These Moose rookies are earning their ice time on the backend
WINNIPEG -- Life as a hockey player breaking into the professional ranks means countless hours spent training and preparing for your number to be called. And early on in the 2019/2020 regular season, first-year pros Johnathan Kovacevic and Leon Gawanke have been thrust into larger roles with the Manitoba Moose.
"You're kind of hoping for opportunity as a rookie, you're not sure what you're going to get," said Kovacevic.
Sami Niku and Logan Stanley have missed time with injuries to start the schedule, and that’s meant more ice-time for the young defenders.
"I've always played big minutes in junior, so I was kind of used to it,” said 20-year-old Gawanke. “But like, on that level, it's a complete different thing."
Both players are 2017 draft picks of the Winnipeg Jets -- Kovacevic in the third round and Gawanke in the fifth. And starting this year, both are on the clock to show they can make the cut.
"We want to see what you can bring to this hockey team, and the organization,” said Moose head coach Pascal Vincent. “They have three years to be evaluated and become a Jet player. So they're in the process of being evaluated right now."
After finishing three years playing with the NCAA’s Marrimack College Warriors, Kovacevic managed to squeeze in one regular season game to end last season, scoring a goal and an assist. He says that game has made a big difference in his start to his campaign.
"It gave me something to push for, something to look forward to,” said the 22-year-old. “When you actually have tangibles, you can kind of see what you're working for."
Including that game, he’s already compiled five points (two goals and three assists) in just seven games as a pro. He’s also just four classes away from obtaining a civil engineering degree, with a minor in math -- though he’d prefer you didn’t tell his teammates.
"No, absolutely not, no,” he laughed. “I'm trying to get chirped as little as possible, so I really don't want to look like a nerd in front of them."
Gawanke’s journey through hockey is a different one. It started halfway around the world in Berlin, Germany, and brought him to the QMJHL’s Cape Breton Screaming Eagles via the CHL import draft. He showed an offensive flair, with 121 points (29 goals and 92 assists) in 178 games with the Eagles.
"My first month in Cape Breton was definitely different,” he said, “It was hard, but I think I adjusted pretty quick that way, and I hope I can do the same here now."
Vincent says he expects mistakes in execution and play from rookies. It happens. But what he doesn’t want to see are lazy mistakes from the two, and that hasn’t shown up in their games thus far.
“Kovy and Leon, right now they're playing pretty good hockey,” he said.
The Moose hit the road for three games starting this Wednesday, and are back at Bell MTS Place on Monday Nov. 11 to start a four-game homestand against Texas.