Winnipeg Jets’ rookies ready for NHL debut when they open season in Boston

WINNIPEG — There will be at least five Nicolas Petan fans in the stands when the Winnipeg Jets open the season in Boston on Thursday.

The Jets rookie forward said his parents, brother, uncle and trainer are travelling to watch his first NHL game and he couldn’t be happier to share the special moment with them.

“It’s an awesome time, not just for myself, but for them as well,” the Delta, B.C., native said Wednesday after the Jets practised in Winnipeg before boarding a flight to take on the Bruins.

“And not just my immediate family, it’s for everyone that’s around me. It’s just an awesome feeling.”

Winnipeg kicks off the regular season with a four-game road trip, including games against New Jersey, the New York Islanders and New York Rangers.

Petan, 20, is one of three rookies who’ve cracked the Jets’ roster, which features six players aged 22 and under.

Forward Nikolaj Ehlers, 19, is the team’s youngest player and will also make his NHL debut against Boston. Rookie centre Andrew Copp, 21, recorded his first game in last season’s final regular-season match versus Calgary and picked up an assist.

Ehlers won’t have family cheering him on in person Thursday as his dad, Heinz, is head coach of Lausanne HC, a national A team in Switzerland.

The Denmark native talked to his dad after he made the roster and his parents might watch his debut on satellite TV, depending on the time, said Winnipeg’s first-round pick (ninth overall) in the 2014 draft.

“He’s proud,” Ehlers said of his father, who played pro in Europe for more than 20 years. “He texted me and called me and said congratulations. It’s pretty exciting to them.”

Some hockey pundits have questioned if the injection of more youth will add to the challenge of Winnipeg making the playoffs like it did last season, when the team set a Jets/Atlanta Thrashers’ franchise record with 99 points and tied a franchise record for wins (43-26-13).

“They earned the right to be here,” captain Andrew Ladd said of the rookies.

“There wasn’t any freebies and we weren’t giving them an opportunity just because we think they’re going to be good down the road. They’re good players right now and they’ll fit in good with our lineup so we’re excited to have them.”

Copp will centre the team’s fourth line, with the five-foot-nine Petan on the left wing and veteran Chris Thorburn on the right side.

Sophomore centre Adam Lowry is on the third line with veteran Drew Stafford at right wing and Alexander Burminstrov, who rejoined the team following two seasons playing in the Kontinental Hockey League.

Ehlers is playing right wing on the second line with third-year centre Mark Scheifele and veteran Mathieu Perreault.

Ladd, centre Bryan Little and right-winger Blake Wheeler will be together to start the season, despite head coach Paul Maurice experimenting with line combinations during the pre-season.

“We look like we’re moving faster. It’s going to be put to the test here,” Maurice said.

He likes opening the season on the road as it’s good for developing team unity, although he noted the veterans have already been making the rookies feel welcome.

“The young guys now have been kind of accepted. You can tell,” Maurice said. “The older guys are starting to tease them a little bit. That’s usually a real good sign.”

He’ll talk to Ehlers and Petan before their first pro game and advise them to enjoy the moment.

“I’ll want them to take it all in and not try to calm themselves down or fight their nerves,” Maurice said.

“Just be nervous, take it all in. Remember everything. The national anthems, the whole package, because you only get one of these.”

The Canadian Press