Ask folks who watched Josh Jooris play in the American League for Abbotsford last season and they’ll tell you he was OK. Ask folks who have watched the young center play for the Calgary Flames this season and they’ll tell you he’s been much more important.
An undrafted free agent out of Union College, the Burlington, Ont., native has been playing on Calgary’s most dangerous line lately with fellow rookie Johnny Gaudreau and veteran Jiri Hudler. That’s a lot of flash surrounding the 24-year-old pivot, who was given this glowing assessment by GM Brad Treliving: “When he’s out there, you feel like nothing bad is going to happen.”
Even though Calgary was supposed to be steeped in youth this season, Jooris wasn’t in the master plan. Gaudreau, Sean Monahan, maybe Markus Granlund? Sure. But Jooris was a longer shot.
“My feeling last year was that this guy was sort a junkyard dog,” Treliving said. “He worked really hard, but you wondered what the ceiling was in terms of skill set. He’s a really good lesson and case study for young players. It’s such a small window in training camp and he came in and had a really good first day.”
And then a good second day. And then a third. He earned a pre-season game and shone there as well, netting him another exhibition contest. Jooris did have to spend two games in the minors, but once he got his chance in Calgary, he made sure he stuck.
“The progression for me now is a guy who still works really hard, but now is gaining confidence to do other things in the game, to make plays,” Treliving said. “Now the challenge for him is to make it not just a good-start-to-the-season story, but elongate it – make it a good story.”
The early chapters are pretty gripping. Jooris played in the Ontario Jr. A League at a time when the circuit had become an unwieldy mess of 36 franchises. So even though he tallied 90 assists and 116 points in 50 games alongside future Arizona free agent signing Greg Carey on a team that also featured Patrick Koudys (Penn State/Washington Capitals pick) and Matt O’Connor (Boston U.’s current goalie), no one took Jooris in the draft. He headed off to Union College in Schenectady, N.Y., where coach Nate Leaman had the Dutchmen steadily improving. Leaman would leave for Providence College the next year, but Jooris and crew were a force in the ECAC and the Dutchmen actually won the national championship last year under coach Rick Bennett, with Jooris in the AHL already.
His time in Abbotsford didn’t seem to indicate a leap to the NHL this season, but Jooris had other plans, even though he stuck to the same workout regimen he had used during his time at Union.
“I wanted it this year,” he said. “Going into the last year of my contract, maybe I ramped it up a little bit, but overall I just put my time into it.”
Providing both size and steadiness to his line, Jooris has given Gaudreau a nice foil during a season where the Flames have lost centers such as Mikael Backlund, Matt Stajan and Joe Colborne to injuries at various times. He even netted his first career hat trick in a win over Arizona, something the incredibly gifted Gaudreau hasn't done in the NHL yet.
“You get on the ice with Johnny…anyone can have chemistry – he’s that dynamic,” Jooris said. “My job is pretty easy: I’ve got to be responsible in the ‘D’ zone when we’re out against good players and chip in and get open for him in the offensive zone.”
The two also moved in together in Calgary, which, if you’re reading between the lines, means that the Flames don’t see Jooris heading back to the minors anytime soon. And so far, he has cooked the only dinner they’ve had together in the house. Yet another skill Jooris is bringing to the table…