WINNIPEG — Some details are left to be sorted out, but things are coming into sharper focus for the Winnipeg Jets.
With the particulars of the latest return to play agreement signed off by both the NHL and NHLPA on Sunday, all indications point towards the Jets being able to open training camp on Jan. 3 at Bell MTS Iceplex.
A shortened training camp — with 36 skaters and an unlimited number of goalies — will give way to a frenetic-paced season that is scheduled to feature 56 games over 116 days.
The North Division — which colleague Chris Johnston has expertly coined The Group of Seven — is a go, with a total of nine meetings coming against the Calgary Flames, Edmonton Oilers, Vancouver Canucks, Toronto Maple Leafs, Montreal Canadiens and Ottawa Senators.
Talk about a glorious opportunity to continue to build rivalries, even if this is just a one-off before the Jets return to the Central Division for 2021-22.
With only four playoff spots available out of the four newly-created divisions, points will be at a premium as soon as the puck drops on Jan. 13 (provided there are no setbacks).
Jets players are in the process of returning to Manitoba to satisfy the quarantine rules, but there’s an important order of business left to be sorted out — getting a new contract for restricted free agent Jack Roslovic (who did not have arbitration rights).
Roslovic is coming off his best season as a pro, one that included 12 goals and 29 points in 71 games, which left him seventh on his team in scoring as his average ice time rose more than two-and-a-half minutes.
When it comes to the player chosen 25th overall by the Jets in 2015, the discussion always circles back to opportunity.
While the season-ending head injury to Bryan Little helped create more time for Roslovic on the second line last season, there’s still plenty of debate over where the versatile forward fits best.
He’s been used primarily as a right-winger by head coach Paul Maurice, but has seen time at centre as well, moving up and down the lineup.
A middle-six role is likely in the cards once a deal gets done, though missing training camp like Patrik Laine and Kyle Connor did last fall during their respective contract stalemates is something both the Jets and Roslovic would likely prefer to avoid.
One of the other new wrinkles added in the return to play agreement is having a third goalie on the roster, and that spot is expected to be filled primarily by Eric Comrie.
Comrie is one calendar year removed from an odyssey that included being claimed off waivers by the Arizona Coyotes, going through a four-game conditioning stint with the Tucson Roadrunners of the AHL, getting traded to the Detroit Red Wings and playing three games with the organization (including a start in Winnipeg against the Jets) and then getting claimed back off waivers by the Jets — before he was sent down to the Manitoba Moose.
With prospect Mikhail Berdin — who recently signed a two-year contract extension — exempt from waivers and about to start his third pro season, one would anticipate him spending some time on the taxi squad before getting the lion’s share of the starts in the AHL this season.
Speaking of the taxi squad, all teams will be allowed to carry between four and six players.
Those players are allowed to practice and travel with their NHL teams, but would need to be recalled in order to appear in games.
Since that group of players can’t practice or play with the minor league team without being assigned there, it could create a number of interesting decisions for all NHL teams, including the Jets.
Will the taxi squad be filled mostly with veteran depth players?
That’s the expectation, since younger prospects would likely benefit more by eventually going down to the AHL and getting some game action in to continue their development.
For a team like the Jets, it could also offer a way to keep a top prospect like Cole Perfetti around for a little longer.
Since the start date for the Ontario Hockey League season is still up in the air, the chances of Perfetti remaining with the Jets — either on the active roster or the taxi squad — are only enhanced.
Perfetti, chosen 10th overall in the 2020 NHL Draft, can appear in six NHL games before burning the first year of his entry-level contract (in the seventh).
Once there is clarity on the OHL season, deciding what path to go with Perfetti — who will suit up for Team Canada at the World Junior Hockey Championship later this month — will become a priority.
Until that time arrives, Perfetti should enjoy the benefits of being around the NHL club, either on the active roster or, at the very least, on the taxi squad.
Another development in the return to play agreement relates to the Seattle Kraken expansion draft, which is set for July 21.
All teams (other than the Vegas Golden Knights, who are exempt) must submit their respective protected lists by July 17 and, starting on the 18th, the Kraken can begin discussions with pending restricted and unrestricted free agents that were not protected.
If the Kraken can convince the available player to sign rather than explore free agency on July 28, that would count as the selection from the Jets in the expansion draft.
That final twist could have an impact on how the Jets handle negotiations with a player (or several) heading into the final year of a contract.
Although the pending restricted free agents — Patrik Laine, Andrew Copp and Neal Pionk — are all expected to be protected by the Jets, this new development could accelerate the process for a contract extension for someone like Adam Lowry, who is a pending unrestricted free agent.
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