It’s not too often that an NHL club is able to boast two lines of equal strength and value. It is even more rare when a team finds a way to spread the wealth throughout its top-three lines. But despite all this, the Winnipeg Jets have been able to put together a powerful four-line offensive attack.
With the participation of Pierre-Luc Dubois in Jets practice for the first time since fulfilling his mandatory 14-day quarantine following the January 23 trade from Columbus, Winnipeg’s head coach Paul Maurice was left with a multitude of offensive possibilities.
“It’s about balance,” coach Maurice said following his first look at Pierre-Luc Dubois on Sunday. “We’ve got four lines that we should be able to play and spread minutes around. Maybe that concept, get that solidified on your bench so you’re going to run short shifts, run at a high level, to prep us for a March to the third week in April that will be the busiest, most hockey these guys have ever seen.”
Suiting up on Sunday for the team’s first practice in two days, Winnipeg saw captain Blake Wheeler separated from centre Mark Scheifele and winger Kyle Connor for the first time in a dog’s age. The veteran forward actually skated on what appeared to be the team’s third line, alongside Paul Stastny and rookie winger Kristian Vesalainen – who took the ‘promotion’ in stride.
“Obviously, it’s going to be a big opportunity for me to show what I can do, so I have to be good every day and work really hard to keep my position there,” Vesalainen said post-skate. “I know they are really good players in this league and it’s going to be fun if I can play with those guys, so I have to prepare pretty good in the practice to do that.”
With veteran depth and young, rookie firepower on the third line, the Jets will feature a tough checking line of Adam Lowry, Mathieu Perreault and Mason Appleton. Through 11 games, that trio already has a combined eight goals and 21 points – a deadly number for a grinding ‘fourth line’. Perreault and Lowry have proven to be a strong shut-down pair, while the addition of Appleton will give that line an offensive/net-front punch.
Up top, Winnipeg will boast the combinations of Andrew Copp, Mark Scheifele and Nikolaj Ehlers on the team’s first line, while the second line will feature newcomer Pierre-Luc Dubois centering Kyle Connor and Trevor Lewis.
“I felt good out there, skating with K.C. and Lewie, they’re two amazing players,” Dubois said Sunday. “K.C. is one of the most under-rated players in the NHL and Lewie brings that experience, just helping me with all the systems and everything. He can pass the puck, he works really hard, so it felt really great to be out there with those two.”
For Dubois, the past 14 days have been a whirlwind, despite being stuck in a room for 336 hours straight.
“In a way, it’s been a slow two weeks because I haven’t done anything, but in another way, it’s been a pretty crazy two weeks, with all the video, watching games, getting ready, meeting guys over text and FaceTime and Zoom and stuff like that,” he laughed. “It’s been a hectic, yet slow, two weeks. Now it’s finally over, I’m finally at practice today and I’m just really excited to play that game… It felt good to finally get out there. Just two weeks of working out in your living room keeps you, to a certain extent, in good shape, but there’s nothing like skating out there. Today was a good practice.”
Never having skated on a team with as much center-ice depth as the 2020-21 Winnipeg Jets currently carry, Dubois knows that his familiarity with all three forward positions will only serve as a plus moving forward – no matter where he ends up sticking in the lineup.
“My dad always told me that if you can play every forward position, you’re really helping the team out, you’re helping the coach out and making his life easier,” said Dubois of his father Eric’s advice. “And playing center is a tough position, but I think a lot of us can play on the wings. It could be any line and you could play anywhere in the lineup. There is so much center depth with all those guys that even if you play on the wing a few games, a few shifts or you get caught on the wing and one of the wingers is playing in the middle on that shift, I think it really helps a team out when there are so many centermen in the lineup.”
According to the coach, the lineup changes had more to do with accommodating what was currently working, rather than a full-blown overhaul with one new face entering the lineup.
“We didn’t want to disrupt the combinations that were having some success with really just one player coming into your lineup,” he said of Sunday’s changes. “So we left Mark Scheifele with Copp and Ehlers, and Lowry with Perreault and Appleton because they’ve produced and played well and there’s lots of good there. It’s about balance. We felt it’s easier as a starting point to leave everybody in their natural position and give opportunity to Trevor Lewis and Vesalainen to play with a different style of player than maybe they have been playing with, because they’ve worked hard and looked good in their games.”
And interestingly, coach Maurice referred to the makeup of his lines more so as groupings of two players or pairs, referring to the success that individual players have found with one another at times throughout the early going of this season.
“I want to get a handle on the pairings,” he said. “I know what Copp and Scheif look like, what Stastny and Wheeler look like. Clearly I think there’s something going on with Lowry and Appleton, they’ve got a chemistry developing now. And then I’m looking at Kyle Connor and Pierre-Luc (Dubois). We’ll look at those, we’ll see if there’s enough there and the longer we can run this, the better. And we may run it for a while and then come back to it in March. That might be an idea for us. It’s to get to know what some of these pairs look like and then we’ll kind of branch out from there.”
Dating back to the team’s 2018 Stanley Cup Playoff run, spreading the wealth across all four forward units has proven to be too much for most opponents to handle. Despite losing one of the game’s very best goal scorers in Patrik Laine, the Jets appear to be in a much better place with the addition of another proven top-notch centerman in PLD.
With four potent offensive lines, two world-class power play units and a number of taxi squad players just itching for action, Maurice will need to balance his time-on-ice numbers carefully amongst the forward group. But despite the higher-end players seeing their numbers dropping and the lower-end players given more time, the coach believes it will be a tactic that full squad shouldn’t have difficulty buying in to.
“There’s a real challenge that’s going to come here with this,” Maurice said candidly. “That is that the minutes have got to get the top end, that’s got to get to 17 and the bottom end has got to come up to 13 or 14. That has to be accepted by the players. I’m also aware that I’m not sure you can run that the whole year. But in this specific situation, in the number of games that we’re going to face, the first thing I want to get right with the group is getting them to understand there are other good players on the bench. That will build the team. We’re going to put good players on the ice every time you roll a shift over the bench, so you understand to get on and off the ice, if it’s done right, then you can play at a higher level on every shift.”