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Jets’ Saku Maenalanen aiming to make the most out of his ‘last chance’ in NHL

WINNIPEG — For a guy who sees himself at the Last Chance Cafe, Saku Maenalanen is doing everything in his power to earn a seat at the table — or at the very least, extend his reservation for a longer look.

Maenalanen came into Winnipeg Jets training camp as mostly an unknown, a forward who had a brief cup of coffee during the 2018-19 season, appearing in 34 games for Rod Brind’Amour’s Carolina Hurricanes, notching four goals and four assists while splitting the season in the American Hockey League with the Charlotte Checkers.

After spending the past three seasons playing overseas, Maenalanen returned to North America on a one-year, two-way deal with the Jets and a distinct goal in mind.

“I wanted to play in the NHL. This is my last chance,” Maenalanen said before suiting up in his second preseason game, a 5-3 win for the Jets over the Ottawa Senators. “I’m 28 years old. That’s why I’m here. I’m a much better player. That’s why I went back to Europe to play games, and now I’m ready.

“This is a good chance for me.”

Originally chosen in the fifth round of the 2013 NHL Draft by the Nashville Predators, Maenalanen believes his game has matured and that he’s ready to take the next step.

Only time will tell if he can convince Jets head coach Rick Bowness and the rest of the coaching staff that he’s ready to beat out one of the incumbents for the job or can vault himself past one of the prospects vying for a spot on the opening-day roster.

Maenalanen has been noticeable throughout training camp and had a solid debut against the Oilers in the 4-0 loss on Sunday night, doing enough to earn an unplanned second look on Tuesday.

“He’s a big, strong guy. He’s not afraid,” said Bowness. “He’s around the net. He did a good job on the penalty kill, so we tried to get him some more minutes.”

Maenalanen, who noted he’s often been used on the penalty kill when suiting up for the Finnish national team, seemed to take advantage of those roughly three additional minutes (moving him to 14:18 on Tuesday), producing two shots on goal and four shot attempts while being credited with two hits.

“The first thing that jumps out is he’s very skilled and has a great release,” said Jets forward hopeful Mikey Eyssimont, who meshed well on a line with Maenalanen on Tuesday. “You saw that on that toe-drag shot (in the third period). But he can put a little bit of grit into his game, as well. He’s (got) a big body and he uses it well.”

Eyssimont has also shown well through two games and was rewarded with a power-play goal on Tuesday, tipping home a one-timer from Kyle Connor.

Although Eyssimont is drawing attention for his pain-in-the-you-know-where style and dogged determination, he was filling in for Pierre-Luc Dubois on the Jets’ top power play unit against the Senators and made his opportunity count.

While Maenalanen is trying to force his way into the discussion for a roster spot, Eyssimont is likely battling to be one of the first call-ups, though his tenacity is sure to have caught the attention of the coaching staff so far.

Speaking of forwards leaving an impression, 2020 second-rounder Daniel Torgersson also had a night to remember, scoring twice and rattling a chance off the post as he attempted to complete the hat trick — sparking memories of Hannu Jarvenpaa’s preseason highlight pack from the Jets 1.0 era.

Torgersson got a taste of the North American game late last season, suiting up in four games with the Manitoba Moose to help get him ready for his first NHL training camp.

Suiting up for Sweden and capturing a bronze medal at the World Junior Hockey Championship in August also helped Torgersson get in the right frame of mind.

On Tuesday, Torgersson showed off some smarts in finding a soft spot in the slot, allowing Connor (who paced the offensive attack with a goal and three points) to find him for a perfect one-timer that opened the scoring, just 22 seconds after serving a minor penalty for tripping.

“I took a stupid penalty in the offensive zone and then the team had a pretty good PK. We killed the PK and then I don’t really know,” said Torgersson. “I just came into the offensive zone and (Kyle) Connor just passed me the puck and I thought, (expletive), I need to hit the net’ and I did it.”

Torgersson converted a pass from Alex Limoges on the doorstep for his other goal, then nearly wrapped up his first three-goal outing in recent memory.

“I hoped so, sometimes you get lucky, but other times you don’t have luck with you,” said Torgersson, asked if he thought the third-period chance was going in. “So next time.”

When you’re destined for the Moose like Torgersson is, doing enough to get that next game and survive the next round of cuts is all you can really focus on.

The blue line battle has been a topic of conversation and will continue to be throughout training camp as the jockeying for position continues.

It was an up-and-down showing for Ville Heinola, who got caught pinching on a goal by Tyler Motte on an odd-man rush, but also converted a perfect pass from Adam Lowry after a smart zone entry by Cole Perfetti.

Heinola showed some offensive flair, recording three shots on goal and six shot attempts to go along with two hits and three blocked shots.

Heinola, who played 17:34, is trying to make an impact but must show Bowness and associate coach Scott Arniel that his risk/reward quotient is at the right level.

Dylan Samberg, another candidate for a job on the back end, was mostly solid in his preseason debut.

Former Brandon Wheat Kings forward and Roblin, MB. product Jayce Hawryluk chipped a puck past Samberg on the Senators first goal from Cole Reinhardt, but that marker had more to do with Neal Pionk being caught out of position on the play.

Samberg ended up with four shot attempts, three hits and a blocked shot in just under 20 minutes of work, often looking like the player that was comfortable in his first taste of NHL action last season — when he overcame an injury on the opening day of training camp.

For those vying for a spot on the blue line or on the fringes of the forward group, the next step is to start separating yourself from the competition — something that hasn’t happened yet in the eyes of the head coach.

Bowness was unhappy with the Jets puck management and shift length during the first two periods.

“For a lot of guys, that was their first game but that being said, we have to play a lot faster than that,” said Bowness. “The two things that slow you up are long shifts and turnovers, and we were guilty of both tonight. Take out the Xs and Os and everything. If you want to stay out there for 55 seconds and you’re going to turn pucks over, you’re going to play very, very slow, which we did.

“In the third, we shortened the shifts up, we started going north and we looked a lot better. There’s a right way to play and it took us until the third to figure that out.”

The Jets are back in action on Thursday night against the Montreal Canadiens at the Bell Centre, before returning home to host the Edmonton Oilers on the day they unveil Dale Hawerchuk’s statue.

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