Is there a harder team to project in the NHL than the Winnipeg Jets?
Despite their promising youth, scoring power, blue line depth and focused off-season acquisitions, the playoff outlook for Winnipeg is murky. When they made it two years ago and were swept by the Anaheim Ducks, it was seen as the start of something that we now look back on and wonder why it wasn’t. One of those subsequent years was so bad they were able to get Patrik Laine second overall at the draft — a pick that has only heightened expectations.
After two consecutive misses, those expectations are maturing along with the roster. The city, which has been patient since the team landed from Atlanta, is now looking for it to pay off.
“The fans are expecting playoffs,” Sportsnet’s Sean Reynolds said on the Tape to Tape podcast last week. “The players are expecting playoffs. Pretty much everyone in this town knows this is the year they’re going to need to get things done. There’s no more excuses.”
Speaking last week, owner Mark Chipman said when they originally acquired the team and put it in Winnipeg that it was a “distressed asset”, business speak that can be translated into hockey talk as “we’re going to go through a rebuild.”
Mark Scheifele, Nik Ehlers and Laine are all now top line producers. There’s still hope Jacob Trouba is going to be a top pair defender and Josh Morrissey, after a strong rookie season, has cemented his place in this future. Along with that youth, a number of Thrashers holdovers remain, including Dustin Byfuglien, Blake Wheeler and Bryan Little.
The bottom-up rebuild is over and enough pieces are in place. Soon enough there are going to be very few impact players on cheap deals left on the roster. If the Jets don’t take the leap before entry-level contracts expire for Ehlers (after this season), Laine (after next season), Morrissey (after this season) and before Trouba gets his second post-ELC deal after this season, we’ll have an unproven team facing tough cap choices.
Most top NHL teams start showing their potential in the standings before those cheap deals run out.
“Things are going to change really quickly,” Reynolds said. “If they’re going to lock in a lot of their players long term you want to know that group can win and because a lot of guys are going to need to be paid after this year it would make Cheveldayoff’s job a lot easier if this group showed this year that yes they can get it done, they can make the playoffs.”
This is what made last week’s contract extensions to GM Kevin Cheveldayoff and head coach Paul Maurice so confusing. An NHL coach who has two playoff appearances in his past 10 completed seasons, Maurice is credited by ownership for how he’s overseen the development of the youngsters. The contract extension suggests that Maurice could be safe for at least this season and the start of next, but since he would have come in to 2017-18 on any “coaches on the hot seat” list, we have to wonder what would happen if the Jets fail to pull through again.
“Before they had signed him to an extension I would have thought if the Jets stumbled out of the gate and were one of those teams sitting out of the playoff picture at American Thanksgiving I would have expected he’d be gone,” Reynolds noted. “This entire town is expecting them to make the playoffs.”
It’s fair to say Jets fans have been content to take the wait and see approach, especially when you look around the league and see other rebuilders from Toronto and Edmonton start paying off with wins. But there is enough here now to start expecting the same returns.
This season will go along way towards determining whether or not this group is worth all the patience.