Winnipeg’s top two lines are set to be the very best of the entire NHL’s Scotia North Division. No, the Jets do not own like likes of Connor McDavid, Leon Draisaitl or Auston Matthews, but it takes more than just one or two generational talents to maintain success.
With the return of Paul Stastny to Winnipeg’s depth chart, the insistence of winger Patrik Laine on focusing on “this season”, the possibilities are endless for the Jets’ top-six and No. 1 and 2 power play units.
With the second line centerman position having been a cause for concern the last number of years, that hole was glorified in 2019-20 when Bryan Little went down with a head injury (Little has yet to return to hockey) and a mad scramble was on to find a fitting piece. Short-term experiments involving the aforementioned Stastny, Kevin Hayes and Andrew Copp appear to have sizzled out with Winnipeg’s current training camp situation.
Jets head coach Paul Maurice spoke this past week of his interest in having “a mix of size and speed” on his blueline and defensive pairings. That message appears to have translated to his top-six as well, with Nikolaj Ehlers earning a hefty promotion off the bat, seeing a jump onto the first line, with Kyle Connor now shifting to the team’s second unit.
“Nikolaj has made developments in his defensive game,” coach Maurice told local reporters. “He’s just older, he’s more experienced. He understands how important it is in the defensive zone and what you do with the puck in the offensive zone, your risk profile based on who you’re playing against. He’s a more mature person, a more mature player. His numbers would say he’s earned the right to play against the other team’s best.”
Although some numbers may clash with what Maurice is indicating, the overall idea of shifting Ehlers up alongside Mark Scheifele and Blake Wheeler will help provide some serious speed and zone entry assistance on the Jets’ offence.
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“Coach is right to say I play my best hockey as a shooter,” Ehlers said on Zoom. “You’re going to make your plays, but I play faster and I skate more when I play with that shooter’s mentality. I felt like I did well last year, I want to be doing it more, obviously. And that chemistry is already there (with Wheeler and Scheifele). We know what our game plan is as a line. It’s going to be exciting for me to just go out there and skate as fast as I can, as much as I can, create space for those two guys and find holes.”
On the other side of it, Connor took the lineup adjustment in stride, pointing out his relationship with both Stastny and Laine is one that he believes will produce much success.
“He really doesn’t necessarily care who he plays with, it’s not an issue for him,” Maurice said of Connor’s attitude towards the newly-formed top-six and his role moving forward. “He’s going to tell you ‘they’re two phenomenal players. They’re different than Scheif and Wheels, but I’m going to get my opportunities with either line.’ I told him which line he was going on and he said ‘that’s great.'”
And Connor, true to course, did just that.
“Getting to know Stastny, he’s a smart player, he takes care of his body, he really pays attention to detail,” Connor said. “It has been fun to learn from him and take everything I can. I’ve got some familiarity with Patty. We had some great chemistry right from the get to last year. Even in past years, we’ve been together for a limited time.”
“Paulie’s got a pretty good shot,” Connor added. “He’s sneaky as well. I’ve seen it from the beginning of camp. Patty has been able to make plays and myself as well. It’s more making the right play at the right time. If it’s a shot, we all have to be shooters. If not, we all have that skill to make that play.”
The other winger on that line, Patrik Laine, has already made comments suggesting the combination of himself alongside Stastny and Connor is for the better, and here to stay.
“We had some really good games when Stastny was here and he’s obviously a really good addition to our top-six,” Laine said on Monday. “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. That’s the thing that pushes me forward every day. 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. Just really excited.”
Scheifele, who is now somehow already entering his eighth full season in the show was quick to compliment the newcomer, Stastny, indicating his sense of awareness and similarities both on and off the ice.
“We’re always on the same wave length,” Scheifele said. “Having a guy like that in the room means a lot to me for sure. A guy that loves hockey, a guy that loves to work on his game and work on his body. Stas is a specimen in that sense. A very intelligent hockey mind.”
Scheifele is known for his hockey sense and consistently high levels of competitiveness. Now set to face-off against players such as Matthews, McDavid, Draisaitl, Elias Pettersson and both Tkachuks, the firepower very well may be matched up against the now-veteran Center, best vs. best. With two top-lines as deep as Winnipeg now boasts, this should benefit the Jets in terms of game-by-game matchups.
“When you play against teams that have two powerful offensive lines, you go into the game with an idea. But then you have to judge real quick which one is going,” coach Maurice said. “It’ll be interesting to watch to see how that’s matched. Mark likes to go head-to-head with the best and show the hockey world where he sees himself. I don’t know if people would watch Mark Scheifele play as much as you’d see the games in Toronto or the Connor McDavid games. He wants in that mix.”
Scheifele, quick to follow up on the comments made by his coach, agreed wholeheartedly. With 10 games against both Toronto and Ottawa and another nine games against each of Vancouver, Edmonton, Calgary, and Montreal, both the Ehlers-Scheifele-Wheeler line and the Laine-Stastny-Connor line will certainly see significant action.
“I look forward to playing against good players,” the Jets’ top centre said. “Whether it’s Connor McDavid, Auston Matthews, Brendan Gallagher, it’s going to be fun. That first game is going to be fun and it makes it all that much better that we’re playing against Calgary.”