The resident wits on the Interwebs have taken to calling the campaign ‘Fail for Nail’.
And in the turtle derby for the right to draft Sarnia Sting winger Nail Yakupov - the consensus top prospect for the 2012 NHL draft - the Winnipeg Jets have nosed in front of another favourite to occupy the basement of the Eastern Conference, the Ottawa Senators.
After getting smoked 7-2 by Philadelphia in their last home game, the Sens put together a much stronger effort in coming back from a goal down to comprehensively beat the visiting Jets 4-1.
“Today was a bit of a gut check for us, a character game, and I’m glad we came through,” said Ottawa centre Jason Spezza, who scored the winner and assisted on two others.
“It was a really important [result]... but it’s still only one game, we have to find a way to be consistent,” added Spezza’s linemate Milan Michalek, who scored two and added an assist.
A few feet down the hall, the Jets were left to rue another up-and-down performance that saw them unable to capitalize on several gilt-edged opportunities - Craig Anderson turned away 35 of the 36 shots Winnipeg directed at the Ottawa net.
Asked whether his team will display the same level of desperation Ottawa did in their next home game against Carolina, Jets centre Kyle Wellwood said, “We’re going to be desperate for the whole season the way things are going.”
It’s not like they didn’t give it their all.
Jets coach Claude Noel pulled goalie Ondrej Pavelec with five minutes left in the game and with Ottawa’s Erik Karlsson in the penalty box.
“That was a pretty creative move on the power play, it created a little chaos for us,” said Spezza.
Noel was unimpressed after the game, saying, “We had to try something, we were down two goals ... I can’t say it helped us.”
There is a sense that Noel and his assistants are already weary about their team’s losing ways, asked whether top-line winger Blake Wheeler, who briefly left the game with what appeared to be a leg injury, was okay, Noel blurted, “Physically or mentally?”
“I thought we skated for two periods ... we’re looking for production and we didn’t get it,” he said, alluding to the meagre point totals from his top line of Wheeler, Bryan Little and Andrew Ladd.
A warm welcome from the Ottawa fans in the pre-game hoopla provided little more than cold comfort.
The main sub-plot in this contest featured a couple of teenagers, who shared the ice for the first time a little over six minutes into the first period.
Winnipeg’s 18-year-old rookie, centre Mark Scheifele, lost the defensive zone faceoff - a sore point for the Jets so far this season - to Ottawa’s 18-year-old, centre Mika Zibanejad.
Seconds later, Zibanejad suddenly found the puck on his stick in the slot, his sizzling snap-shot caromed off defenceman Dustin Byfuglien and narrowly went wide of the net.
A little later, Scheifele pulled off a little sleight-of-hand to set up Evander Kane for a scoring chance and jousted with Ottawa defenceman David Rundblad after a whistle.
Early in the third Zibanejad was robbed of his first NHL goal by Pavelec, who parried his one-timer off a rush; Scheifele, for his part, was denied on a late power-play.
As if often the case with young players, both showed flashes of their considerable talent in a 3-1 Ottawa victory that saw the Sens halt a three-game skid.
Neither dominated, which illustrates the trickiness of the decision the Senators and Jets will shortly have to make concerning two players picked sixth and seventh respectively in last June’s draft.
Starting the clock on a player’s entry-level contract is no small matter in the salary-cap era, but the temptation may be strong for a pair of teams that will take all the offence they can get - although the smart money says both will be sent to a lower level after their ninth NHL game to hone their skills and bulk up.
Both were blanked from the scoresheet on a night where Byfuglien would open the scoring at 14:39 of the first on a nice pass from Alexander Burmistrov, last year’s 18-year-old experiment for the then-Atlanta Thrashers.
“[Burmistov]has been our best forward. A 19-year-old player is our best player,” Noel groused.
To that point, the Senators had bossed the game and nearly opened the scoring on a double-minor penalty to Burmistrov, Pavelec’s left post denying Karlsson.
Milan Michalek evened the score for Ottawa on a second-period power play.
Later in the frame, Spezza put Ottawa up 2-1, and Daniel Alfredsson scored from a Johnny Oduya turnover to salt the game away, Michalek’s empty-netter was immaterial to the outcome, Zibanejad nearly potted his maiden NHL goal with Pavelec on the bench, although he’d surely prefer to celebrate his first marker after beating a goaltender.
Zibanejad had a strong preseason, but has had trouble imposing himself in the regular season - despite an injury to centre Peter Regin on Thursday there are broad hints he will continue his development in the Swedish Elite League this winter.
“We’re going to make a decision based on what’s best for Mika,” Ottawa coach Paul MacLean said when asked about his prize rookie before the game.
Afterward, he was content to simply observe: “Mika had a good game, he gave us some really good shifts.”
Scotiabank Place has proven a happy hunting ground for teenagers in this young NHL season: Colorado’s Gabriel Landeskog scored against the Senators in his first game in Ottawa, as did Philadelphia’s Sean Couturier.
Both are 18, both were selected in the top 10 in this past June’s amateur draft.
And if both Landeskog and Couturier look virtually assured of playing a full season for their respective NHL teams, there is no such certainty regarding Scheifele and Zibanejad.
The good news is they won’t have to wait more than a week or so to know their fate - if either plays 10 games they must stay with the team for the rest of the year.
Scheifele allowed that managing distractions - the prospect of returning to junior being one of many for him to deal with - has posed the biggest challenge in his six weeks in the big time.
“I’ve tried to talk to people on the team to see how they dealt with it ... the main advice is just ‘play your game’, you don’t want to be thinking too much about that stuff,” the lanky centre said of his prospective return to the OHL’s Barrie Colts. “But I know it’s there.”
Kane and Burmistrov both made the team as 18-year-olds - they were the Thrashers’ first round picks in 2009 and 2010 - as did defenceman Eric Bogosian.
“It’s definitely a big learning curve in your first year, I just told him that you want to take in as much information as you can,” said Kane, a 19-goal scorer last year.
In Ottawa’s room, by contrast, there are no players who can relate a similar experience to Zibanejad.
Sure, Karlsson played his first NHL game as a 19-year-old, as did Jared Cowen and Spezza, but all had apprenticeships in junior or the minors.
Perhaps burned by their experience with former first overall draft pick Alexandre Daigle, who played in his draft year but quickly flamed out, the Senators haven’t had an 18-year-old in their lineup since Marian Hossa, who played seven games in 1997-98 before being returned to junior.
It would be surprising if the Sens were to deviate from the practice that has prevailed since.
Though the trio of precocious former first-rounders in Winnipeg’s lineup hint at an organizational philosophy that’s different from Ottawa’s, such is no longer the case since the Jets left Atlanta.
Either way, Scheifele is trying to focus on the now.
“I’ve stuck it in the back of my mind,” he said.Report Typo/Error