WINNIPEG—Judging by Jansen Harkins’ demeanor when speaking to reporters after the Manitoba Moose’s game against the Grand Rapids Griffins on November 2nd, you’d have never known he just notched five assists in a single game.
Harkins— who before that night had just 54 points in 134 career AHL games— was cool as a cucumber. When asked what it felt like to make such a big offensive contribution, Harkins shrugged before matter-of-factly stating the obvious— that it was nice to “chip-in offensively,”— before he quickly shifted gears and praised his teammates’ efforts.
“You can’t tell if he has a five point night, or if he’s a – 4. And I think that’s huge,” said Brett Harkins, Jansen’s uncle, who played nearly two decades of pro hockey (including 78 NHL games) before embarking on a career as a scout for the Boston Bruins at the beginning of the 2016-17 season. “He keeps it at an even-keel.”
While Harkins’ eyebrow-raising game came at seemingly perfect timing for the 22-year-old forward, with Harkins slotting in as the teams’ number one centre in wake of NHL call-up related absences, it was just another game to him.
“To be honest, I go into every game trying to do the same thing. So I don’t think my mindset really changed,” Harkins explained to reporters that night when asked if there was a little extra jump to his game considering his recent promotion.
But that game on November 2nd would turn out to be anything but just another game. In fact, it would mark the start of what would be a miraculous progression, within a matter of a few weeks, that saw Harkins record 21 points in his next 22 contests, eventually earning himself a spot in the AHL All-Star Classic, before being called up to the Jets on December 18th where he’s been a staple in Winnipeg’s bottom-six ever since. While the organization knew the third year pro would get plenty of reps to prove his worth in the final year of his entry-level contract, what he went on to do in less than two months was nothing short of astonishing.
“There’s no way we could have predicted that,” Moose Head Coach, Pascal Vincent admitted to reporters on November 15th.
To understand how Harkins came out of the shadows and seemingly established himself as an NHL-caliber player over night, you have to understand how he handled his first two years of pro hockey.
“His own investment in himself, that’s the product of what we’re seeing right now,” Vincent explained on November 18th.
After a four year junior career in the Western Hockey League with the Prince George Cougars, the Jets opted for their 2015 second round pick to turn pro at the start of the 2017-18 season, as opposed to returning to junior hockey for his overage season. Harkins was regarded as an all-situations type of player whose work ethic was highly regarded. At his peak, Harkins—a near point-per-game player through 275 career WHL games—stood out by doing what he started to do so efficiently with the Moose this past fall.
“When he has the puck on his stick, he’s able to make plays at a high speed and that’s what you have to do at the NHL level so I think that’s what separates him—his speed and playmaking ability,” Seth Griffith, a frequent linemate of Harkins’ this year, said in early January.
It was in that first pro season that Harkins, long regarded as a prominent player amongst his peers dating back to his childhood days in Vancouver where he was toe-to-toe with Matt Barzal as the best player amongst his age group, had to grind it out in the Moose’s bottom-six for every ounce of opportunity. It wasn’t going to be easy for Harkins to carve out a big role on what was a stacked Moose team—featuring the likes of several NHL players such as Mason Appleton, Brendan Lemieux, and Jack Roslovic—given how much he needed to develop physically to be able to excel at the next level.
“For young players, it is frustrating. Because you’re a good player coming from junior, you expect all this success early on,” said Todd Harkins, Jansen’s father, who was the General Manager of the Prince George Cougars during Jansen’s WHL heydays.
Any player transitioning from junior to pro is going to be playing a bit of catch-up from the start. Harkins, like many players making the jump, had to bulk up and fill out his 6’2 frame in order to translate his game to the next level. But a concussion in the pre-season and a contraction of mono later in the season—which is just about the worst thing for a player trying to build muscle— would throw Harkins behind the 8-ball even more than he already was, several times throughout the year.
But throughout those bouts of adversity, Harkins’ focus never wavered.
“Some players struggle with that. They want everything now rather than to put in the time,” said Greg Landry of Newport Sports, Harkins’ agent. “Yet Jansen hasn’t been like that at all. If anything, he’s been the opposite.”
