COLUMBUS, OHIO – Pierre-Luc Dubois remembers the first time he saw Kevin Stenlund roll into training camp when both were members of the Columbus Blue Jackets organization.
For a brief moment, competing thoughts were running through his head.
“I was a centre, he was a centre and he’s a big guy. I remember thinking you can look at this two ways. He’s competition and you can’t like this guy or it’s only going to make you and him better and the team better,” Dubois recalled on Thursday morning before the Winnipeg Jets were getting set to face the Blue Jackets. “The more good players you have on the team, the better your team is going to be.”
Everyone knows that Dubois is having a massive impact on the Jets season, but Stenlund’s emergence has been one of the under-the-radar storylines, especially during the past several months.
Because Dubois got an early glimpse of Stenlund’s potential, he’s not nearly as surprised as some folks about this development.
“I’ve known him since we were both here in Columbus and I always thought he was an interesting player, a good player,” said Dubois. “A big guy. Smart on the ice. He had a good shot and he’s got a lot of tools. When (the Jets) signed him, my first reaction was that he was a familiar face and then after that, it was that he’s a good player.
“I don’t think he ever doubted himself. Once his opportunity would come, he (felt) he would prove to everybody that he could stay here. When he called up, he played well and he’s been here ever since. We’ve been able to count on him. He’s been great since he’s been here with us.”
Earlier this week, Jets head coach Rick Bowness conceded that Stenlund didn’t make much of an impact during his first training camp with his new organization.
But what Stenlund has done since being assigned to the Manitoba Moose of the American Hockey League and subsequently recalled has been impressive to monitor.
Not only has Stenlund solidified himself as the fourth line centre, he’s also become a valuable member of the penalty killing unit (which currently ranks third in the NHL) and is getting a trial run as the net-front presence on the second power play.
That’s an impressive turn of events, to be sure.
“He’s just done everything that’s been asked of him,” said Jets defenceman Brenden Dillon. “He’s won faceoffs, he’s played a great defensive role. He’s a big body who plays hard and plays the type of style that has kind of complemented our group. There’s a reason he’s come up and been a staple in the lineup. He’s been a welcome addition and a great part of our success.”
Speaking on Thursday morning, Bowness himself took some of the responsibility for not giving him a more defined role in training camp and for playing him more on right wing than at centre.
He also praised Stenlund for taking the demotion in stride and getting his pace up after playing more minutes in the minors.
“It started with faceoffs. We kept him at centre and he was winning some faceoffs,” said Bowness. “When he got the ice time, he took advantage of it. He was skating a lot better. We didn’t like his pace in training camp, but when he came back up – and maybe it was because of the increased ice time and us showing a little more confidence in him with the faceoffs – but his pace picked up.
“Then all of a sudden you’re seeing he’s a much better player than what we saw in training camp. (Moose head coach) Mark Morrison and his staff did a great job getting him going, getting him better prepared to come up and play at this level, and he’s taken full advantage of it. I talked to him about this the other day, I still think there is more there. We’re going to keep pushing him because I do think there is more to offer there.”
Stenlund dealt with a knee injury last season and being able to play an enhanced role with the Moose that included more ice time helped him get his skating legs back and when the opportunity to be recalled came, he was ready to seize it.
“I played a lot, and it helped me a lot. Just to be able to get ice time, get the feel of it again,” said Stenlund. “Obviously last season I had a tough season with injuries and stuff like that. So I think that got me going. It helped build my confidence, just to be able to do the stuff they wanted me to do and build from that.
“It’s easier to say how my game has evolved now. I know my role. It’s easier to know what they expect of me every game. That makes it easy for a player when they know what you want to do.”
Stenlund joked before the formal part of his interview session started that if there was going to be a video tribute to salute his return on Thursday that it would be a short one.
But the second round pick (58th overall) of the Blue Jackets in the 2015 NHL Draft was thankful for the time he spent in the organization and for the opportunity he was given when he finally came over to play in North America at the end of the 2017-18 season.
“I learned how hard it is to play in the NHL, like every day. The kind of work (it takes). I think that’s helped me a lot,” said Stenlund. “Well I’ve come a long way. I remember everything like it was yesterday. But it’s been a long journey. A lot of memories. A fun journey.
“It’s a lot of feelings. Obviously I’m happy to be here. It’s going to be a fun game tonight.”
The Jets are making one lineup change on Thursday, inserting right-winger Sam Gagner on the fourth line for Karson Kuhlman.
David Rittich makes his second consecutive start in goal as Connor Hellebuyck continues to work his way back from an illness.
Here’s how the Jets are expected to start tonight against the Blue Jackets:
Kyle Connor-Pierre-Luc Dubois-Nikolaj Ehlers
Cole Perfetti-Mark Scheifele-Blake Wheeler
Morgan Barron-Adam Lowry-Mason Appleton
Saku Maenalanen-Kevin Stenlund-Sam Gagner
Josh Morrissey-Neal Pionk
Brenden Dillon-Dylan DeMelo
Dylan Samberg-Nate Schmidt