From the moment Winnipeg Jets training camp began with the first on-ice session Monday, the conversation immediately began about the decision by head coach Paul Maurice to change up his number one line of last season by replacing Kyle Connor with Nikolaj Ehlers on the left side of Mark Scheifele and Blake Wheeler.
And it’s not like there should be a tag day for Connor, who has been skating on a line with re-acquired center Paul Stastny and fellow sniper Patrik Laine.
Maurice was asked if he had to do any kind of a sales pitch to the 5th year pro coming off three straight 30-plus goal seasons.
“You would if personality dictated that you had to. But not with Kyle,” said the veteran bench boss following Thursday’s workout at Bell MTS Iceplex. “It’s not an issue for him. I’m just kinda picturing that interview with Kyle: ‘How do you feel about playing with those guys?’ and he’d tell you, ‘well they’re two phenomenal players. They’re different than Scheif and Wheels, but I’m going to get my opportunities with either line.'”
Maurice says he told Connor what line he was going on, Connor responded that it was great and that was the end of their talk.
“Part of my experience with Kyle Connor over the last few years is you didn’t have to explain stuff to him. He just wants to go out and play and he’ll figure it out.”
Connor pretty much echoed those sentiments when he was asked about coming off the Scheifele-Wheeler line.
“It doesn’t really matter. Whoever the coach tells me to play with, I’ll play with and put my best foot forward,” said the 24-year-old Michigan native who will play his 250th career NHL game in next Thursday’s season-opener against Calgary.
“I’ve got some familiarity with Patty and we’ve got some great chemistry right from the get-go last year. Just getting to know Stas because I haven’t really played with him much. But he’s a smart player — really takes care of his body and he’s very attentive to detail. It’s been fun to just learn from him and take everything I can.”
For Ehlers, it’s also a case of not making a big deal out of who he’s playing with. But that doesn’t mean he isn’t excited about the opportunity to reunite with the team’s two undisputed leaders.
“They’re two great players. They both can shoot. They read the game extremely well, and they’re fun to play with,” said the man known as The Dashing Dane because of his skating.
“I don’t think I need to adjust my game depending on who I play with. It’s going to be exciting with Scheif and Wheels.”
But with that “promotion” also comes responsibility, and Maurice feels Ehlers can handle it, going into his sixth season in Winnipeg.
“When you play on that line you’re going to draw an awful lot of firepower. So you just can’t be good at one end of the rink,” Maurice said.
“Nikolai’s made developments on his defensive game. He’s just older. He’s got more experience. He understands how important it is in the defensive zone and what you do with the puck in the offensive zone. Your risk profile and who you’re playing against — all those things that young players never think about when they get to the NHL. His numbers would say that he’s earned the right to play against the other team’s best.”
And shuffling his top two units, Maurice also feels, is going to create some matchup misery for the Jets opponents. “They’ll always look at Wheeler and Scheifele as big men that can skate. So you always have to factor that with your D pairings. You’re going to need guys who can skate against Scheif’s line. I think they’re going to look at the firepower on both lines as something they need to keep checking. I would agree that I don’t think it is as easy to sort out.”
Ehlers says the message from the boss has been heard loud and clear about being more of a shooter, because that’s when he’s usually playing at his best. “I skate more when I play with that shooter’s mentality. I felt I did well last year. I want to be doing more of it obviously, so it’s something that I’m working on,” said the 24-year-old winger who has 115-142-257 totals in 369 career games played.
Will there be any issues in deciding who to defer to as the shooter on that Stastny, Laine and Connor line? The Jets leading goal-getter from a year ago doesn’t think so.
Kyle Connor says it would be unwise to ignore the man in the middle as well. “Stas has a pretty good shot. He’s sneaky as well. I’ve seen it from the beginning of camp. Patty’s been able to make plays, myself as well. It’s more so making the right play at the right time. If it’s a shot, we’ve all gotta be shooters. But we all have that skill to make that play. I don’t think it’s going to be a problem at all.”
Day 4 camp notes
Defenceman Tucker Poolman skated for the first time with the main group and was paired up with Josh Morrissey. Sami Niku, who had been skating with Morrissey, was partnered with Luca Sbisa.
Jansen Harkins has been moved to the ‘unfit to practice’ list after playing a starring role in the Blue Team’s 3-2 scrimmage win over the White’s the day before.
Winger Mathieu Perreault returns to the main group on Friday after suffering an undisclosed injury during Monday’s drills while center David Gustafson is now out of a non-contact jersey and skating with the early group.
Paul Maurice also singled out forward Kristian Vesalainen for praise. Maurice said the Jets 2017 first-round draft pick has put together four solid days of practice and lumped him into the discussion of candidates for the last four or five forward positions on the regular-season roster.