And with that – a 4-3 loss at the hands of the Wild in Minnesota – the Winnipeg Jets’ preseason is nearly halfway through. Though there are seemingly few roster decisions to be made, the kids aren’t making it easy.
Unlikely as it is that either Nic Petan or Nikolaj Ehlers make this roster in a full-time capacity, it’s getting increasingly difficult to claim they don’t deserve an earnest shot at a regular shift in the NHL.
In the first game of the preseason, Ehlers stood out as one of the better Jets on the ice. Again, in his second contest, the 18-year-old Dane showed patience and poise with the puck more commonly seen in a player who’s had some seasoning in the league. It’s so surprise, then, that in game three, head coach Paul Maurice iced him alongside captain Andrew Ladd and Bryan Little.
On the game’s first goal, Ehlers’s confidence was on full display. Carrying the puck through the neutral zone, through the Wild zone, before swinging behind the net, he found a trailing Tobias Enstrom who dished the puck down low to Nic Petan who roofed it over a cheating Niklas Backstrom.
It was what we’ve come to expect out of Ehlers game in just a single week of watching him play. There’s a certain calm that comes with him handling the puck, a feeling that he’ll hit his mark and make something happen. On his rush into the Wild zone on Saturday night, it was more of the same, and almost too fitting that it was Petan who capped it.
The goal, Petan’s first of the preseason, was almost the perfect encapsulation of the preseason for the Jets to this point. The usual cast of characters were in on the play, but the fresh-faced Petan and Ehlers contributed as much as their veteran counterparts. Not only did they look like they belonged alongside names like Ladd, Little, Byfuglien, and Wheeler, one could argue that, even before either reaches their 20th birthday, they do.
Goal aside, Petan’s play, especially over the last two games, has been impressive. While he didn’t stand out in game one, his responsibility on both sides of the puck has been exceptional for such a young player. One of the most important skills a young player can have – sound defensive play – is already a large part of Petan’s game.
When the season begins, the Jets likely will have to make tough choices about how long to keep the pair on the roster. The risk, as always with young talent, is exposing them too early and stunting their development. However unlikely that may seem in the case of Ehlers and Petan, it’s an ever-present danger, and getting another season to grow has ever hurt a player’s development (see: Ryan, Bobby).
The difficulty, of course, in keeping the pair isn’t just making sure they can play on the roster; it’s finding a place for them to fit in. Currently, there’s very few spots in the lineup in which Petan or Ehlers would be able to slide in on a full-time basis. To give either third- or fourth-line minutes would almost certainly result in stunted growth, not to mention be an incredible waste of their abilities.
Both deserve to be on the roster come opening night and they’ve shown that with every minute of play this preseason. Whether they’re having their names called on opening night is to be seen, but you can’t say the young guns haven’t earned it.