As an abbreviated training camp continues for the Winnipeg Jets, the players say they’re looking forward to a one-of-a-kind season — one with COVID-19 protocols, a temporary North Division made up of only Canadian teams, and a compressed schedule.
“It’s, for sure, a lot more intense,” defenceman Neal Pionk told media.
“These first two days, we’ve set the tone right away, and it’s been good — guys are working hard, guys are competing, so we’re looking to continue it tomorrow.”
Pionk, 25, set a personal best for points and assists in his first season with the Jets, after coming over in the Jacob Trouba trade with the New York Rangers, and said he’s feeling more comfortable in a Winnipeg sweater this time around.
“Yeah, it’s nice in that sense. I’m not the new guy around the locker room anymore and, and I have a comfortability level with a lot of the guys,” he said.
“And as far as playing with (new Jets defenceman Derek Forbort), we’ve got to know each other over the last few years and he lived in Duluth this past summer and fall, so we get to know each other a little better and we trained all fall together…I think was really good for chemistry.”
For one Jets veteran, this new season has even more personal meaning.
Centre Adam Lowry will be joined by his father Dave — who spent 19 years in the NHL as a player — behind the bench as a new assistant coach with the team.
“It’s been good — I think it’s a really exciting opportunity for him,” said Lowry.
“I know it’s a unique experience for us, but it’s one I know our family’s looking forward to… competing together and having the chance to ultimately try to win the Stanley Cup.
“I think he’s going to come in here and help us, and hopefully we take a step forward this year. It’s been nice being around the guys — having that familiarity and, you know, a little bit of structure and knowing that the season’s coming.”
Lowry said the unusual divisional format might create some new rivalries between the Jets and some of their fellow Canadian teams.
“Just playing the same teams in our division so many times will be unique on its own… and then you look at the schedule where you’re playing teams two, three times in a row, five out of six games, and they almost become like playoff series,” he said.
“I think it might increase some rivalries, a little bit of choppiness, but I’m looking forward to it.”
Jets star Mark Scheifele said it’ll be an interesting start to the season Jan. 14, when the Jets host the Calgary Flames — the team that dashed their playoff hopes last season in a series that saw Scheifele suffer a serious injury on a hit from Calgary’s Matthew Tkachuk.
“You know that first game is gonna be fun and, you know, it makes it all better that we’re playing against Calgary — the team we played against in the outdoor game, played in the playoffs.
“We didn’t play our best so it’ll be fun to to face off against some good opponents and, you know, to match some of the premier players in this league and it’ll be good to face off against them.
“I know (Tkachuk) is a competitor so he’ll be thinking the exact same thing.”