Introducing Winnipeg Jets’ 2 first-round picks, plus updating commerce prospects

MONTREAL — Rutger McGroarty was born on Tuesday, March 30, 2004, in Lincoln, Nebraska. Three days later he was at his first playoff hockey game.

“I was born into it,” Winnipeg’s pick at No. 14 said of his path to the NHL Draft. “I love hockey, I’ve loved it for a long time, and I wouldn’t have it any other way.”

This is the kind of story befitting a hockey lifer from any era or any culture. That it is the story of McGroarty’s rise to become the first player from Nebraska chosen to play for the U.S. National Team Development Program — and now the highest-drafted Nebraska-born player of all time, thanks to the Jets — will help McGroarty in Winnipeg.

Meanwhile, the Jets chose Brad Lambert — the elite skater with great offensive instincts who was once thought to be a top-10 pick — at No. 30, capping off a solid first day at the draft.

McGroarty is a 6-foot-1, 200-pound right winger and centre who scouts love for his goal scoring and leadership qualities. He captained the American gold medal-winning team at the U18 Five Nations Cup and has generated enough offence by going to tough areas of the ice to project a top-nine or top-six role in his future. Scouts have expressed concerns about his skating, but then so has McGroarty; he signed himself up to work with world-renowned skating coach Barb Underhill to improve that area of his game.

Jets GM Kevin Cheveldayoff says it’s this kind of drive that makes McGroarty such an appealing prospect.

“I think you have to really look at the intangibles when you look at a player like a McGroarty,” Cheveldayoff said. “There are probably some guys who are better skaters or more skillful. But if you look at his numbers over the different leagues he’s played in, he’s scored 50 goals. Doing that with the type of attitude and the type of character and the type of hardness that he has — man, I think that smile on his face coming toward our table is going to be etched into my memory for a long, long time. That was genuine. That was real. That’s what he’s all about.”

It may be interesting to note that the Jets already have one of the only other Nebraska-born players in NHL history on their roster.

Nine years before Omaha Lancers head coach Jim McGroarty took his newborn son to a playoff game, Jets defenceman Neal Pionk was born. His dad, Scott Pionk, was an assistant coach of the 1995 Omaha Lancers. Pionk’s youngest brother Aaron was a teammate of McGroarty’s and Scott even coached them during summer hockey.

There is a link between the Jets and Lambert, too. Cheveldayoff knows Ross Lambert — Brad’s dad — through Saskatchewan connections. Ross Lambert’s hockey career took him overseas where he starred in U.K. leagues before settling down in Finland where Brad’s mom, a Finnish flight attendant, is from.

Hence a prairie kid named “Lambert” was born in Lahti, Finland, speaks Finnish fluently and has even played a bit of pesäpallo (Finnish baseball) at school.

One of the curious stories of Lambert’s draft season was his inability to generate offence in Finland’s top men’s league despite brilliant offensive skill that once had scouts thinking he’d be a top-10 pick. Lambert dazzles scouts with his skating — Cheveldayoff called him the best skater in the draft — and has all kinds of creative ways to create scoring chances. Still, he scored just two goals and two assists in 24 Liiga games for the Lahti Pelicans.

“It wasn’t the season I’d have liked to have as a team or myself,” Lambert said. “I learned a lot. I learned a lot about the two-way responsibility of the game and playing at both ends of the ice.”

It can be tough for an 18-year-old player to get significant minutes in Liiga, especially when their two-way game is in question. But Lambert believes he has the speed and the skill to push his stock back up next season.

“The only thing that matters is what I do from here on forward,” Lambert said. “Anyone in this draft can be a boom or a bust. Work ethic is what is going to get you to be a boom player.”

Lambert is no longer under contract in Lahti and may play for the WHL’s Seattle Thunderbirds next season. McGroarty is committed to the University of Michigan.

All in all, a potential future captain in McGroarty — assuming his skating improves to the point where he can impact the NHL game — and a tremendously skilled player like Lambert is a solid haul for Winnipeg in Round 1. Our Corey Pronman called McGroarty “a favorite as the season progressed due to his tremendous compete level to go with legit skill and scoring ability.” On Lambert, he said, “The talent is clear though, and he has the potential to be a top-six forward if he develops well. I respect this gamble by the Jets at 30.”

