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ANALYSIS: Projecting the Jets’ opening-night lineup

The training camp narrative has quickly shifted from, ‘it’s early, so don’t draw too many conclusions,’ to ‘it’s getting late and those players on the bubble are running out of time to stake their claim.’

After the Winnipeg Jets trimmed 11 players from that training camp roster and got down to 28 players (16 forwards, 10 defencemen and two goalies), things are also beginning to come into focus.

With four exhibition games already in the books, the Jets are down to a home-and-home with the Calgary Flames — with that final home contest set for Wednesday night at Canada Life Centre and a Friday finale in Alberta.

Read more: Vancouver Canucks edge Winnipeg Jets 3-2 in pre-season action

Make no mistake, jobs are still on the line, but the front-runners have emerged and with Jets head coach Paul Maurice saying these final two tests will focus on preparing for the season opener against the Anaheim Ducks on Oct. 13 — it’s crunch time.

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Players like Evgeny Svechnikov and Jansen Harkins have been impressive so far, while Kristian Vesalainen has generated some offensive chances but hasn’t been able to convert.

There are still some tough decisions to come, but it’s important to note that defenceman Dylan Samberg is out with a high ankle sprain and forward CJ Suess and blue-liner Nelson Nogier are dealing with injuries, so it’s basically 25 players competing for the 22 spots the Jets are expected to carry.

Winnipeg Jets forward Mark Scheifele takes part in a recent zoom call. National Hockey League

Since Jets General Manager Kevin Cheveldayoff is going to need to complete some salary-cap gymnastics before submitting that roster to try and maximize the LTIR (Long Term Injury Reserve) pool, the focus of this column will be on who is likely to be in the lineup for the season opener — not how the roster shakes down.

The added wrinkle for that first game is, with Mark Scheifele needing to serve the final game of his suspension for his hit on Montreal Canadiens forward Jake Evans, there is one additional spot up for grabs.

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But we’ll get to that later.

Goalies:

  • Connor Hellebuyck
  • Eric Comrie

Hellebuyck is expected to start the final two games of the exhibition season and is ready for the opener.

Barring a waiver-wire pickup or trade, Comrie is set to be the backup.

During his two appearances, Comrie allowed seven goals in seven periods of work but the Jets believed in him going into this camp and it’s expected he’s going to be given the opportunity to show whether or not he can handle the job with a full roster in front of him.

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Comrie has spoken openly about knowing he’s going to need to perform at a high level to solidify his status.

Winnipeg Jets goaltender Eric Comrie. Trevor Hagan/The Canadian Press

Defence pairings

  • Josh Morrissey-Nate Schmidt
  • Brenden Dillon-Neal Pionk
  • Logan Stanley-Dylan DeMelo

Things have unfolded the way many expected them to after the offseason trades that brought Schmidt and Dillon into the fold over a 48-hour period.

Schmidt’s infectious energy has been on display and all of the players in the top-four have started to show chemistry with the new pairings.

DeMelo is ready to move up the depth chart if necessary, while Stanley looks like a guy ready to take the next step in his first full NHL season.

Nathan Beaulieu is in position to open the season as the seventh D-man, leaving Ville Heinola to start the campaign with the Manitoba Moose, where he will be a minute-muncher as he continues his development and accelerates the process of pushing for NHL duty.

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With the expected assignment of Heinola, that leaves two decisions to make at forward — barring an injury or late addition.

Winnipeg Jets defenceman Dylan DeMelo (12) and Ottawa Senators left wing Brady Tkachuk (7) look down ice towards the play during second period NHL action in Ottawa on Thursday, Feb. 20, 2020. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Fred Chartrand. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Fred Chartrand

Line combinations

  • Kyle Connor – Cole Perfetti – Blake Wheeler

No, this is not a misprint … and sure, it could be a stretch, but let me try to explain.

While it’s true that Paul Stastny is the easier — and safer — choice here, there is an outside chance that the Jets’ 2020 first-rounder could still claim that spot as a fill-in for Scheifele in the opener.

