MONTREAL — Mark Hillier can finally exhale, albeit momentarily.
The director of amateur scouting for the Winnipeg Jets was able to make seven selections in the 2022 NHL Draft inside the Bell Center and those picks included four forwards, two right-handed shooting defensemen and a late-round goalie.
After being limited to a combined eight picks during the past two virtual drafts, it was obvious that one of the primary goals for an organization that has always prided itself on draft, development and retention was that it was time to replenish the prospect pool.
That process for Hillier and his scouting staff included trusting their judgment on a pair of first-rounders, one of whom openly needs to improve his skating (Rutger McGroarty) and another on a guy once projected to be a surefire Top-5 selection who ultimately was available at 30th overall (Brad Lambert).
“I don’t know if cautious is the right word but we do our homework, right? We do as much as we can on the background,” said Hillier, who is hoping to unplug a bit before the work heats up for the 2023 draft class. “What the different scenarios are, what’s happened to him over the past year, what he’s going into. At the end of the day, if you’re comfortable there’s always a little risk but there’s always a reward, right? So we think the reward outweighs the risk and we make the pick.
“Yeah, it was nice to have a full complement of picks. You know, there were all kinds of talks about different lists or opinions being a lot different than other teams and so forth. We had a pretty tight list. Things went together pretty well. And we got seven good players we’re excited about.”
Between the three teams he suited up for last season, McGroarty managed to score 58 goals and record 111 points in 85 games and Hillier made it clear the pick wouldn’t have been made if the Jets had any long-range concerns about his skating.
“A better skater with the puck on his stick, and he’s a determined kid with a great work ethic. He’s going to put in the work to get better,” Hillier said. “He had the plan laid out when we talked to him at the combine. Nothing to my eye that’s technically wrong with his stride. He’s just got to get a little quicker. I’m confident that he will. We got a hard-nosed, competitive kid here that I hope he’s a Winnipeg Jet for a long time. He’s the type of player that everybody wants on their depth chart. They’re kind of a dying breed. To get a legitimate power forward, I’m excited about that.
“He hasn’t wiped the smile off his face, it’s from ear to ear. Everybody says how high his character is, his grit and determination. But also he has scored 50 goals in the combined seasons and events this year. Really happy with adding a guy of his grit and character from him with his combined skill level and goal-scoring ability. He scores a lot of dirty goals from the corners to the net, high slot. He plays the offside half wall on the power play, he’s got a good shot, a good one-timer. A lot of greasy goals (from) the blue paint around the net.”
As for Lambert, Hillier is excited to see what he can do next season when he’s expected to suit up for the Seattle Thunderbirds of the Western Hockey League with fellow Jets draft pick Tyrel Bauer (who is the captain of the Thunderbirds and was chosen in the sixth round in 2020).
“I think he’s the best skater with the best speed,” said Hillier. “He didn’t have a good year, that’s no secret. We told the kid not to worry about what happened last year, we believe in you, we took you. You’re going to start here and hopefully, you have a great development year coming up.
“I think he’s hard on himself that he fell. He didn’t have a great year, a lot of factors were put into that. He wasn’t in a great development situation. He takes some ownership of that. Going forward I think he’ll be in a better spot this coming year. Just look for better things and a high ceiling.”
Day 2 of the NHL Draft saw the Jets end up with a pair of left-handed shooting two-way centremen, a pair of right-handed shooting defensemen and a goalie with personality who heard a massive roar from a group of family members and supporters who stuck around until the seventh and final round.
Danny Zhilkin of the Guelph Storm moved to Canada from Russia when he was nine years old after attending a hockey camp in the Toronto area, ultimately ending up with the Toronto Junior Canadiens.