But the Jets still have much more pressing work to do.

And there’s every chance they get some of it done on Day 2.

Blake Wheeler (Norm Hall / NHLI via Getty Images)

The Jets will use the draft to check other items on their massive offseason to-do list.

Whether or not Winnipeg finalizes trades for Blake Wheeler, Brenden Dillon, Pierre-Luc Dubois or other players who are expected to move, rest assured the Jets are planting seeds for those transactions.

I continue to hear from multiple sources that Wheeler is likely to be traded this summer. Winnipeg will likely need to retain some of Wheeler’s $8.25 million cap hit to make a trade work. They’ll then use the cap space they save on Wheeler to address other needs on the roster — whether as part of the Wheeler trade return or in a separate transaction. It seems to me that Day 2 of the draft will involve plenty of trades that involve depth picks, opening up a window for some creativity on Cheveldayoff’s part. The next likely window, should Wheeler remain a Jet beyond the draft, would be before the opening of free agency on July 13.

I am getting mixed signals on Dillon, who makes the most sense to me as the left defenceman who moves this summer. If Winnipeg really believes that Josh Morrissey, Dylan Samberg, Ville Heinola and Logan Stanley are part of its future, then Dillon needs to move. He is exactly the kind of player that contending teams like — he won’t create structure out of chaos but can be a strong top-four defender in a more organized environment — and my understanding is that Winnipeg received plenty of calls about him at the trade deadline. At $3.9 million, the Jets may be able to get most of the two second-round picks they spent to get him from Washington in exchange.

Of course, if the Jets want to avoid sitting one of Heinola, Samberg and Stanley each night, they would need to move two roster players. The right side is spoken for with Neal Pionk, Dylan DeMelo and Nate Schmidt, with Johnathan Kovacevic needing a promotion to the big club too. Sure, they could play one of Heinola or Samberg in the AHL without risking waivers — I just think the time has come to play them in the NHL or move on.

There was a fun moment when Flyers pick Cutter Gauthier was interviewed for the Bell Centre crowd.

Gauthier chose Mark Scheifele as the NHL player he looks up to most. They met this summer and Gauthier was impressed by how “first-class” Scheifele was on and off the ice.

As much as Scheifele’s season went off the rails and his exit interview left room to question his happiness in Winnipeg, one thing I keep hearing about him is that he is welcoming toward young players. I wonder if a summer of reflection and the opportunity to step into an even more prominent leadership role might bring back some of the happy-go-lucky, fun-loving hockey nerdiness that Scheifele was known for early in his Jets career. Perhaps that’s just wild July talk; all I know for certain is that with Wheeler most likely to be moved and Dubois’ future still in doubt, Scheifele is as important to the team as he’s ever been.

So what about Dubois?

I wondered for a moment on the draft floor if Montreal would make Winnipeg a strong offer in an attempt to make a big splash on draft day. I had heard the Canadiens were interested in right winger Juraj Slafkovsky at No. 1, creating an Owen Power-sized hole at centre. Could Montreal make Cheveldayoff — known now as ever for his patience and fastidiousness — an offer for Dubois that he couldn’t refuse?

If they did, the offer wasn’t nearly good enough — especially given that Winnipeg has control over Dubois this season and next. Yes, he’s a restricted free agent this summer and sure, I continue to believe Dubois does not stay in Winnipeg past 2024. This does point to a trade (or a massive change of heart) between now and unrestricted free agency as soon as two summers from now. But Cheveldayoff has been down that road before. He is fully capable of signing Dubois for a one-year RFA deal and then shopping him at the trade deadline if Winnipeg falters again (or next summer if things go well). There is no urgency here on Winnipeg’s part, although Montreal did make a splashy centre acquisition all the same, getting Kirby Dach from Chicago in exchange for the 13th and 66th picks.

(Photo of Rutger McGroarty: Eric Bolte / USA Today)

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