WINNIPEG — The guy from Edmonton asked Paul Maurice the question about young teams that get this far, and look like they’ll get back for years to come. And then they don’t.
Will his Winnipeg Jets be different?
“I know where you’re from,” Maurice said. “I know what you’re thinkin’ about.”
Here’s what we’re thinking about: Since Montreal was the last Canadian team to win a Stanley Cup in 1993, how many up-and-coming, promising young Canadian clubs have done what Maurice’s Winnipeg Jets did this spring, then disappeared?
Every year we say about that team — last year’s Edmonton Oilers being the most recent — what I am prepared to say about these Jets, that they have the looks of a club that will bust that trend. That they will contend for years to come.
They have a 24-year-old goalie in Connor Hellebuyck who is plenty good enough; a 25-year-old superstar centreman in Mark Scheifele, and three sub-23-year-old wingers in Patrik Laine, Nikolaj Ehlers and Kyle Connor who combined for over 100 goals this season — all while on their Entry Level Contracts.
The defence is young and stout. They look unstoppable.
But then again, so did the ’03 Canucks, who made Round 2, then didn’t get to a Round 3 for seven more seasons.
So did the Alberta twins — Calgary in ’04, which followed a Game 7 Stanley Cup Final loss by not winning a playoff round for a decade; and the ’06 Oilers, which stalled one game short versus Carolina, then missed the playoffs entirely for 10 straight seasons.
Ottawa went to the Cup Final in ’07, then the Senators won but a single round in the next nine springs.
“It’s an interesting phenomenon,” began Maurice. “We have Stanley Cup champions that fail to make the playoffs the next season. And because of that, that’s the message: there’s nothing permanent and nothing given. Your season prior doesn’t guarantee you anything the next year.
“I know where you live and I know what you’re thinking about. So I would say that there is no guarantee.”
This Jets club, of course, has been a textbook build. It says here, you don’t draft and develop as meticulously as GM Kevin Cheveldayoff and right-hand man Craig Heisinger have and not end up with a roster that has staying power.
Even though the dream died in a swift five games against Vegas, three rounds of playoffs for a group that barely had a morsel of post-season experience under its belt is cold, hard currency.
“We won two series,” said Mathieu Perreault, who like so many others, watched his offence dry up versus Marc-Andre Fleury and his Golden Knights. “We beat the No. 1 team in the league (Nashville), so the sky’s the limit at this point. And then you have to win two more series.
“Yeah, that’s why it’s the hardest trophy to win in sports.”
Even through the bitter disappointment of a Stanley Cup run shattered, it seems impossible to see anything but a series of long springs here in Manitoba. And a group that sticks it out together.
Then you call up CapFriendly and see that Paul Stastny is a UFA on July 1. That Ehlers’ salary jumps to $6 million next season, and third-line centre Bryan Little’s salary moves to a cumbersome $5.3 million, in a new six-year contract.
Notice that Hellebuyck requires a second contract, while backup Steve Mason still has an awkward year left at $4.1 million. Jacob Trouba and Josh Morrissey are both up on defence, as are depth forwards Adam Lowry, Joel Armia and Brandon Tanev.
On July 1, Laine can sign the eight-year, $80-something million deal that is in his Finnish future. Captain Blake Wheeler, the pulse of this team at age 31, needs a new contract after next season too.
So, you get the picture. Where the Chicago Blackhawks won a Stanley Cup before the cap crunch arrived, the Jets are not so fortunate. Neither was Connor McDavid’s Oilers.
Now the scrutiny heats up. ‘Don’t let the wrong kid go.’ ‘Why’d we do that Little deal again?’ ‘How much term were you going give to a 32-year-old Wheeler?’
“When you have success like this, a lot of guys need to get rewarded,” said Stastny, who is almost sure to hit the UFA market on July 1. “And you’ve got to take care of those young guys first. Those guys really earned it.”
Still, the young core will stay intact, a lightning-fast and uber-skilled group that thrilled us all spring long, lending a true belief that maybe, just maybe, a quarter century of Big Stanley summering Stateside would be long enough.
I think they’ll be back. And of course, so do they.
“This team’s got the character. We got the heart and the character,” said Hellebuyck. “Those are two things you can’t teach. You either have it or you don’t. I think this team has it.”
We’ll leave the final word on this wonderful run to Wheeler, who we came to respect even more as one of this generation’s truly great set-up men. The big American never met a puck he couldn’t deliver to a teammate’s tape, nor a digital recorder that he would not grace with the perfect sentiment for his team — every single day and night of this six-week parade.
“This is the most proud I’ve ever been to be on a team,” the Jets captain marveled. “It’s the kind of guys you want to be around, the kind of group you want to be around, and what gave me such belief we were going to find a way.
“We just couldn’t do it this time.”
For this latest Great Canadian Hope, we can only hope there is an encore.