When the Moose told Harkins he needed to bulk up to be effective at the pro level, he took his fitness habits to a whole different level. He became a gym rat. When he was asked to switch from his longtime position of centre, to the wing, he constantly asked questions to the coaching staff on ways he could improve his game and be more effective. And when the Jets assigned him to the ECHL’s Jacksonville IceMen for a six-game stint—as a means of getting an opportunity to regain some offensive confidence and be deployed in all sorts of situations—he trusted the process entirely.
“If I was sent to the ECHL back then, I would’ve retired. I can tell you that right now. I’m being 100% truthful,” said Brett, who insists he once told his agent exactly that during his own playing days.
Jansen didn’t care too much for the negative connotation that surrounds— or rather, used to surround—the ECHL. Todd admits that even he was a bit rattled when he heard the news.
“He called me and said he was at the airport and I said ‘well, where are you going?’ He said, he was sent down. I think I was more upset than he was,” admitted Todd, who was a pro player himself in the 1990s.
Jansen was mature enough to understand the benefits of such a move.
“He took it as an opportunity to better himself,” said Jacksonville’s head coach, Jason Christie. “Some guys they don’t like getting sent down and nobody ever does, but the way he approached it was something I hadn’t seen in a long time.”
Even in the wake of such a trying season for him, mentally and physically, Harkins’ focus didn’t waver. He didn’t sulk. He bought in.
“He had a great focus to him,” Christie explained. “Not even just in games, but practices as well. He didn’t come down and try to do it himself, you know what I mean? He came down to work on all parts of his game.”
Harkins’ humble nature is part of what gravitated teammates and team personnel towards him. Through the ups and downs, he remained level-headed, practical and the furthest thing from egotistical.
“He was our leading scorer here, and by the way he carries himself, you’d never know it,” Moose defenceman Jonathan Kovacevic, Harkins’ roommate, told reporters on December 21st after Harkins was recalled.
Harkins’ second year at the pro level didn’t start out the way he wanted it too, either.
With his summer training mainly geared towards getting his body to where it was before he contracted mono, he was behind the 8-ball once again. In the first half of his 2018-19 campaign, Harkins recorded just eight points in 30 games. Once again, he was being deployed predominately in a bottom-six role and being asked to round out other facets of his game. The types of intangibles and non-sexy elements to a hockey player that are required for one to flourish.
Jansen understood that. A lot of players don’t. He took pride on playing a complete game. That’s part of the reason why at the beginning of his offensive explosion this past fall, he didn’t seem all that concentrated on the fact he was piling up points. He had his sights on being an NHL player and he had a realistic vision on how that would happen.
“It’s harder to teach a kid that’s been a skill guy his whole life to be a bottom-six forward,” Brett said. “How many kids are going to want to do that? Not very many.”
In Harkins’ second year pro, he put an even further emphasis on his fitness. Frankly, it’s the time in the gym and the dedication to molding his physical frame that allowed for Harkins to be at his best and allow for his offensive instincts and skills to flourish. His hard work started to pay off in the second half of his 2018-19 campaign, with Harkins doubling his points per game from his first 30 games (0.26 p/pg), in his final 40 games of the season (0.56 p/pg).
But Harkins still wasn’t even close to being on the Jets’ call-up radar.
“I scout. I get it,” Brett said. “Winnipeg at the top? They’re loaded. The Jets were loaded. And so was their farm team too. It was a tough lineup to crack.”
Nevertheless, Harkins never requested a trade. He never pouted. He never blamed external factors around him. He just continued to work. His goal was to come into this season much stronger than the years before and he did. And this season, he got rewarded. Seeing him get the long-awaited call to the big leagues this year had those around the Moose elated.
Vincent was giddy to relay the news.
“Going to see Jansen Harkins and tell him ‘hey, the Jets are going to call you up.’ That was a great moment in my life, anyway,” Vincent said.
Vincent says the often calm and collected Harkins’ face lit up. It was an eye-opener. When he called his Dad, who above everyone else understood the work Jansen was putting in through the last two years, it hit him like an emotional tidal wave.
“Jansen could barely talk,” Brett, who listened to the voicemail with his brother Todd, explained. “He said ‘Dad, I just want to let you know,’ and then there was a pause for about 10-15 seconds and you could tell that he was emotional. And then he said, ‘I’m getting called up’.”