Maybe it was the beautiful blue skies and 30 degree temperature in late September. But for whatever reason, the three members of the Winnipeg Jets who spoke with the media on Tuesday, following what was the sixth on ice session of training camp at Bell MTS IcePlex, were all in a very engaging mood. And they weren’t afraid to show it.
It began with Neal Pionk. The usually reserved defenceman gave reporters a peek at his personality when a question about how things were going with new teammate and fellow Minnesotan Nate Schmidt turned into the revelation of a “dastardly deed” from a couple of summers ago, when the two were playing together in Minnesota’s renowned Da Beauty League.
“He actually got me traded — I want that on record. But he got me traded in Da Beauty League. He’ll deny that,” said Pionk, who was totally unprovoked to share that story. And when asked about often trades occur in the Minnesota summer league of pros and top amateurs?
“Very rare — and he made that happen. But I won the the championship. I got the last laugh. Not holding a grudge, but I did bring it up this year.”
And just as Pionk predicted, Schmidt did plead innocent to all charges when he stepped up to the microphone cluster.
“I’d like to start off by saying I did not trade Neal Pionk in Da Beauty League. The truth is our team was 3-0 and they had to move some guys around,” was Schmidt’s version of what happened.
“I don’t know what he was feeding you. I was coming here all excited to plug him. I walk back in there and just an assassination of character.”
Adam Lowry kept the lighter vibe going when he talked about not having Andrew Copp on his left side in this camp after those two were basically joined at the hip pretty much since becoming NHL regulars.
“Usually who I play with winds up on a separate team, but at least he’s still here,” was how Lowry responded to a chorus of chuckles from the reporters in the room. “We lost (Joel) Armia, we lost (Brandon) Tanev. We lost (Mason) Appleton. I’m glad he’s still a Winnipeg Jet. At least getting to (go) up against him in scrimmages is fantastic.”
Lowry has spent all of this camp flanked by Paul Stastny and Kristian Vesalainen. And the six-foot-five-inch, 210-pound shutdown centre admits it has been a little different and some adjustment will be required.
“Getting Stas, getting Ves to start — it’s a good opportunity,” said Lowry, who is going into his eighth NHL season and year one of a five-year, US$16.25 million contract extension that was signed back in April.
“Stas is such a smart player. He’s similar to Copper in a sense of the reads he makes. His experience is second to none. He’s got over a thousand games. The numbers he’s put up in this league, he’s got a real good mind for the game. Ves is a big body; he can shoot the puck. He’s got high-end skill.”
What should also be considered a factor in the optimistic mood at this camp is the off-season addition of Schmidt and Brenden Dillon to a blue line now rated as one of the better units around the league, and certainly in the Central Division.
Lowry says it doesn’t hurt that the two veteran rearguards have fit into their new team seamlessly.
“Different players, different styles, but both pieces that in years past we have been missing,” summed up Lowry. “Dill is huge, he’s run around and luckily he didn’t kill anyone that first day. He complements some of our smaller (defencemen).
“Schmitty, he’s loud, he’s fun to be around. Moves the puck well and he’s a great skater. They fit in and hopefully that continues, that we see the positive impacts they have on our team.”
Schmidt found out he was going to be paired with Josh Morrissey a few days before camp started, and since that time has been working on developing chemistry with the Jets assistant captain both on and off the ice.
“Man, peeling back the layers of this Josh Morrissey is a treat of mine every day. It’s fun for me, I really enjoy it,” was how Schmidt responded to being asked for his assessment of camp so far.
“We talk a lot about tendencies — you know, we want to do this, we want to do that. Let’s be really aggressive today because even if we get beat, this is the time to do it. I was fortunate to play with Matt Niskanen who used to tell me that all the time. Be ridiculously over-aggressive early. Try and put yourself in positions where you might fail. Just so you know where that line is in the regular season.”
And while Schmidt never played with Dillon when he was in Washington, Vegas, or Vancouver, he’s well aware of how respected the former Dallas Star, San Jose Shark and Washington is with those who have had to crossed paths on ice with the highly physical rearguard.
“I know that our forwards never liked going against him, so that’s always a good thing to hear when you have a guy like that. I don’t want to put it in that corner. Put it in the other one. I don’t want to go in there and bang around with him,” was how Schmidt recalled pre- or in-game conversations when Dillon was an opposing defenceman.
Pionk and Dillon figure to be the Jets other top two pairing on defense, with Dylan DeMelo and Logan Stanley rounding out the unit when the regular season begins in just over two weeks with the opener of a three game road trip at Anaheim. And Pionk says it all comes down to becoming a mindset, in terms of turning the perception of an improved blue line into reality.
“You can draw up all the X’s and O’s that you want. Trade for whatever guys you want. Sign whatever guys you want. But it’s the mindset and the commitment the team has to have to limit those Grade A chances,” said Pionk.
And that’s a sentiment echoed by Schmidt when it comes to whether he and his teammates can take a serious run at the Stanley Cup this coming season. “That room will decide how far we go.”
The process to achieve that end goal resumes Wednesday night, when the Jets host Edmonton at 7 p.m. at Canada Life Centre in their second game of the exhibition schedule after losing 3-2 in overtime to Ottawa Sunday Night.
680 CJOB’s Broadcast begins at 5 p.m. with the Curtis Carpets Pregame Show.