By the time the puck drops for the first game of the 2020-21 season between the Winnipeg Jets and Calgary Flames on Thursday, January 14, it will have been a span of 970 days, two full hockey seasons, and nearly an entire global pandemic since veteran forward Paul Stastny last suited up for Winnipeg.
Yes, the world has changed rather rapidly since the now 35-year-old centerman last graced the lineup of the Stanley Cup hungry Jets. The date was May 20, 2018, and Winnipeg was one of the league’s hottest commodities. From sellout Whiteout Street Parties to Don Cherry appearances, to first and second round series victories over Minnesota and Nashville, respectively, the Jets were on fire.
Back then, there was no such thing as a ‘Patrik Laine Trade Rumor‘. Rather, the phrase, ‘Winnipeg is Good’ was just recently coined, by the then-bearded Finnish winger. Paul Stastny was the rockstar second-line centerman to whom the Jets had acquired at the trade deadline in hopes of securing a long postseason run. Stationed with Laine at his side, the adept playmaker put up four goals and 13 points in 19 regular season games with Winnipeg, before scoring six times and adding nine assists for 15 points in 17 playoff contests.
Despite Winnipeg’s best efforts to help keep him around, Stastny opted to sign in Vegas, where he has remained the past two seasons, until Jets GM Kevin Cheveldayoff pulled the trigger on his second Stastny trade in three years. Clearly, ‘Paulie’ is a wanted man.
“I’m excited,” Stastny told reporters. “I feel comfortable here, I feel good here. Everyone’s accepted me with open arms. It almost felt like my wife and I and kids never really left. Now we get to settle in a little more, get here early, do Christmas here and quarantine. It’s good to be back out here and get life going with training camp and the kids being in school. Today felt like the first day after a holiday break, so we’re excited.”
Now officially back and skating with Winnipeg at Jets training camp, Stastny has been placed with Kyle Connor and Laine – something that appears to have boded well with the youngest member of the line.
“I think Paul’s an awesome player,” Laine said. “We had some really good games when he was here and obviously a really good addition to our top six. With him and KC on the other side, I think we can do some real damage and I’m excited to get the season going and see what we can do. Obviously, Paul’s going to help me with that, KC on the other side, I think we can do something really, really good this year. I’m just really excited.”
Whether the acquisition of Stastny was way of helping out the ‘Laine situation’, or if it was just a deal for the betterment of the Jets forward corps, the well-travelled Quebec product is certainly up for the challenge of helping calm down his potential linemate.
“I talked to Patty today and didn’t realize he was 22,” Stastny said bluntly. “My jaw kind of dropped, I’m getting old, but I thought he was like 24, 25. Just because I feel like he’s been in the league for four or five years. When you come into the league at 18 years old you’re so young and probably immature in a sense. Physically you’re going to develop a bit, some guys are early bloomers. I think it’s more mentally, between the ears, that’s where your game really grows. And every year you play you get wiser and you get better in that sense.”
Although not attempting to take a shot at the younger player, Stastny did offer up many praises to the 6-foot-5, 210-pound winger.
“I think playing with Patty, for how big he is, how effortless he makes it look and how smooth he is, there’s very few guys in the league that are like him,” Stastny said. “He makes it look easy, and people don’t realize that. For me to practice with him, it’s always fun watching him, watching these special players. Every guy kind of has something different about him, and you try to learn from it. But at the same time some of those guys, they’ve obviously worked on it, part of it is obviously God-given talent. You love watching those guys play, just because they’re so few and far between.”
Another guy to whom Stastny enjoys and can relate to is team captain Blake Wheeler. Whether it’s the fact that ‘Wheels’ is closer in age to the newcomer, or that the two enjoyed playing college hockey at a time when Laine, Connor, and Co. were just beginning their developmental youth careers.
“I think it’s a product of the way you’re raised,” Stastny offered. “I don’t think it’s based on when you came into the league, because I have played with a lot of guys that came in the same time and one is old school, while one is new school. It’s just the way they were raised and how they grew up. I think it’s just a product of that. I think Wheels is the same way.”
“Wheels plays a simple game and is a very effective player; the way he carries himself is just a no-nonsense kind of thing,” Stastny continued. “But he enjoys it too, the way he plays makes everyone around him better. He’s the definition of a highly-skilled player with one of the higher work ethics in the league. The players I respect the most are really skilled but also work really hard and constantly work on getting better.”
Wheeler, who turned 34 this offseason, is now entering his 13th season in the league, and fifth as the captain of the Jets. Through his time with Boston, Atlanta and now Winnipeg, the playmaking winger has been able to scout Stastny upon many occasions. And now for Wheeler, the verdict is in.
“Stas is cut from a different cloth, he’s more of an old-school mould,” Wheeler said. “The way he plays the game, mentally he’s a step ahead of everyone else out there. He’s incredibly reliable on faceoffs and he’s the type of centre that makes the people around him better. It’s a great complement to Schief and it’s such a steady presence to be able to deploy. A player like Stas, you can put any players on a line with him and they’re gonna flourish. He’s just a steady presence in the lineup. We know what kind of person he is. Everyone loves Stas in the room and what he brings to us on the ice is a pretty great fit for our team.”
Clearly, the impression has not changed much even in Stastny’s second kick at the can in Manitoba. Slotting in as more of a 1B centerman, as opposed to a traditional No. 2, Winnipeg’s 1A in Mark Scheifele also certainly a fan.
“We sat on the bench today and we speak the same language; we’re always kind of on the same wavelength,” Scheifele said of Stastny. “So it’s awesome to have a friend like that, a guy you can bounce ideas off of, you can talk about hockey, you can talk about whatever. To have a guy like that in the room means a lot to me for sure. He’s a guy that loves hockey, a guy that loves to work on his game, work on his body and do all that. Stas is a specimen in that sense. A very, very intelligent hockey mind and to have a guy like that in the room and sitting close to you in the room, it helps a lot for sure.”
And for the man himself, it’s just another day in the office. But it’s not just any office. It’s a chair and desk that was handcrafted by his family, many many moons ago.
“I’m just more old school kind of guy,” Stastny reflected. “I grew up around the game and I think I learned a lot from my dad and my brother who was a couple years older than me. I’m very fortunate to learn a lot of things at a young age that I didn’t realize I was learning until now and that I appreciate more now. But at the same time, the things I didn’t learn growing up I am learning now. I try to hang out with these new school guys, these younger guys, and see what they’re doing and try to implement that. Whether it’s your diet or training or working out, you’re constantly trying to sharpen your tools a little bit, get a little better and learn from everybody. Obviously, I can credit that to my dad and my brother helping me out all my career.”