, July 13, 2020. THE CANADIAN PRESS/John Woods

An abbreviated training camp is in session and the Winnipeg Jets have some important decisions to make in the days leading up to the season opener against the Calgary Flames.

With a fast and furious campaign ready to begin on Jan. 14 in what will be a compressed schedule of 56 games in 114 days, Paul Maurice and his coaching staff returned to the ice and got a first look at the group competing for spots on the 23-man opening-day roster.

There will be another four to six jobs available on a taxi squad that will serve as insurance during the pandemic.

Without the benefit of the usual slate of exhibition games, the only time for players to boost their stock will be during the skates and scrimmages.

There aren’t expected to be any surprises when it comes to the Jets’ top two lines, though there could be some variations with the combinations after the return of Paul Stastny.

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The goaltending is set, with reigning Vezina Trophy winner Connor Hellebuyck and Laurent Brossoit back between the pipes.

The defence corps wasn’t subject to an overhaul like it was heading into last season, but there are some questions regarding where players could eventually slot in.

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With all of that in mind, here are three positional battles to keep an eye on during training camp.

Third-line right-winger

The expectation was that Jack Roslovic had the inside track for this job alongside Adam Lowry and Andrew Copp, but he remains a restricted free agent without a contract and would be subject to a seven-day quarantine even after a deal is worked out.

With Roslovic out of the picture, at least for the time being, there are a couple of intriguing options to monitor, including Mathieu Perreault, who got the first opportunity on Monday.

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Winnipeg Jets’ Mathieu Perreault (85). THE CANADIAN PRESS/Trevor Hagan

Perreault has been used in the role previously and he’ll be eager to secure the job, though he suffered an undisclosed injury during the first on-ice session and is unfit to practice on Tuesday.

Perreault is in the final year of the four-year extension he signed in the summer of 2016 and will be looking to rebound after a tough year that saw his production decline for a fourth consecutive season.

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The injury to Perreault opens the door for Mason Appleton, who overcame an early ankle injury to establish himself as a regular last season and saw an increase in ice time of just under three minutes per game.

Not only did he work his way into the penalty-killing rotation, but he also filled in on the second line for a short stretch.

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Appleton can skate, can play a physical game and has shown some finishing ability in the minors with the Manitoba Moose (he had 22 goals and 66 points in 76 games as a rookie pro).

It wouldn’t be a stretch to project Appleton could eventually be a double-digit goalscorer if he meshes with Lowry and Copp.

Another player to watch is Jansen Harkins, who made the most important rise up the Jets’ depth chart last season.

After dominating in the AHL, Harkins got his first taste of NHL action and made a positive impression, finishing with two goals and seven points in 29 games while adding a goal in three playoff games.

Harkins has the versatility to play all three forward positions and has the hockey sense and scoring ability to grow into a middle-six role.

He’s also conscientious defensively, which would help him fill a checking-line role with Lowry and Copp.

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Second-pairing LD

Derek Forbort was brought in on a one-year deal and is the front-runner to handle the job with Neal Pionk on the second pairing.

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Forbort brings some size and a physical nature to the back end.

Winnipeg Jets select Ville Heinola during the first-round NHL draft at Rogers Arena in Vancouver, Friday, June 21, 2019. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jonathan Hayward. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jonathan Hayward

Two of the Jets’ top prospects are blue-liners Ville Heinola and Dylan Samberg, both of whom have the potential to fill the 2 LD role at some point.

Heinola will miss all of training camp after Finland defeated Sweden in the quarter-final at the world junior hockey championship in Edmonton.

Unfortunately for Heinola, he will be off the ice for seven days as part of his quarantine, so he will likely be relegated to a taxi squad position.

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As for Samberg, he opened training camp with the breakfast club, a group of 10 skaters and three goalies on the ice before the main group.

Samberg completed his junior season with the University of Minnesota-Duluth Bulldogs in March.

Samberg is big, strong and mobile and those qualities will serve him well as he makes the transition to the pro game.

Jets general manager Kevin Cheveldayoff provided some perspective on how much Samberg is valued by the organization during a Zoom call with reporters last week and shed some light on Heinola as well.

“Dylan Samberg has not had the benefit of coming to an NHL training camp yet. We’ve kind of been frothing at the mouth for a couple of years to get him into the pro ranks and now the time is here,” said Cheveldayoff.

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“Ville Heinola has had the benefit of playing over in Finland so his game, hopefully, will be at a level that will turn heads here right away.

“Obviously, he had a great training camp last year. We’re just looking for him to come in and have matured that much more over the course of time.”

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Speaking of the defence, Tucker Poolman started training camp in a yellow non-contact jersey and while the severity of his injury is not yet known, his absence from the main group opened up a spot for 2016 first-rounder Logan Stanley.

It also leaves a potential opening for Sami Niku on the right side of the third pair with Nathan Beaulieu.

This is a critical season for the development of Niku, who is no longer exempt from waivers.

Niku was involved in a fender bender on the way to the rink on the first day of training camp in 2019 and that essentially served as an omen for how his injury-plagued season would go.

“Just really hope that he can use training camp as an opportunity to springboard because there is just so much more in his game,” said Cheveldayoff.

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Fourth-line centre

Nate Thompson brings ample experience to a job that will be an important one as the Jets look to create a fourth line that can do more than just hold water.

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The 36-year-old from Alaska has 767 NHL games on his resume to go with 78 more in the playoffs, including 16 with the Philadelphia Flyers this past summer.

Thompson has operated at nearly 53 per cent in the faceoff circle during his career and he is also a guy who has been used extensively on the penalty kill.

New Winnipeg Jets forward Nate Thompson answers questions on Zoom. NHL / Winnipeg Jets

David Gustafsson is in the mix as well, though he opened camp in a non-contact jersey with the secondary group.

Gustafsson started last season with the Jets and appeared in 22 games with the Jets after Mark Letestu was forced to deal with a heart condition before suiting up for Sweden at the world junior championship and closing out the campaign with the Moose.

The second-round pick in 2018 suffered an undisclosed injury while playing overseas, though his being on the ice on Day 1 would suggest it’s not of the long-term variety.

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Dominic Toninato was signed to provide veteran depth and while he also brings versatility, his natural position is centre.

Toninanto, 26, has five goals and 14 points in 85 NHL games with the Colorado Avalanche and Florida Panthers.

Longtime Los Angeles Kings forward Trevor Lewis is one of three players in camp on a pro tryout offer and can play all three positions.

So Lewis could be an option down the middle as well, though he’s most likely going to be used on the wing.

Lewis and Toninato were not on the ice on Monday, which left an opportunity for CJ Suess to skate with the fifth line.

Suess made his NHL debut last season, appearing in one game against the San Jose Sharks.

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Here’s how the Jets’ main group looked on Day 1:

Nikolalj Ehlers-Mark Scheifele-Blake Wheeler

Kyle Connor-Paul Stastny-Patrik Laine

Andrew Copp-Adam Lowry-Mathieu Perreault

Jansen Harkins-Nate Thompson-Mason Appleton

Kristian Vesalainen-CJ Suess-Joona Luoto


Josh Morrissey-Sami Niku

Derek Forbort-Neal Pionk

Nathan Beaulieu-Dylan DeMelo

Logan Stanley-Luca Sbisa

Connor Hellebucyk

Laurent Brossoit

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