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Jets pick Chaz Lucius among sharpest shooters in 2021 NHL Draft

WINNIPEG — Chaz Lucius was a late starter, yet a quick study.

The Minnesota product only started playing hockey when he was eight years old, but he’s mastered one of the most difficult skills in the sport and turned himself into a pure sniper.

Known as one of the sharpest shooters in the 2021 NHL Draft, Lucius was chosen by the Winnipeg Jets with the 18th overall selection on Friday night.

“The biggest thing that stands out is his goal-scoring ability and his ability to create offence. He’s got an incredible stick and he combines that skill-set and his shot and his playmaking ability,” U.S. National Team Development Program U18 head coach Dan Muse said in a telephone interview. “He’s got a really great sense and feel offensively. His ability to find open pockets, with the timing of it, to get himself open. He’s got a really special shot, but he also has that sense of how to get himself into great positions to utilize that skill.

“He’s a guy that can make uncommon plays, he can beat guys one-on-one, he can score from distance, he’s willing to get to the net. He has really great touch around the net too. He’s got that versatility. It’s a really good combination. I really do believe he’s one of — if not the top — natural goal scorer in this year’s draft. He’s definitely right there as one of the top guys. He’s shown it at every level and he’s going to continue to be able to create offence and be able to show off that shot and that skill set at higher levels.”

That’s precisely what Jets general manager Kevin Cheveldayoff and his scouting staff are counting on and what made him appealing when it was time to step to the virtual podium.

“He had to go through some adversity. He had some injuries that limited the amount of games that he could play, but we’re really excited,” said Cheveldayoff. “It’s a really good value pick where we got it. A really skilled player, a very good character player. The interview process we went through with him was fantastic. He knows a lot about his game, about how to play. Just a great self awareness of what his game is. He works real hard at it, he’s real skilled.

“Anytime you can grab a centre with those kinds of skills and those kinds of qualities, it’s a good day for the draft.”

Despite his relatively late introduction to the sport, Lucius didn’t need much time to get hooked.

“Actually hockey was one of the last sports I went into. Growing up in Minnesota all my buddies played it, so I started at eight years old and never looked back,” said Lucius. “I fell in love with the game. I’d say from that moment on I was all-in in hockey and really passionate about the sport. That’s when my love of hockey started, and continues to this day.”

Just how did Lucius develop that heavy shot and quick release?

“I’d say it’s more the work ethic and shooting pucks every day, whether it be off-angle shots, regular shots or one of my good shots,” said Lucius. “Whatever it may be, I feel like that really helped me in my abilities. Then, obviously, natural ability plays a part in that as well and that helps.”

Like Cole Perfetti after he was chosen 10th overall by the Jets in the 2020 NHL Draft, Lucius mentioned Jets top centre Mark Scheifele as a player he looks up to.

“He’s a guy that I really try to model my game after and it’s pretty cool now that I’ve been drafted by the Jets and having him as an idol of mine,” said Lucius. “I’m really looking forward to the opportunity there and I’ll keep watching his game.”

Lucius is heading to the University of Minnesota Golden Gophers men’s hockey program this fall.

After committing to the program at the young age of 14, Lucius is excited to take the next step in his journey after enduring plenty of adversity during his draft season.

Lucius had been projected to go in the Top-10 before suffering a bone lesion on his left knee two years ago that required surgery last summer and limited him to only 25 games last season.

“With the injury, it wasn’t the best (thing) to happen in my draft year but I really rolled with it as it happened and (with) the recovery process. I really couldn’t control it at all, so from Day 1, I wasn’t really sad or really mad,” said Lucius, who is set to attend a summer showcase in Michigan with a collection of players that could represent the United States at the 2022 World Junior Hockey Championship. “Whatever happened with the draft, so it may (be). I’m glad I’m a Winnipeg Jet now and I’m really fortunate that they drafted me. It’s close to home to me, so that’s a plus for sure. I’d say it’s a really fun team to watch, fast-paced.”

You can count Muse among the many folks who were impressed by how Lucius handled himself during the long road to recovery — which included some time in a wheelchair and having to spend a lot of time in a hyperbaric oxygen chamber as a way to help speed up the process before he needed to learn how to walk again.

“He obviously produced at a very high rate coming back,” said Muse. “He’s coming off some time where he wasn’t able to skate as much and that’s something that’s only going to be getting better over time too.”

The Jets next pick is 50th overall and following the second round, they currently have only two more picks on Saturday, 82nd (third round), and 146th (fifth round).

Despite the limited number of selections, the Jets weren’t tempted to trade down in order to try and replenish the pool of picks.

“We did make some calls either way preliminarily, but as we started to see it unfold, we actually felt we were in a really good spot,” said Cheveldayoff. “So, it wasn’t so much of an issue for us to look to move back. Every draft will present itself differently, but when you’re in the middle there like that, you know you’re going to get a good pick.”

It was another busy day in the NHL on the transaction front, with several blockbuster trades completed, including one made within the Central Division by the Chicago Blackhawks — who acquired defenceman Seth Jones from the Columbus Blue Jackets.

The Vancouver Canucks completed a trade for defenceman Oliver Ekman-Larsson and winger Conor Garland from the Arizona Coyotes, while the Philadelphia Flyers acquired blue-liner Rasmus Ristolainen from the Buffalo Sabres.

Ristolainen was a player the Jets had shown interest in previously as a potential option to bolster the right side, but the price tag ended up being too high for a guy who was only one season away from testing unrestricted free agency for the first time.

How do Friday’s moves — along with the Seattle Kraken inking pending UFA D-men Jamie Oleksiak and Adam Larsson earlier in the week — impact the Jets’ pursuit of blue line upgrades?

What we know for sure is that the cost of improving the back end is going to be steep, whether the Jets add a free agent next week or are able to complete a trade.

“We were active on a couple of fronts. Obviously there were some big ones that did go,” said Cheveldayoff. “We weren’t in some of them, for various different reasons, but we’re going to continue to look and see if there’s an opportunity, whether it’s through trade now or whether it’s through free agency, if we have that opportunity, or it could be a trade that maybe happens down the road as well. We have to be prepared for everything and we’ll see how things unfold.”

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