Despite having only hosted six training camp skates to date, it won’t be long until the Winnipeg Jets face off against the Calgary Flames at Bell MTS Place in Manitoba this Thursday. With daily sessions having been run since Monday, January 4, the quality of on-ice content has certainly progressed over the past week.
And with it, as has the chemistry between Winnipeg’s top forward lines, defence pairs and depth offensive pieces. Jets head coach Paul Maurice has now had the opportunity to check out every player currently listed on the roster. And according to the eighth-year head coach, the team is beginning to shape up “exactly as planned, considering the circumstance”.
“I’m not trying to skirt the question here, but it’s so much more technical in terms of the cap and Bryan Little’s situation and all those things,” Maurice said on his roster composition. “Before we could get to the answer we really felt we needed to get through the first five days here and see where guys are at. In a perfect world, you would almost be able to have players play and if you needed a guy you’d bring up a guy that’s been playing. I don’t know if we’re gonna be able to do that this year in terms of AHL recalls. That will impact how we view our taxi squad.”
But what the veteran bench boss does know, is that his bottom-six forwards are primarily going to be led by newcomers Nate Thompson and Trevor Lewis. Two players in which Maurice has watched grow and develop over their combined 22 years in the league.
“The value in having a veteran man on your fourth line is that they’ve known that job for a long time and they take a great amount of pride in it,” Maurice said. “It’s usually all the hard things. You’ve developed the ability to sit on the bench for slightly longer than the normal rotation and come out and go hard. You’re usually a penalty killer. Those are difficult things. So you’ve become a really really good pro if you’re a veteran fourth line player, you’re a good pro.”
But that extends further than riding the pine, penalty-killing and providing the odd bit of leadership from the bench.
“The benefit off the ice is also clear,” the coach added. “But also you get a guy that will practice the same way every day. He’s not taking three days off and then tries to wind it up in a game. He knows his practices are critical for being prepared, also to drive the pace.”
On Thompson, a 36-year-old, 12-year vet, Maurice was quick to shoot his praises that direction.
“You’ve got him, Harkins and Appleton at the start and that’s as good as those two have looked in their first day of camp,” he admitted. “They’re going. They have that effect. They drive the people around them, and part of that is he’s got an awful lot of respect for that job, which is why he’s willing to do it. When you have respect, the people around you will too. He’s a fourth line player, but he has a big impact on the game and he brings great value to the team. The people around you then start to view you with more respect and view that job with the respect it deserves.”
Thompson’s skills will most certainly outperform the one-year, $750K contract he signed this past offseason.
“He fits in a lot of ways, there are so many things,” Maurice expanded. “We need that centreman. He’s good on the draws, he’s a penalty killer, he’s worked with Dave (Lowry), he knows (Derek) Forbort, he’s got connections into our room. He’s been around the game long enough to know that he fits here and that there’s a job here for him. He’s wired. He’s pretty excited about being here and he’s got a connection to it.”
Thompson, who also spoke to the media, knows his role well, and is set to deliver for Winnipeg.
“For me, nothing really changes,” Thompson said on his fourth-line job within the Jets’ bottom-six forwards this season. “It’s simply win a faceoff, be physical, and at the same time, make sure I’m making plays with them. Hopefully the over-30 line can produce and do some damage.”
On the other side of the equation is Trevor Lewis, a 34-year-old 10-year NHL pro who joined Jets camp on a professional tryout (PTO). He has most recently been skating with his ‘Dirty 30s’ linemates Thompson and Mathieu Perreault for the past number of days in camp.
“All three of those guys have the same attitude,” Maurice said. “They didn’t look at that scrimmage as a place to come warm their hands up or get back into it. They just went out and did the job as hard as they could. That’s what they offer, that’s what they’re selling. Trevor fit right in. He looked like he’d been ready to roll for a while.”
With the Jets’ top two offensive lines going against the bottom two forward lines in the first scrimmage of camp, Lewis put up a first-star performance, earning two points in his Team Blue 3-2 victory over Team White this past week.
“There wasn’t this much snow in LA,” Lewis joked in his first Jets availability. “It’s been different here, but it’s been great. Everyone has been very welcoming. When I look at this group, it’s got a lot of talent, a lot of skill and a lot of good leadership. I’ll just come in and help any way I can. I talked to everyone here and it felt like a good opportunity. I’ve got to earn a spot but I’ve been working hard this off-season. I’ve always prided myself on being a utility guy where I can play any position and move up and down the lineup. Whatever they need me to do, I will do.”
Smart words from an experienced bottom-six player. That experience includes 10 seasons, 674 games, 163 points and two Stanley Cups… something coach Maurice was quick to bring up.
“When you find men that have a career on the fourth line, they’re good at it,” Maurice said. “When you look back, we’ve had guys like Matt Hendricks here. And what Matty did is he brought a tremendous amount of respect to the job. Nate Thompson has that, Trevor Lewis has that. A Stanley Cup champion in Trevor. They have that respect from the players.”