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Back at his natural position and flourishing, Copp showing Jets his full value

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WINNIPEG — The chicken and egg theory debate revolving around Andrew Copp is both intriguing and multifaceted.

Let’s first apply the premise of what came first, the increase in offensive production or the enhanced role with the Winnipeg Jets?

The answer isn’t as straightforward as one might think, though it’s obvious the steady increase in ice time over the course of his NHL career has certainly been a factor.

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Although he was held off the scoresheet in Saturday’s 2-0 loss to the New York Islanders, Copp chipped in three assists on Friday in a 5-1 victory over the Chicago Blackhawks.

That offensive outburst moved him to five goals and 12 points on the season, which left him just behind team scoring leader Kyle Connor, who has 16 points (including a team-high eight goals).

Although he broke into the NHL quickly because of his defensive awareness and pedigree, Copp hasn’t been shy about his quest to carve out more for himself over time.

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And while there have been times when he’s been given cameo appearances in the top-six at various points, he spent a good chunk of last season being used in a more offensive role.

Since training camp began, Copp was split up from longtime linemate Adam Lowry and has been used in a variety of situations, all of which came either on the wing or at centre on one of the top two lines.

Although he’s bounced around a bit, he’s currently back at his natural position of centre and flourishing with Nikolaj Ehlers and Paul Stastny, who left with a suspected foot injury late in Saturday’s game after blocking a shot off his foot.

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Jets captain Blake Wheeler cast his vote in favour of Copp earning the additional opportunity through his hard work.

“He’s getting an opportunity to play in the middle and that’s where he probably excels the most,” said Wheeler. “I don’t know if he’s become a better finisher, he’s in a role now where he’s getting more opportunities. You can’t really talk about a guy being a finisher or not being a finisher if you’re not getting opportunities.

“He’s getting a lot of minutes on the power play and playing in a more offensive role with two offensive players. They’re getting matchups where they are leaned on to produce. He’s always had the capabilities of finishing, he’s just getting more chances.”

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Stastny has noticed the evolution in Copp’s game during his second go-around with the Jets.

“When I was here three or four years ago, he was always playing a checking-line role,” said Stastny. “You can ask anybody, if you play long enough and you get put in the right spot and you take advantage of it, you’re going to shine. He plays the same two-way game, he’s playing at centre now so he’s got more responsibility defensively, but he’s easy to play with.

“He makes the game easier for everybody, starting in our defensive zone. It’s fun to see, it’s fun to see him grow as a player, but I think he’s had the same work ethic and the same focus to get better, and once you get that opportunity and take advantage of it. (Jets head coach) Paul (Maurice) trusts him and we all trust him. He’s been great.”

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Perhaps the most impressive part of this offensive eruption is that it hasn’t come at the expense of Copp’s sound defensive game.

“Well, he’s smart. He knows that any kind of play like that is going to lessen his points. He’s figured it out,” said Maurice. “You play well, you do the right things defensively and you’re going to get more chances with the two guys he’s playing with.

“So, he’s trying to maximize his offensive game by being a really smart defensive player. That’s his DNA. At the end of the day, his foundation is he doesn’t make mistakes defensively and I’m talking year over year, there’s just not a lot, from the very first game he played. He’s seen less video than any player I’ve ever coached. He just got it.”

Not only does the hot start bode well for Copp’s bargaining power as a pending unrestricted free agent this off-season, but given his high level of play and versatility, he’s also forcing his way into the discussion for the United States Olympic team – where he could potentially join Connor up front and Connor Hellebuyck in goal.

Copp has suited up with Team USA at both the world junior hockey championship and the IIHF men’s hockey championship in the past and he might be a perfect fit in a Swiss Army knife role.

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For the time being, Copp simply wants to build on his strong play and he’s enjoying the move back to centre.

“I don’t know about playing with more speed, but getting the puck moving a little bit more. I’ve kind of figured it out on the wing, but it’s easier playing centre,” said Copp. “And you know, I’ve got two good guys on my wings that I can kind of dish the puck out to. You just feel involved at all times in the game, which is nice.”

Copp was also a prolific and proficient high school quarterback in Michigan, a two-sport athlete who gave up football after a shoulder injury.

Which brings us back to the chicken and egg theory.

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Since Copp has often been praised by Jets head coach Paul Maurice for his ability to both consume and absorb what is shown to him on video and apply it immediately, I’ve often wondered if that trait was somehow related to his time spent in the film room when preparing for gridiron battles.

Maurice had an interesting theory that certainly had some substance to it.

“I think maybe he was drawn to quarterback because he was of that mind,” said Maurice. “Not that he became that mind as a quarterback, but all the things that you would need to do, he had. That’s how he’s built and that just translates into his game.”

The ability to push himself for more has been a driving force throughout Copp’s career and it’s been on display once again through the early stages of the new season.

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“Growing up, I guess I played this type of game and feel like I’ve always played this type of game, and now I’ve just gotten better,” said Copp, noting the impact working with Hall of Famer Adam Oates is having on his offensive game especially. “But a lot of hard work, a lot of video and just kind of understanding where everyone’s at on the ice. So, I’ve worked on it tirelessly but a lot of it is credit to other people helping me out with it and my linemates, and we’re not finished. There’s still levels I can get to and get better.”

If he’s able to continue at this level, Copp will be looking at another substantial raise and could follow in the footsteps of fellow Michigan Wolverines alum Zach Hyman, who cashed in on a lucrative multi-year deal last summer.