Perfetti has adjusted well to the pace of the game as he begins his second pro season and his hockey intelligence has been on display throughout the daily sessions and exhibition outings. That’s why an opening-night cameo might be a reward for a job well done.

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However, that’s incumbent on Perfetti showing well this week, whether he gets into one more game or plays in both. To be clear, even if this longshot happens, this is likely just a one-off for the time being and Perfetti would head to the AHL after getting a taste of where he ultimately wants to be.

Cole Perfetti skating with 11 other players during day one of the Manitoba Moose 2021 training camp at Bell MTS Iceplex. Photo Credit/Austin Siragusa- Manitoba Moose. Austin Siragusa- Manitoba Moose
  • Andrew Copp – Pierre-Luc Dubois – Nikolaj Ehlers

This trio has been used extensively since training camp began and has shown potential, especially during the internal scrimmages. The line features a nice blend of speed, skill and power.

Ehlers looks poised to take another step and could eclipse 40 goals this season, Dubois looks primed for a bounce-back season and Copp is motivated to build on the career-bests (15 goals, 24 assists, 39 points) he recorded during the shortened season.

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Winnipeg Jets’ Andrew Copp, left, slides into Calgary Flames goalie Jacob Markstrom, from Sweden, during third period NHL hockey action in Calgary on Wednesday, May 5, 2021. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Larry MacDougal
  • Paul Stastny – Adam Lowry – Kristian Vesalainen

Lowry is one of the most physical players on the team and coming off a season where he got back to supplying some secondary scoring in addition to his important role anchoring the PK with Copp.

It will be fascinating to see how Maurice uses this line going into the season since the Lowry unit has often had the responsibility of shutting down the opponent’s top offensive players.

While Stastny has spent most of his career in an offensive role, he’s no stranger to being defensively sound. Vesalainen has been given the first chance to replace Mason Appleton, and while there have been flashes, he’s still getting comfortable and finding his way. He’s got the potential to be the triggerman on this line but needs to continue to look for his shot more and bury some of his offensive chances to build his confidence.

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If Maurice is looking to this line to set the tone defensively or trying to lock things down late in the game, look for veteran Riley Nash to shift to the wing with this group.

Montreal Canadiens goaltender Carey Price stops Winnipeg Jets Paul Stastny (25) during first period NHL hockey action in Montreal, Saturday, March 6, 2021. THE CANADIAN PRESS / Graham Hughes
  • Jansen Harkins – Riley Nash – Evgeny Svechnikov

Harkins and Svechnikov have shown well together throughout camp and converted some impressive opportunities, while Nash looks like he’s going to be a dependable veteran on this line.

Although Nash himself made light of the fact his offensive game wasn’t going to make him an NHLer when he was breaking in, he’s created some opportunities and flashed some skill. But he’s here for his defence and will serve a valuable role on the penalty.

Each of these players would be options to bump up to the third line, should Stastny start at centre on the top line or if Vesalainen doesn’t have a good week.

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Winnipeg Jets forward Kristian Vesalainen takes part in fitness testing. Global News

Svechnikov has made a strong case to earn an NHL contract and is expected to sign a two-way deal prior to the season since he’s in training camp on a pro tryout offer and is currently on an AHL pact.

Dominic Toninato enters this week as the front-runner to be the 13th forward and still could force his way into the opening-night lineup. David Gustafsson remains in an interesting position. If it’s Perfetti sent down prior to the opener, Gustafsson could find himself in the lineup on the fourth line. But since Gustafsson doesn’t require waivers and Toninato does, it’s likely he starts the campaign as the top centre with the Moose to further his development.

Click to play video: 'Winnipeg Jets announce 11 cuts' Winnipeg Jets announce 11 cuts
Winnipeg Jets announce 11 cuts – Oct 4, 2021

Ken Wiebe covers the Winnipeg Jets for Sportsnet.ca and is a regular contributor to CJOB.

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