October 10, 2016 - 11:34 AM
WINNIPEG - It's all about the kids this season for the Winnipeg Jets.
The NHL club, which opens the campaign Thursday at home against Carolina, cut down to 24 players on Monday, including nine aged 23 or younger.
Even a pair of rookie forwards who aren't old enough to join their teammates for a drink in American bars have cracked the lineup: 18-year-old Finnish sniper Patrik Laine and 19-year-old U.S. college star Kyle Connor.
In another nod to the youth movement, veteran goalie Ondrej Pavelec was placed on waivers Monday and has to clear to report to the American Hockey League's Manitoba Moose. That leaves rising prospect Connor Hellebuyck, 23, and Michael Hutchinson, 26, between the pipes.
It's all part of the evolution of the club's draft-and-develop strategy that began in 2011 when centre Mark Scheifele, now 23, became the inaugural first-round pick (seventh overall) of the new Winnipeg franchise that had relocated from Atlanta.
Whether the continued injection of youth will help or hinder the quest to surpass last season's 78-point output (35-39-8) remains a big question mark for the club, which has only made the playoffs in one of the past five seasons.
The Jets have to get to 23 players by Tuesday, but still had 20-year-old injured forward Brendan Lemieux on the roster Monday.
"We believe in the talent level of young players," Jets head coach Paul Maurice said during training camp. "(But) what they are capable of doing is going to be curtailed by men just like them that are 27 years old that are playing against them.
"So you have to be a little bit patient about what your expectations are, and maybe them as well. That's as big a challenge."
That didn't stop Maurice from heaping some praise on the six-foot-four, 206-pound Laine after this year's second-overall pick in the NHL entry draft took part in his first day at camp.
"All I know is that every time this kid goes down the ice and gets the puck on his stick, you feel like there's a chance it could go in (the net)," Maurice told reporters.
"I just haven't seen anybody shoot a puck like that for a very long time, and he's much better defensively aware than the vast majority of players his age."
He also pointed to the Jets following a league trend.
"We're seeing a kind of a vision and a theme amongst players, a recognition of where the game is going," Maurice said.
"(It's) going to speed, the speed of the young players that are coming into our team."
There is one blemish on Winnipeg's draft-and-develop blueprint that appeared last month.
Restricted free-agent defenceman Jacob Trouba failed to show up at camp and has requested a trade. If the team's ninth-overall pick in the 2012 draft doesn't sign some kind of deal by Dec. 1, he has to sit the rest of the NHL season.
The opening on the blue line is being filled by 21-year-old rookie Josh Morrissey, a left-hand shot Winnipeg selected with its 13th pick the year after Trouba.
Winnipeg's top line is an example of the team's drafting plan working.
Nikolaj Ehlers, 20, will continue where he left off last season with new Jets captain Blake Wheeler and alternate captain Scheifele, a trio with plenty of speed and puck-handling savvy.
Scheifele finished his third NHL season with a team-leading 29 goals and career-high 61 points in 71 games and inked an eight-year, $49-million deal in July. Wheeler, 30, led the club with a career-high 78 points in 82 games.
Ehlers, the ninth overall pick of the 2014 draft, overcame some struggles in his rookie season to put up 38 points in 72 games and was humbled to be skating again with Wheeler and Scheifele.
"For me to play with them is an honour and I'm proud of that," Ehlers said. "But I've still got lots of work to do and I'm sure I have two linemates beside me that can help me do that."
Veterans Bryan Little and Mathieu Perreault will centre the next lines with Laine and Connor (the 17th overall pick in 2015) and Joel Armia, 23. Centre Adam Lowry, 23, and rookie winger Brandon Tanev, 24, have also stuck with the big club.
Helping the young guns is a job veteran defenceman Dustin Byfuglien doesn't mind doing. After all, he said last week he looked closely at the team's future plans before he gave his stamp of approval by signing a five-year, $38-million contract last February.
"Give us some time to develop and come together as a team," said the 31-year-old Byfuglien, the team's other alternate captain. "They're not going to jump into the NHL overnight and become superstars.
"It's a learning curve. As long as we keep having fun with them and just teach them little things at a time, we'll be all right."
News from © The Canadian Press, 2016