There’s plenty of time to debate what Copp’s next contract might look like, but what can’t be ignored right now is that he’s once again showing just how valuable he is to a Jets team he’s invested a lot of sweat equity since the organization chose him in the fourth round (104th overall) in the 2013 NHL Draft.

Copp has clearly taken on a leadership role with the Jets and has embraced the chance to be relied on.

“You want to be as big of a part of the team (as possible.) We’ve had a great group here for a long time, it feels like. We’ve added some pieces this year that feel like we round out the group pretty (well), so we take a lot of ownership in how we play and how we perform,” said Copp. “And you just want to be your best and be your best for the team. So yeah, I feel confident in my game, confident that I’m helping the team every night whether it’s on the scoresheet or not on the scoresheet and I just want to continue that.”

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Flames looking to build on intense clash vs. Rangers with playoff spot on the line

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NEW YORK – The hockey world got a shot in the arm Monday, bursting out of the All-Star break with what many considered the best game of the season.

Comebacks, huge hits, fights, goals and overtime dramatics dotted the New York Rangers’ 5-4 overtime win over Calgary to the delight of an amped-up crowd at Madison Square Garden.

All of those entertaining ingredients were products of something the league so sorely lacks most of the regular season: intensity.

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It was only last month Flames coach Darryl Sutter said rather matter-of-factly that regular-season games rarely feature the intensity that shows up every spring, making the Stanley Cup playoffs so impossible to ignore.

Fact is, in an 82-game schedule, it’d be a dangerous game to play with the sort of passion and physicality Monday’s game exhibited.

“You’d be dead,” said Flames winger Milan Lucic with a laugh after a rare practice at MSG Tuesday morning, wide-eyed just talking about the evening.

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“You can see why they play once a week in football.

“You can’t do that 82 nights a year, but your mindset has to be that you want to do it, and have to do it, every night you go out there.

“There are games where you say, ‘This doesn’t mean anything,’ but then something happens and it turns into something bigger.

“There’s things that spark it.”

So, how did it escalate into a wildly entertaining game that had the players’ phones blowing up like a Jacob Trouba bodycheck?

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It started with the setting.

“All these Original Six places are such great places to play,” said Lucic.

“Even during the anthem, whenever there’s a little pause, they scream, ‘Let’s Go Rangers’ – it’s one of their trademarks.

“They still whistle, ‘Potvin Sucks.’

“It’s cool.

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“It’s what playing in the NHL is all about and what you think it’s going to be. When you’re a kid dreaming of playing on the big stage, that’s exactly what you’re thinking about.

“Having that atmosphere from them also helps create the emotion and energy on the ice as well.

“People out west don’t really understand the East Coast cheering hostility.

“It is a hostile environment – they don’t just let you walk in with another team’s jersey on and ask, ‘Oh, hey, how are you doing? Where are you from?’

“It’s not welcoming.”

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Setting off the crowd, and both teams, were the hits, sparking the emotion.

An early hit from Nazem Kadri on Trouba certainly set the tone, as the Rangers captain later responded with big blasts on Dillon Dube and Kadri.

Cue the fireworks, which had the Flames players buzzing afterward about the character in their room and respect for one another that served as a galvanizing evening for a team in search of something to rally around.

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“I loved it and told him I would have done the same thing for him,” said Kadri, when asked about Dube immediately dropping the gloves with towering Trouba for his first NHL fight.

“He’s not a guy who is expected to fight, so that’s always something I respect – he’s certainly earned my respect.

“I’ll have to buy him some dinner or something.”

As Dube walked around Tuesday pretending to have his chest all puffed out, Kadri laughed.

“I think he had a little scratch on his finger too, so ask him about that,” Kadri said.

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MacKenzie Weeger also stepped up to respond to a sizable Sammy Blais hit on Lucic, immediately laying a left-handed beatdown on Will Cuylle.

Chris Tanev kickstarted the fight card, earning kudos for fighting Trouba in his return to the lineup.

“Every team wants to win, but what are you willing to do to win?” said Lucic of the lads backing one another up.

“Yeah, the crowd was great, but if we’re just out there playing shinny, then it ends up being another Monday night.

“They do their part, and we do our part, and it ends up being a game talked about.

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“If you can recall five games in the last couple years, which ones do you remember?

“You remember this one, Nashville (an OT thriller with plenty of fights late last year), the 9-6 playoff game against Edmonton, the goalies fighting.

“You remember those because all the ingredients of intensity go into it.”

With 31 games to go, the Flames are in a scary spot with the West’s final wild-card berth.

Against the Rangers, they bounced back three times from one-goal deficits, got some timely saves from Jacob Markstrom late in the game and traded punches – literally and figuratively – with one of the east’s more talented teams.

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On their turf.

They dropped the overtime point, but added a bounce to their step moving forward.

Was it a coincidence their inspirational showing came the first game out of the final break?

“It was a coincidence, but I also think it’s a bit of a blessing because it gets you ready for what to expect night in and night out,” said Lucic.

“Every game is going to be like a playoff game for us.

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“When the intensity and all that type of stuff goes up, I think it shows the true character of your team and what you’re made of.

“For the teams that do get the opportunity for the playoffs, it’s those learning experiences throughout the season that you do fall back on.”

The question now for the Flames is, can they replicate that desperation, emotion and intensity in Motown Thursday night against the type of bottom-feeder Sutter’s bunch has struggled against this season?

Stay tuned.

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