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Winnipeg Jets put prospects through their ‘puck handling paces’ on day one

The Winnipeg Jets organization ushered in the start of another hockey year with the opening day of their Pro Mini Camp at Bell MTS Iceplex Thursday morning. The camp, which includes many of the team’s best prospects, will continue through Monday.

A total of 20 players were on the ice for day one. The lone exception was 18-year-old defenseman Dmitri Kuzmin, who according to a team spokesperson is awaiting approval on his North American visa.

Read more: Bell MTS Iceplex won’t be closed for Jets training camp practices

Puck handling 101 seemed to be the order of the day for the seven blueliners and 11 forwards who were in uniform, along with netminders Arvid Holm and Phillipe Desrosiers. And Jets head coach Paul Maurice says it’s a format the organization keyed in on about six years ago at development camp when the team was trying to figure out the one thing Josh Morrissey and Kyle Connor needed to do to play in the NHL.

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“They had to learn to get on the puck. But part of that was they needed to go get it and then do something with it,” said Maurice during his first official media scrum since the second week of June.

“And you find young guys, they don’t want to go get it, or they didn’t really know what to do or they couldn’t control it. They’d get it, they’d get stopped, and it would be taken from them. So cut-backs, tight turns, rolling the puck, meeting the puck, touching it.”

Maurice says the other result to be achieved by this strategy is to get those young players ready for the start of main camp next week, and then for the pre-season which kicks off on Sunday, Sept. 26 with a 7 p.m. faceoff versus Ottawa at Canada Life Centre.

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“Four days from now, they can get some of those nerves out, and that’s what you find with young guys coming to training camp, they can’t handle the puck,” said the veteran bench boss. “They’ve been handling it all summer, but today’s the day they can’t handle the puck. It’s always day one of camp. Those defencemen will have the puck more today than they will the next two weeks.”

That group of seven included highly rated rearguards Ville Heinola and Dylan Samberg. Both will be hard pressed to crack a spot on the NHL roster for this coming season as a result of the addition of established veterans Brenden Dillon and Nate Schmidt who were acquired via trades with Washington and Vancouver.

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“It’s obviously something you notice,” was Samberg’s response to being asked about the names ahead of him on the team’s suddenly bolstered blueline depth chart which also includes holdovers Morrissey, Neal Pionk, Dylan DeMelo, Logan Stanley and Nathan Beaulieu – who has fully recovered from shoulder surgery back on April 1 to repair a torn labrum. “But I try not to pay too much attention to it – just kinda focus on your own game. Make sure you’re bringing it every single day.”

The former University of Minnesota-Duluth standout says he has been receiving plenty of good advice from Pionk, who is also from Hermantown, Minn., and has become somewhat of a mentor. “He’s very consistent and every time he comes to the rink he’s always got that pro mentality,” explained Samberg. “He’s really a good role model, he’s always there to help. Especially with drills, making sure you’re doing it right.”

And while it would seem that – barring injuries – earning playing time on the Winnipeg defence this winter will be a tough nut to crack for any of the Jets prospects, the same can’t be said for competing for a starting position on the fourth line. And possibly the right wing job on the third line alongside Andrew Copp and Adam Lowry following the loss of Mason Appleton in the Seattle expansion draft.

Read more: Jets GM Kevin Cheveldayoff says it was difficult losing Mason Appleton

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Maurice says veterans like Riley Nash and Dominic Toninato will certainly have to fend off the likes of 2020 first-round pick Cole Perfetti, last season’s Manitoba Moose MVP David Gustafson, as well as returnees Jansen Harkins and Kristian Vesalainen.

“Every year that you come back there’s one area where there’s either going to be some development or adjustment. For us it was our defence last year,” said the NHL’s second-longest tenured coach who is going into his eighth full season behind the Jets bench after replacing Claude Noel midway through the 2013-campaign. “So that now is our fourth line this year, because you never come to camp with everything set. I got lots of faith in some of those young guys that we have for those positions. The question is whether to have them here or to have them playing for the Moose. Let’s get ’em through a camp, they’re gonna play a lot of exhibition games. We play six, but I think I’m going to allocate a lot more games to the kids.”

Read more: Following Copp and Pionk signings, Winnipeg Jets have to make it all fit

Perfetti is looking at his first “real” NHL training camp with equal parts determination and optimism after missing out last year because of isolation protocols following the World Junior Tournament in Edmonton where he helped Team Canada win a silver medal.

“As sad as it is to close that door, close that window with the Saginaw Spirit, I’m excited to officially become a professional hockey player,” said the 10th overall pick of the 2020 draft, who was a member of Canada’s gold medal-winning entry at the IIHF World Championship Tournament in Riga, Latvia last spring. “I’m looking forward to the rest of this week and embracing this first camp.”

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The 19-year-old Whitby, Ont., native had a strong finish to his “truncated” AHL season, scoring nine goals and adding 17 assists for 26 points in 32 games. And it was during his final interview before heading home for the summer where Perfetti shared that he believed he was closer to achieving his goal of playing in the NHL than what he originally felt going into the season.

Read more: ‘Winning never gets old’: Jets’ Cole Perfetti back home after golden experience at Worlds

“Getting that experience in the corners and the walls, I could see myself develop through the 30 games I played,” Perfetti said. “From Game 1 to 32 I saw improvement in myself, in my game, watching video. I was a lot stronger in the corner on puck battles, on faceoffs.”

Development with the AHL Moose may be a thing, but as Maurice pointed out, that will not be part of the equation for whoever is wearing a Winnipeg jersey. “Priority one is the Jets win,” said the head coach. “At our age and our payroll, we gotta win.”

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