“I thought they played like they’ve been in the league.”
The words came out of the mouth of Winnipeg Jets interim head coach Dave Lowry and they were sincere.
They were uttered in response to a query about the play of Dylan Samberg and Declan Chisholm, who made their NHL debuts on Thursday night in what turned out to be a tidy 3-0 victory over the Detroit Red Wings.
Although Lowry isn’t one to wax poetic at the podium, this was a convincing compliment — and a deserving one when you consider how Samberg and Chisholm handled themselves under what would be considered less-than-optimal circumstances to pull on a Jets jersey for the first time in a regular-season game.
“They were extremely comfortable,” said Lowry. “They both skate real well. They were able to skate their way out of trouble a couple of times. They were very relaxed, very poised.”
Seeing double on the solo lap tonight! 🤩
— Winnipeg Jets (@NHLJets) January 14, 2022
When it comes to the necessary qualities for young defencemen working to break into the NHL, the ability to skate and move the puck efficiently — especially when under duress — are among the most important to employ.
Lowry went on to say that the calming presence of a veteran defence partner helped both Samberg and Chisholm feel a bit more at ease and you can be sure that both players would concur.
But what was evident on Thursday was that not only did neither one of those guys look out of place, they played like they belonged.
That’s not to say they’re immediately ready for full-time duty, it means they warrant another look.
Knocking on the door is an important step; putting yourself in position to kick it down is the next one.
The Jets don’t play again until Tuesday when they open a four-game gauntlet against the Washington Capitals and at this point, it’s unclear how many of those eight players in COVID-19 protocol — including D-men Brenden Dillon, Logan Stanley, Nathan Beaulieu and Ville Heinola — will be ready to resume action.
All we know is that they would be eligible to exit protocol, provided they are not dealing with any symptoms.
— American Hockey League (@TheAHL) January 14, 2022
For the time being, let’s put the focus back on Samberg and Chisholm.
Although he is reserved by nature, Samberg carries a higher profile and he’s the No. 2 prospect on defence in the system behind Heinola.
Not known as a flashy player, Samberg (who was chosen in the second round, 43rd overall in the 2017 NHL draft) employs a skill set that translates well to the NHL game and it was on full display against the Red Wings.
The combination of size and mobility is always welcome and Samberg has that in spades.
He also has a physical nature to him and a bit of a mean streak, which allowed him to fit in seamlessly beside fellow Hermantown, Minn., product Neal Pionk.
By the time the final buzzer had sounded, Samberg had taken 23 shifts for just under 18 minutes of ice time, including just under four minutes on the penalty kill, and finished with three hits and five blocked shots.
What made this showing even more impressive is that Samberg suffered a high-ankle sprain on the first day of training camp and was limited to 12 AHL games this season after his recovery was complete.
Many observers have wondered if Pionk and Samberg might forge a future partnership and this was a glimpse of that potential.
Samberg isn’t ready to leapfrog Dillon just yet, but he definitely served notice that the competition for playing time on the third pairing (when the Jets are fully healthy) is heating up.
As for Chisholm, he’s quietly improved every year since the Jets made him one of two picks in the fifth round of the 2018 NHL draft.
His skating is his biggest weapon, but his offensive instincts were prevalent as he played nearly 14 minutes (on 18 shifts) alongside Nate Schmidt.
“Very outgoing, always in a great mood,” Chisholm said of his defence partner following Thursday’s morning skate in Detroit.
“He’s cracking jokes with everyone. He makes you feel like you’re part of the team right away. He did that at camp, he introduced himself to me right away. He talks a lot on the ice, too, so I think that’s going to help me a lot. He’s a veteran player and I think I can learn a lot off him.”
Chisholm was active offensively, but not in a reckless manner.
He didn’t take any unnecessary risks, making smart reads throughout the contest and he’s got an uncanny ability to find shooting lanes at the offensive blue line because of his lateral agility.
He’s only in his second season of pro hockey, but strides are still being made on that front as well.
"He just said to go out there and play your game. Yeah, it's going to be faster but you just gotta have fun with it. Don't change anything."
Declan Chisholm on advice he has received ahead of his NHL debut tonight, when he received the news, and more.
WATCH 🔽 pic.twitter.com/xbwp4Hwk5S
— Winnipeg Jets (@NHLJets) January 13, 2022
Seeing that translate during his first taste of NHL action and being able to play well in front of family and friends that were able to make the drive to Michigan from Ontario is only going to fuel Chisholm’s fire.
The old adage about NHL teams needing somewhere around nine or 10 blue-liners you can comfortably use is alive and well.
With Samberg and Chisholm jumping in the mix, the Jets have already used nine this season — and were it not for being in COVID-19 protocol, Heinola would extend that to 10 and is still expected to do so in the not-too-distant future.
The Jets have three other right-handed shooting D-men with the Manitoba Moose (Johnny Kovacevic, Leon Gawanke and Simon Lundmark) who are working their way into the equation as well.
The jockeying for position on the depth chart is an important part of the development process, but one thing is certain: after a two-year period where the back end was pretty thin, the organizational depth is much stronger.
It also means there will be some important choices for the Jets to make on the personnel side moving forward, which should only add to the intrigue of a season that has already featured plenty of plot twists.
Ken Wiebe covers the Winnipeg Jets for Sportsnet.ca and is a regular contributor to CJOB.
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