After a summer where commercial matters like logos and sweater unveilings dominated NHL news in Winnipeg, the Jets’ prospects take to the ice in Penticton this evening for their YoungStars opener in the first instance of actual hockey for the franchise. The youngsters head into this week coming off a couple of heavily attended practice sessions back here in the homeland, but tonight’s tilt with the baby Sharks should be a proper chance to examine how much progress a few key players have made over the summer.
Considering the fact that the team is still hurting for top nine talent up front, The Jets don’t really have many open places for rookies at the moment. The club has 14 forwards on the current roster that played in the NHL last season, with not many obvious candiates to be sent down should a rookie impress. They also invited veterans Troy Bodie and David Koci to camp in order to fill out the forward numbers, and the same situation applies on the back end, with six players on one way deals and Zach Bogosian still unsigned. The latter gent did make his way to town this morning for an informal spin with the vets, so there might be some hope that his contract situation gets straightened out before the grown-ups get rolling on Friday.
With all that in mind, I supect the primary goal for the hockey ops people will be to evaluate three key prospects up front. The number one pick, Mark Scheifele, spent this weekend working on a line with two of the club’s other decent young forwards, Jason Gregoire and Carl Klingberg, and they should be the line to watch for the Jets. Absent something very odd, Scheifele is almost certainly headed back to Barrie at the end of camp, but at the very least this will be the first opportunity for most fans to see the player that compelled Kevin Chevaldayoff to pass on Sean Couturier at this summer’s entry draft.
His two wingers might be the closest to being NHL-ready of any of the organization’s prospects. Gregoire’s NHLe last year at UND was about .50, or worth about 40 points for a full season, which would translate to a player capable of top-nine ice time. Proof of the pudding’s in the tasting, of course, but the inability of the Islanders to sign the Winnipeg kid might be a bonus for the organization. Klingberg might be close to making the leap to the bigs as well, and it’s worth remembering that the Swede didn’t look out of places at last year’s Worlds, so he and Gregoire should be watched closely to see if they’re likely to challenge at the main camp.
For the rest of the rookies, this week is the first chance that the organization has had to observe them as a group. The general opinion around hockey circles is that the club’s organizational depth is a real weakness, so tonight provides an opportunity to see how close that consensus is to fact. They’ll play a Shark group that took advantage of good finishing and terrible Calgary goaltending to post a 6-1 win last night, despite being hemmed in their own end most of the first 30 minutes. San Jose’s group of prospects is held in roughly the same esteem as Winnipeg’s, so it might end up being a well-matched battle. Game time is 9:30 CT, with internet video streaming via the Jets’ website and Sportsnet.ca