VANCOUVER – The Winnipeg Jets are the draft-and-development template.
Identify the few veterans you can win with, then build up from under them with fast, talented players. Build depth and a culture. Patience is as important as anything.
Three seasons ago, the Jets finished with 78 points and missed the National Hockey League playoffs for the fourth time in five years back in Winnipeg. Last season they had 114 points. This season, the Jets are the betting favourites to win the Stanley Cup.
They’re the team the Vancouver Canucks are trying to become. Monday, the Jets showed how far the Canucks still have to go overall, and yet how close they are in some ways.
Not long ago, Jets like Mark Scheifele, Patrik Laine and Kyle Connor were more or less at the stage the Canucks’ best young forwards — Bo Horvat, Elias Pettersson and the injured Brock Boeser — are now.
Of course, the Jets have profoundly more in their lineup than those guys. They beat the Canucks 6-3 at Rogers Arena by exerting their will in the third period to pull away after Vancouver, desperate amid a six-game losing streak, clawed back in the second and trailed only 4-3 in a game that should have been a blowout win for Winnipeg.
Shots were 11-1 for the Jets after six minutes.
But when Jets’ coach Paul Maurice looked at the Canucks on Monday, he could see his own team a few years ago.
“Yeah, it’s not that long ago we put a bunch of young guys in our lineup and we played them over and over and over again,” Maurice said. “We felt that was the straightest line to get us to be a good team. We had some hard work (but) about four years ago we just didn’t have enough skill.
“They’ve got some good young players. At the start of the year last year, they came in and played us hard. We played really well to beat them and then they got injured and had a tough run. I think they’re going through that here as well. I like their team. I think this is going to be a real good team.”
But the Canucks aren’t real at the moment.
With six injured players, most of them key, Vancouver is on a 0-5-1 free-fall that only now has dropped them below .500 for the season at 10-11-2.
Pettersson, the just-turned-20 rookie, was outstanding against the Jets, scoring his 12th goal in his 17th NHL game. His linemate, Nikolay Goldobin, also scored and had one of his best games as a Canuck.
Horvat devoured 24:38 of ice time and was given an assist on Tyler Motte’s shorthanded breakaway goal that changed the tone of the game at 11:21 of the middle period after the Jets’ had bulled their way to a 4-1 lead.
But there isn’t nearly enough there yet for the Canucks.
Laine had the quietest hat trick you’ll ever see, making it 5-3 on a three-on-two rush at 14:11 of the final period, then scoring into an empty net. The Jets have won seven straight games against the Canucks over the last 23 months, and the aggregate score is 26-9.
“Their top two lines there are something special and they seem to pretty much make it happen every night,” Motte said. “You’ve got to beat those teams if you want to have success in this league. Our goal is to win games and when you’re not doing that, everybody gets a little frustrated.
“I think we’ve been good at times — we just haven’t been able to put three solid periods together. Some nights, our starts are good and then we kind of filter off. Then other nights, we’re not great in the first and then get it going, like tonight. Unfortunately, in this league, more often than not, you have to play a full game.”
The Jets played a much fuller game than the Canucks.
They had a slight edge territorially on the Canucks in the first period. Like Canada has a slight edge territorially on Liechtenstein.
Their 23-7 advantage in shots was more impressive than it looked because the Jets were shorthanded twice. The score was commensurate with the shots: 3-1.
When Laine made it 4-1 for the Jets at 10:04 of the second period, after Pettersson skated into teammate Ben Hutton and lost the puck, the only question about the outcome seemed to be whether the NHL should adopt a mercy rule.
But against momentum, the shot clock and several scientific laws, Motte beat goalie Connor Hellebuyck stick-side on his breakaway after blocking Dustin Byfuglien’s power-play point shot, and Goldobin followed with a nifty deke after Pettersson pressured Tyler Myers into a giveaway.
Inexplicably, in a game the Jets could have led by five or six goals and should have led by at least three, it was suddenly only 4-3 heading into the third period.
“They had their moments when they pressed hard and put us on our heels a bit,” Little said. “When they got that shorthanded one, they got some jump and momentum from that. But for us, the big thing was that third period. We were confident after that second period that we were going to get the job done.”
Shots in the third period were 16-9 for Winnipeg, bringing the game total to 49-25.
“You look at their players and their core, (but) they were a team that not too long ago wasn’t in the playoffs,” the Canucks’ Jacob Markstrom said. “And now they’re up there contending and one of the best teams in the league. It’s a team that was at the same position that we are at right now.”
The Canucks believe they can get to where the Jets are. The question is how long it will take.