“In 2013 I was nine years old and I was here (in Canada) for two weeks. First, we just came to the camp for two weeks and didn’t really expect too much. My family brought me here and the coach saw me and asked me to play for the team the following year. We went back, packed our stuff and moved here,” said Zhilkin, who had 23 goals and 55 points in 66 games last season and has been training with fitness guru and longtime NHLer Gary Roberts. “At that age, I don’t really remember much. It was hard to speak English at first. I think it took me two or three years probably to learn because I knew zero English when I came over here. Incredible experience and obviously this is a step in the right direction.
“Two or three years ago, I never would have really thought this was possible. It’s unbelievable. I’m super thankful.”
The other responsible center is sixth-rounder Fabian Wagner, who suited up for Linkoping HC in the Swedish junior league last season.
In the second round, the Jets took Swedish defenseman Elias Salomonsson, who won a gold medal at the U18 world men’s championship and recently signed a two-year deal to play for Skelleftea.
Salomonsson cited Seattle Kraken blue-liner and fellow countryman Adam Larsson as a guy he patterns his game after.
“I’d call him almost an elite skater, a puck-moving defenseman,” said Hillier. “He plays with an edge and some sandpaper to him. Hard hitter, he does not have a high end on the skill but decent stats. He’s got a good shot. I think he’s going to be a guy that takes care of his own end first, moves the puck and plays hard.”
The second D-man chosen by the Jets was Garrett Brown, who won a USHL championship with the Sioux City Musketeers last season.
Brown, whose father Curtis suited up for 736 regular season games for the Buffalo Sabers, Chicago Blackhawks and San Jose Sharks, plans to return to the Musketeers before joining the University of Denver Pioneers for the 2023-24 campaign.
The Jets hadn’t chosen a goalie in the draft since Logan Neaton in 2019, and Domenic DiVincentiis just completed his first full season with the North Bay Battalion of the Ontario Hockey League.
DiVicentiis has a connection to McGroarty, having played on a couple of youth hockey tournament teams together plus lived and trained together for a stretch during the pandemic.
“Leading up to the draft, you don’t know where goalies will land. Obviously, having a COVID year where there was no hockey in the OHL affected being a goaltender, being a player in that league. So for me, there was a lot of thinking to do with it but, you know what… I couldn’t miss my opportunity to be here,” said DiVicentiis, answering a question about whether or not he would attend the draft in Montréal. “Obviously, there’s moments in the back of your head, you’re thinking maybe you don’t get drafted, but… that doesn’t stop me. If I didn’t get drafted, I would have continued pushing even harder and kept pushing to get drafted next year or sign as a free agent. So for me, it didn’t really bother me too much if I wasn’t going to be drafted due to the fact that it’s been my dream to get drafted and be here.
“I know my dad just finished whispering to me that if you don’t get drafted, the hard work keeps going and you leave this place with a chip on your shoulder, and your chin up, and you say thank you to everyone who helped I get here. You just get back to work right away. But obviously, when my name got called, I’m still a little bit in shock right now, I’m a little shaky. Like I said, it’s really an honor to be a Jet and I can’t wait to get started.”
With the draft in the rearview mirror, the Jets’ focus quickly turns to upgrading the personnel.
In the days leading up to Wednesday’s opening of free agency, you can expect the Jets to be active in considering involving an experienced defensemen and many eyes are on what is going to happen with Captain Blake Wheeler.
Wheeler, who spent the past 12 seasons with the organization going back to the 2010 trade to the Atlanta Thrashers, has two more years on the five-year contract he signed that carries an average annual value of $8.25 million and there is a strong belief that both the player and the team are ready to move on from one another—provided the proper fit can be found.
Another situation to monitor closely involves the backup goalie position.
Although the Jets have made an offer to retain Eric Comrie, the deal has not been finalized, so one would expect the 2013 second-rounder to at least wait until free agency opens to see what other offers are out there before making his final decision.
Comrie is coming off his teams best season as a pro (10-5-1 record, with a .920 save percentage and a 2.58 goals-against average in 19 games) and could end up on the radar of several looking for a capable backup .