Laine, Connor back in the Jets' fold and keen on getting started
The Jets have held some eventful training camps since the Atlanta Thrashers franchise relocated to Winnipeg before the 2011-12 season, but nothing like the “unique” camp of 2019.
Star forwards Patrick Laine and Kyle Connor were not signed (until this past weekend) and therefore not at camp, and veteran defenceman Dustin Byfuglien told the Jets on the eve of camp that he needed some time to decide his future.
On the flip side, defenceman Josh Morrissey was inked to an eight-year extension, and two youngsters – 18-year-old blueliner Ville Heinola and 19-year-old centre David Gustafsson – continued to surprise. General manager Kevin Cheveldayoff said both Heinola and Gustafsson had “exceptional camps” and remain with the big team with the season starting Thursday against the Rangers in New York.
Head coach Paul Maurice has played both young talents a great deal – five preseason games each. Gustafsson played between Nikolaj Ehlers and Blake Wheeler in Sunday’s final preseason game against the Minnesota Wild.
“He does too many things right to not notice him,” Maurice said of Gustafsson. “We really value the guy. He really understands the game.”
As for Heinola, the word “gushing” became a word that members of the media heard mentioned a lot during camp. “He can move in traffic, find seams, efficient on his skates. But (whether he stays or is sent down to the AHL) it’s what’s right for the Jets and for him. But he will play some games for the Winnipeg Jets this year, how many I don’t know.”
The final weekend of camp started with Laine signing on Friday, and Connor on Saturday. Speculation during the off-season was always a bridge deal for Laine and a long-term contract for Connor. And that’s exactly how it played out.
Connor said his preference always was a long-term deal. After starting the 2017-18 season in the minors (two goals, three assists in four games), injuries brought him back to the Jets where he had played 20 games in the 2016-17 campaign. The 22-year-old winger quickly showed he was ready for the NHL with a 31-goal, 57-point season in 76 games. He followed that with 34 goals and 66 points last season. When the negotiations were over, he ended up with a seven-year, $49.98 million deal.
Laine was different. As a gifted goal scorer, he will always be judged by how many goals he scores. As a rookie in 2016-17, he scored 36 goals in 26 of the 73 games he played that season. He followed that up by scoring 44 goals in 37 of the 82 games he played. Last year was different. The 21-year-old Finn scored 30 goals in just 19 games of the 82-game campaign, with 18 goals coming in November, including five in one game against the Blues in St. Louis.
When he addressed the Winnipeg media on Monday, Laine used the word “consistency” a number of times when talking about the upcoming season. So for the Jets, the bridge deal was perfect. For Laine, two years at $13.5 million was also a good option.
“Length didn’t matter. I still need to score and be better. I know I’ll be good – I always trust myself.”
There is a very good possibility that Laine’s overall game, during the next two years, continues to get better and he becomes even more of a scoring machine than he already is. The payday will be huge. But the Winnipeg Jets are totally fine with that possibility.
The Jets open the 2019-20 season with a four-game road trip, play nine games in 15 nights, and play just two of their first 17 games against Central Division opponents.
“The quality of our defensive game has to improve,” Maurice said at the end of last season. “Our dirty little secret last year (2017-18) was how good we were defensively. We need to win the one-goal games but on the defensive side, not the offensive side.”
Last season, the Jets saw their goals against increase, their penalty-killing numbers slip and their shots on goal went up. So through this training camp, much time was spent on improving their defending.
Maurice referenced “attention to detail on a five-man defensive game. We need to all be doing the same thing defensively, whether it’s Blake Wheeler or our 12th forward. It’s imperative that we get the defensive structure right.”
The Jets had an experienced D group last season. But gone are Jacob Trouba, Tyler Myers, Ben Chiarot, Joe Morrow and possibly Byfuglien. Enter Neal Pionk, who came from the Rangers in the Troubla deal. His very good camp and preseason have not gone overlooked, drawing praise from Maurice.
“[Pionk is] a player fans in Winnipeg will really enjoy. A name you don’t know, but [you are] going to. So smart. A version of Josh Morrissey. Good stick, does everything with his head up, really competes defensively. He’ll be a real good player for us.”
The 24-year-old Pionk has 101 NHL games on his resume with the Rangers, going 6-20-26 last season.
Meanwhile, fellow blueliner Tucker Poolman, who battled injuries last year, has also had a very good preseason. In fact, Maurice said "he has earned the right to be in the opening night lineup."
On the injury front, defenceman Sami Niku and centre Brian Little are the two Jets with health concerns. Niku is dealing with a groin issue from camp, while Little took a high hit from Wild centre Luke Kunin early in the final preseason game in Minnesota.