Gary Shuchuk spent the past couple weeks drowning his new Janesville Jets players in new drills, schemes and tales of his hockey past.
His skaters did their best to soak it all in, presumably enjoying some of it more than others. (When a coach spent time in the NHL rubbing elbows with Wayne Gretzkey, he’s certainly got some stories).
Now it’s time to where the team, and its new head coach, are at in the transition process.
Shuchuk was named the team’s new head coach just before preseason camp began. The Jets opened their season with a Saturday road game against North American Hockey League Midwest Division rival Springfield on Saturday night.
“It’s been almost an overload for a lot of them,” Shuchuk admitted after a practice this week. “But it has to be done. I want to make sure they’re prepared.
“So that’s why we’ve thrown everything at them, and hopefully it sinks in. We’ll break it down after the Showcase.”
After Saturday’s game, the Jets and the rest of the league head to the NAHL Showcase tournament, beginning Wednesday in Blaine, Minnesota.
“It’s been a little bit of a change from May until now, but I think we’re all on the same page,” Jets captain Kip Hoffmann said. “We have one goal on our minds—to win Saturday and then win every game from there on out.
“We come to the rink every day to get better, and to win and be successful.”
Surely, practice plans and drills have changed some under the new coaching staff. Shuchuk is a scoring-minded coach, just as he was as a player.
But the expectations surely haven’t changed. Former head coach Joe Dibble spent five seasons molding the Jets into a perennial contender for the NAHL’s Robertson Cup. And he helped make Janesville a destination for the top players in the league by sending dozens of them to the Division I college ranks.
Hoffmann said Shuchuk has provided some new perspectives to his players who maintain lofty goals.
“He’s played at every single level. With the stories he has for us every single day, it’s pretty interesting and rewarding as a player,” Hoffmann said. “He’s been to the NHL. He knows what it’s about. So if we’re not going to listen to him, why would you even be here?”
The Jets return just eight players from last year’s team, which won the division and advanced to the Robertson Cup semifinals for the second time in three seasons.
But Shuchuk believes his Janesville team has the firepower up front to score plenty of goals, and he’s got two netminders at the back ready to continue the Jets’ tradition of sending goalies to the next level and beyond.
Here’s a look at how the roster breaks down as the season begins:
Shuchuk said from day one that he wants his team to be offensive-minded and to provide an entertaining product to Jets fans.
The team’s top eight point-scorers—all forwards—from a year ago are gone. Shuchuk will likely spend some time in the early portion of the season sorting out line combinations, but he believes he’s already got enough talent up front to put together three highly capable lines.
“Shooting is a talent, and it’s a skill that I don’t think a lot of guys know,” Shuchuck said. “But there’s guys that can shoot the puck a ton ... and are capable of scoring goals. I think some guys are going to have big years.”
Hoffmann is the leading returning scorer, with 16 goals and 16 assists in 46 regular-season games last season. He picked it up a notch in the playoffs, scoring nine goals and adding four assists in nine postseason games.
Second-year player Jakov Novak, who has verbally committed to Division I Bentley, had 28 points in 52 games. Other returning players up front are twins Ben and David Schmidling, Brenden MacLaren and Beloit native T.J. Polglaze. Novak and Polglaze are assistant captains.
One of the names to watch in terms of newcomers is Erik Palmqvist, a 6-foot-6, 218-pound forward out of Sweden.
“We have a fast, really skilled team, just like last year,” Hoffmann said. “I think everyone can put the puck in the back of the net, and at the end of the day can make that pass or that play to their linemate and score goals, just like Coach Shuchuk is preaching.
“Everyone wants to be that Patrick Kane or Sydney Crosby. We all have that edge and want to score. But at the end of the day, we all want to win.”
The Jets allowed just 153 goals in 60 regular-season games last season, tops in the division and a top-five mark in the league overall.
Gone are trusted, multi-year players like L.A. Grissom and Adam Roeder. But Carter Ekberg and Alec Semandel—the latter who is also an assistant captain—combined to play 72 games on the blue line for the Jets in 2016-17.
“The trust will come,” Hoffmann said. “We’ve been here for about two and a half weeks now, and it’s been building up every day.”
“Our defense are young,” Shuchuk said. “But right now the guys are working hard.”
Janesville has become a landing spot for some of the NAHL’s top goalies. Former Jet Matt Jurusik spent the past two seasons at the University of Wisconsin. Jack LaFontaine was an NHL draft pick two years ago. And last year’s goalies, Derek Schaedig—a Harvard commit—and Jacob Barczewski are opening this season at the United States Hockey level.
The pipeline continues.
Daniel Lebedeff has verbally committed to play for the Badgers. And Garrett Nieto brings with him experience from time in the British Columbia Hockey League.
“You always want to start from the goaltender out,” Shuchuk said. “I think we’ve got two legit No. 1 goaltenders.