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Wheeler, Jets excited to get training camp underway

"There is some enthusiasm with the group" -Wheeler

by Mitchell Clinton @MitchellClinton / WinnipegJets.com

WINNIPEG - Training camp is officially underway for the Winnipeg Jets, as the familiar beeping sound of the beep test filled Bell MTS Iceplex on Friday.

"You get through it. It used to be that there would be a lot more anxiety on days like this," said captain Blake Wheeler, adding that as his career has gone on, that anxiety level has reduced significantly.

"You build more confidence in what you do - the process and you know you've put in the work all summer," he said. "The numbers are going to be what they're going to be out there, but camp starts tomorrow. We'll see who can play hockey tomorrow."

That will be the first full practice for the Jets, who have a number of new faces on the training camp roster ahead of the 2019-20 campaign.

Prior to last season, the Jets brought back a number of the same faces that reached the Western Conference Final in 2017-18. 

But as the salary cap has done to all teams in the National Hockey League, a few veteran players have moved on, with new faces like Neal Pionk, Mark Letestu, and Anthony Bitetto coming into the fold.

"We'll have a big chunk of these guys who don't really need to go through that neutral zone too many more times. Then you've got guys who have never seen it before," said head coach Paul Maurice, who doesn't feel the team has to go back to basics to help new players learn the system.

Instead, it's full speed ahead.

"The best teaching comes from your line mates and your D partner when you're standing in line," Maurice said. "You're going back over 'this is how we play that situation, then unique to me, this is how I like to play that situation.' We've done it so we don't feel we have to slow this thing down to bring the new players in. A bunch of these guys are also veteran guys. They've played against us. They have a pretty good handle on what we run because the other team pre-scouts and does those kinds of things."

Two familiar faces are still missing from the group as training camp begins. Both Patrik Laine and Kyle Connor remain restricted free agents. 

While work continues behind the scenes to bring those two back into the fold, Wheeler says camp will go on and that the players recognize it's the business side of sport.

He also knows the Jets aren't alone in this situation.

"There are quite a few guys in their exact same situations going through the same thing," Wheeler said. "Clearly we're a better hockey team with those guys in our line-up. As friends of theirs and as a teammate, you support them, capitalize on their value, and come into camp excited to be here.

"It's going to get dealt with and figured out when it does. When it does, we're going to give them a big hug and get them up to speed."

One needs to only look back to last September, when Josh Morrissey missed the first few days of camp with no contract in place.

He signed a two-year deal to get back on the ice with his teammates, then signed an eight-year extension on Sept.12.

"The Josh Morrissey lesson is a good one," said Maurice, who took a summer trip to Finland to chat with Laine about a number of things - his contract situation not being one of them.

"In his game in the last six weeks, he took some really good strides into becoming what I think is an elite power forward, something far beyond the shot," Maurice said of Laine. "This is not specific just to Patrik, you could say the same about Kyle, there are specifics to their game that got them here. They're great at that. Young players, then all the other parts of their game have to be developed in the National Hockey League.

"Those will get done when they get done."

In the short term though - especially with the first preseason game set for Sept. 16 against the Edmonton Oilers - there will be opportunities for players to jump up in the line-up.

"There are only so many seats at the table and when one opens up, everybody gets pretty excited about it. Everybody wants more," said Maurice. "There are going to be all different line combinations that happen in the first seven days straight through the third exhibition game."

The first opportunity for those players is practice on Saturday morning - 9 am CT sharp at Bell MTS Iceplex.

"There is some enthusiasm with the group, some guys who have been waiting in the wings for opportunities," said Wheeler. "We have some veteran guys who maybe played down our line-up last year due to circumstance who are going to get some more opportunity this year. It could be a pretty good mix."

SHOWING LEADERSHIP

Count Wheeler as another excited player that Josh Morrissey will be in the fold for the next nine years.

"Josh's role has increased every year, his value to our team has increased every year," Wheeler said. "He's going to be in the driver's seat of this group now and going forward. He's the type of guy that probably in the not too distant future is going to be wearing a letter on his jersey and he's going to be a real significant piece of what this team does for a long time."

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