The Winnipeg Jets are one of the top “draft and develop” teams in the entire National Hockey League, those magazines full of hockey experts will tell you.
They have such a crop of young talent, we have heard for some time, that the Jets are poised for a long and successful stay atop the NHL standings. And when you watch 24-year-old Mark Scheifele, Nikolaj Ehlers (21), Jacob Trouba (23) and Patrik Laine (19) walk out of Rogers Place in Edmonton after a dominant, resounding 5-2 victory, you can begin to see peoples’ point here.
The Jets are big, fast, good and young — even if they haven’t accomplished a damned thing.
OK. Let’s take a step back.
I am quite pleased for a solid, Canadian hockey market like Winnipeg, to accept as reality the bright future in Manitoba. We’ve always said, there are more hockey fans in Winnipeg (and Quebec City) than in any one of 15 American markets. Less people, yes, but more hockey fans.
I have personally touted the Jets inevitable ascent on many occasions, and believe after what the market has been through, hockey success in Winnipeg should be celebrated. With one caveat:
When does it start?
“You can’t make it happen in one night, and you can’t wait until the last month to make it happen,” Trouba was saying before the Edmonton game, his team still at 0-2 and searching for its identity. “We know (the Jets overall game) hasn’t been good, and we know it has to improve. At the same time, you’ve got to stay with what you’re doing, with everyone on the same page. You can’t go off on your own — that’s not how it’s going to get solved.
“It’s not something where you flip a switch. It takes some time.”
The Jets found “it” later that night and spanked the Oilers good, with Ehlers notching a hat trick in a 5-2 game that left both teams at 1-2 on the young season. Trouba was outstanding, it must be said.
Afterwards, I wrote a piece on the Oilers that asked if they were complacent. If last spring was a fluke, or if the Oilers were willing to put in the work necessary to return to their status as a Cup contender.
But even if the former is true, at least Edmonton finally got there. Yes, their rebuild was a series of comedic decisions, but the Oilers made the playoffs, won a round and made it to Game 7 of Round 2.
Winnipeg, now in its seventh season since coming over from Atlanta, hasn’t accomplished a thing in Manitoba let alone won a playoff game, swept by Anaheim in its only playoff appearance three seasons ago. General manager Kevin Cheveldayoff and head coach Paul Maurice were both handed extensions this summer, a move that says Jets ownership can see around the corner to all the success that awaits.
Make the playoffs, contend in the Central, and that owner will look brilliant. But like picking last decade’s San Jose Sharks to win the Stanley Cup, predicting the Taylor Hall rebuild to finally turn the corner in Edmonton, or waiting for stability in the ownership suites of Florida and Arizona, we’ll leave that prediction to someone else.
The Jets looked fantastic Monday. Big, strong, fast and young, with goaltending to boot.
It was one game in a row.
“All the pieces,” acknowledged Maurice post-game. “We had real good goaltending, we had a number of our defencemen — difficult to single them out because I thought they were all pretty good. Up front, Nik scores the three but that was the most dominant Scheifele and Wheeler have been, going both ways.”
My eyes tell me this Jets project has matured to the point where it can surpass a St. Louis or Nashville in the Central Division this season. Then my brain asks, “Which goalie is going to allow that to happen? Connor Hellebuyck? Or Steve Mason?”
My eyes say, after watching Hellebuyck in Edmonton, “Well, this kid is only 24. He’s only entering his prime as a goalie.”
And my brain says, “Yeah, and the Jets have been entering their prime as a team for how many years now?”
What we saw in Edmonton was a microcosm of Jets hockey: They played a fabulous game — to get to 1-2 on the season.
“It was a good sign, when your team responds like this and everybody does their job,” said Wheeler, a calming, veteran voice in the Jets’ room. “We do still have a young team and guys have to build confidence in themselves and respect the fact that the opposition has good players and bad things are going to happen.
“But all we can do is get back to our game and have confidence that we can prevail in the end.”
Just win, baby. Just win.
The time has arrived for results in Winnipeg.