WINNIPEG – There’s an evolution, of sorts, happening around the NHL these days. A changing of the guard, if you will.
For the longest time, there’s been a divide in how players are defined. The terms ‘Top 6’ and ‘Bottom 6’ ruled the day. You’ve had the drivers – the skilled players counted upon to produce offence – and the checkers, the fighters, the boffins buried deep on the depth chart.
It seemed absurd to have smaller skilled player in the spot historically reserved for the pugilist, but the game is evolving, if it hasn’t already.
Enter Nic Petan, the first-year pro who’s doing everything in his power to be at the forefront of the movement, while blending seamlessly into the Winnipeg Jets’ famed identity as one of the
toughest and most difficult teams to play against.
“I thought it went pretty well,” Petan said of his performance in Tuesday’s come-from-behind win over the Ottawa Senators. “I looked over my game this morning and thought it was a positive
night. I didn’t see too many negatives.”
Nor would he alongside Chris Thorburn and fellow rookie Andrew Copp for much of the night before being promoted to the top line in the third period. In just 12 minutes and 18 seconds of ice time, the 5-foot-9 forward was one of the best players on the ice, flashing his gift offensively, winning board battles, and playing the mature, defensively responsible game the system requires.
He even drew a penalty late in the game after driving the net, helping the Jets’ comeback efforts hit full stride.
“He has a real unusual skill-set,” Head Coach Paul Maurice said. “The fourth line was always structured with physical guys or penalty killers, and he’s a power-play guy. He handles the puck well … and his reads are pretty solid defensively. A lot of the time when you get a skilled player who hasn’t spent any time playing defence – he’s been out there for that one reason only (offence) – they can sometimes be difficult to integrate into your lineup. Nic has a pretty good awareness of the defensive side of the game, so that gives him a little bit of an advantage.
“You’re still going to see a lot of teams with muscle on their fourth line, but I do think over the years younger players are getting an opportunity earlier than they may have in the past. Also, the 3-on-3 (overtime) is new, so there’s room for players [of his ilk] to excel on that big ice.”
Petan has one assist and six shots on goal in four pre-season games, but that only tells part of the story. His ability to handle larger opponents and even engage them in the dirty areas makes him
a formidable threat with and without the puck.
6-foot-2, 205-pound Senators defenceman Mark Borowiecki discovered that last night and was forced to take a penalty.
“The guys going out (Michael Frolik, Lee Stempniak and Jiri Tlusty) aren’t physical players and the guys coming in aren’t big,” Maurice said, “but they just have to get the puck. They can do it any way they want. They don’t have to put people on their butts all the time and they don’t have to snarl, they just have to get the puck.
“I think the skill-set is there for them to do that. … We don’t want the attitude to change.”
With two games left in the pre-season, no decisions have been made, but the race to the finish line is sure to be compelling.
– Ryan Dittrick, WinnipegJets.com