2017-18 NHL Team Preview: Winnipeg Jets

Jets GM Kevin Cheveldayoff addresses the Winnipeg media after signing a multi-year extension, excited to continue the progress with this group of personnel.

Trust the process. That’s what the Winnipeg Jets have wanted you to believe for years.

And, to be honest, there’s a good reason for it. When the team came to Manitoba from Atlanta, it wasn’t built to be a contender or long-term playoff contestant. The plan from the top was to accumulate young players, develop them slowly and eventually it would pay off with consistent success.

It’s worked to a degree, too. Mark Scheifele has blown up as a potential star after a couple years of middling production in the NHL. Nik Ehlers hit 64 points last year and on the top line, you could see him getting more this season. Patrik Laine may be one of the best goal scorers of this next generation of players.

But the time has come for it to pay off in wins and playoff appearances. Even more than that, this team should win some of those playoff games and maybe even a series. The young guys who have looked so good are surrounded by veterans still at the tops of their games.

Owner Mark Chipman committed to the GM/head coach duo of Kevin Cheveldayoff and Paul Maurice with contract extensions, showing they’re still on board with the plan. The fan base, meanwhile, is expecting playoffs and nothing less.

On paper, the patience is worth it. It’s time to show it in results.

UP-AND-COMING PLAYER TO WATCH

A reason for Cheveldayoff earning a contract extension is the exciting group of forwards he’s accumulated who will take a few years to mature in a tough division. Mark Scheifele, Nikolaj Ehlers and Patrik Laine (OK maybe Cheveldayoff doesn’t deserve credit for that one), have already broken out as impact scorers and another has shown all the signs he could be next.

If Kyle Connor makes this team out of camp, the Jets will have a Calder Trophy candidate in the lineup and a potential top-six player who adds a fresh boost of scoring. He may have only scored five points in 20 NHL games last season, but the majority of his year was in the AHL, where he scored a goal nearly every other game and led the team with 25 in just 52 games played.

In fact, he’s scored at every level: 33 goals in 35 games with University of Michigan, and setting USHL Youngstown records with 34 goals and 80 points in 2014-15.

If he can work his way into a good enough opportunity, Connor is a candidate to score north of 20 goals and be the kind of X-Factor that pushes the Jets back into the playoffs.

WHAT A SUCCESSFUL 2017-18 WOULD LOOK LIKE

Playoffs, playoffs, playoffs. And more than that, at least a few playoff wins and preferably one series victory.

The Jets have been a team of promise for too long now and need some of that potential to pay off. They got there in 2015 and although it was a disappointingly quick four-and-out, that was supposed to be the start of a break out. Since then, they’ve only had a few years of inconsistencies and a hole in the roster at goaltender that often put the team at a disadvantage.

The Jets didn’t have to do anything significant in the summer. They added a left-shot defenceman with Dmitry Kulikov and attempted to stabilize the net with Steve Mason — it’s nothing to get excited about but they were the kind of tweaks the team needed. There was no reason to take a risky and bold approach to a roster that has so much talent already. The sense is the Jets are still right there, ready to burst at any moment. Well, it’s about time they showed it.

BIGGEST REMAINING QUESTION

Is this team really worthy of all the positive projections and belief in the future? All this patience just builds up expectations that it’s actually going to work. And if it is working, shouldn’t this team make the playoffs this season and avoid three misses in a row?

Head coach Paul Maurice has led the team to one playoff series and zero playoff game wins in four years. Actually, in his past 10 completed seasons as an NHL head coach, Maurice’s teams have just two playoff appearances. Yet the contract extension suggests Cheveldayoff has his man and the disappointments to date are OK because the youngsters have developed and a happy ending is just over the next hill.

Sure Winnipeg is trending up, the roster is potential-packed and it looks so good on paper. But Calgary and Toronto have had much more payoff after coming from worse positions. If the Jets miss out on the playoffs again, we’ll wonder whether the process (and the core) is worth the hype.