They hit the pause button on Tomas Jurco’s NHL career about four years ago.
Two back surgeries, inconsistent play when healthy, lots of sitting in press boxes in Detroit, last season trying to get somebody to notice him with some very strong work in Charlotte in the AHL. He has teased coaches and GMs with his obvious talent since being a second-round draft pick, but he has never been looked at as a given on the coaches NHL lineup card.
So now, with two exhibitions left with the Edmonton Oilers, Jurco, who got a tremendous shot alongside Connor McDavid in Winnipeg Thursday, scoring two goals in the 5-3 win over the Jets, hopes his bosses will tell him he can hit play as one of 14 forwards on the opening 23-man roster.
Jurco, born in Kosice, Slovakia where Leon Draisaitl’s dad is coaching right now, was the 35th player taken in the 2011 draft after a strong year with Saint John Sea Dogs in the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League. He was the first name Detroit called that June because they didn’t have a first-round pick. He’s probably too good for the AHL with 123 points in 179 American League career games but he’s still looking for traction in the NHL with 50 points in 201 games.
At 26, he’s clearly at the crossroads with the one-year contract Oilers gave him in July. He’s been a winner in junior (2011 Memorial Cup with Saint John) and twice in the AHL, but has been an NHL bubble guy, again with a skill-set that looks he should be much more than that.
“It’s huge obviously getting to play with Connor, one of the best if not the best player in the world,” said Jurco, who went into the Jets game with two points in game pre-season looks.
“This is a great chance for me.”
He certainly senses the opportunity is right there to make the team.
“It’s hard not putting pressure on … I’m trying to not think about it,” he said.
“If I play well and hard, hopefully it’s enough to convince them.”
Jurco had 18 points in 63 games in 2014-2015 in Detroit but only played 44 games in 2015-16, sitting out all but five of the first 26. He injured his back working out in Slovakia over the summer in 2016 and needed surgery. Jurco says GM Ken Holland traded him to Chicago late in the 2016-2017 season so he would get a fresh start. He signed with Florida’s AHL farm team Springfield in January 2019, then was traded to Carolina.. He was a point-a-game playoff performer for Charlotte, winning his second Calder Cup (Grand Rapids) trophy.
“I’ve had two back surgeries in the last three years and, yeah, it’s been tough but I’ve worked really hard to get back to where I am now. It gets stiff and there’s a lot of worrying about it to make sure things are alright with exercising but I feel good right now. Lots of stuff I have to do. Stretching and other things,” said Jurco.
Coach Dave Tippett definitely is looking for some more offence to help out McDavid, Draisaitl and Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, who accounted for 119 of the teams’ 199 forward goals last year. James Neal, who was playing right side with McDavid in Winnipeg hopefully can get 20. But people like Jurco, Swede Joakim Nygard and maybe Russian tryout winger Anton Burdasov, if signed, have to help the chunk of good role players in the bottom six.
McDavid and Draisaitl centred the top two lines in Winnipeg with McDavid telling the coach he could use at least one other exhibition before the season started to get the rust out. Tippett wanted them on different lines to give some wingers an offensive audition with the top guns.
“Between Burdasov, Nygard and Jurco we want to see some skill-level … Jurco has done it a bit before and there’s been spurts in camp where he’s looked really good, but he’s had a couple of bumps and bruises that have pushed him back,” said Tippett, admitting his first two lines are in flux.
McDavid and Draisaitl will play together and Nugent-Hopkins and Neal on a second line to start the season but there’s still questions for Tippett. Zack Kassian did a terrific job on right-wing with McDavid late last season but in Winnipeg he was on more of a checking line.
“There’s competition. We went in with a plan to make sure the veterans got the first look but now we’re open to somebody stealing a job also,” said Tippett.
Jurco isn’t 30 or 20, he’s in between as he tries to get an NHL job.
“I’m 26, somewhere in the middle. I lost a couple of years with the (back) surgeries. I was playing eight minutes a game and it’s hard to produce but that’s all in the past,” he said.
This ’n that: Winger Patrick Russell is the only Oiler who has played in all six pre-season games as he tries to make it as a bottom six, PK player. Centre Colby Cave played his fifth game in Winnipeg, Nygard, Neal, Josh Archibald, Jujhar Khaira and Matt Benning their fourth … Tippett had William Lagesson and Brandon Manning battling for the No. 7 spot playing as a defence pair in Winnipeg should Joel Persson go on injured reserve (shoulder) to start the season. Darnell Nurse, Adam Larsson, Nugent-Hopkins (leg soreness), Sam Gagner, Riley Sheahan, Alex Chiasson, Markus Granlund (groin) didn’t go to Winnipeg … Farmhand winger Kailer Yamamoto has been cleared for contact after rehabbing from wrist surgery.