Since the start of the 2018 calendar year good news headlines have been hard to come by for the Winnipeg Jets. That’s around the time the team began a downward spiral that ended in a first round playoff exit in a year many favoured them to win it all.
Things only got worse in the summer as the Jets watched a large contingent of their veteran presence leave for other markets with the losses of Jacob Trouba, Tyler Myers, Brandon Tanev, Ben Chairot and Kevin Hayes.
Now training camp has been dominated by headlines of a cornerstone defenceman pondering retirement and RFAs remaining unsigned.
So it’s no surprise many pundits are predicting the Jets to take a big step backwards this season. But here are five reasons why news of their death may be greatly exaggerated.
1. Embarrassment of riches
It can be easy to focus on the talent that’s headed out the door. Easier still to forget just how many horses remain in Paul Maurice’s stable.
Mark Scheifele and Blake Wheeler remain two of the most offensively skilled players on the face of the earth. Nik Ehlers is still a speed demon who pulls off clean zone entries like a man with halitosis pops Tic Tacs. Adam Lowry is quietly one of the league’s best shut down players. Andrew Copp is the definition of a pro who adds value wherever he plays in the lineup. Ditto Mathieu Perreault. Jack Roslovic is a speed demon waiting for a bigger stage, and was named the NHL’s first star of the week last season after a brief audition on that stage.
Add the likely return of both Patrik Laine and Kyle Connor and the Jets can once again boast two of the best young goal scorers the league has to offer.
Can you say stacked?
Because they’ve been so good for some time now it can be easy to forget just how young the Jets are. Scheifele is just 26 years old. Josh Morrissey is 24. Kyle Connor is 22. Patrik Laine, 21. There is a lot of room for growth and maturation in these players and, therefore, the organization as a whole. Should Wheeler continue to thumb his nose at Father Time, there’s really no place to expect age-related regression in this lineup.
3. Team defence
Here’s the big one. If you can point to one specific thing that derailed the Jets’ promising run at the Cup in 2018-19, it would be keeping the puck out of their net.
The Jets rode the league’s No. 5 defence to the conference final two seasons ago, but dropped to 15th in the league last season. Maurice believes the blame for that should be distributed across the entire team. That’s why defence has been the main focus at training camp so far.
Every drill has included an element of backchecking and back pressure. The theory this year is simple: the Jets aren’t going anywhere without a return to former defensive prowess. Goals-for will come, but success won’t without the goals against coming down.
4. Connor Hellebuyck
Should the Jets achieve their vision of a steep climb back up the NHL’s defensive rankings, expect Connor Hellebuyck’s game to follow.
When the Jets were at their best defensively two seasons ago Hellebuyck was a Vezina candidate. Talking to both he and backup Laurent Brossoit when the Jets’ system was executed properly, shots funnel into easily predictable areas, while cross-ice passes and back door tap-ins are all but eliminated. That allows the Jets goalies to focus on the shot without the distraction of the chaos around them.
The Jets’ defensive slide made life more chaotic for the goaltenders last season and it showed. Fix one problem, you likely fix both.
5. Next man up
No doubt the Jets have holes to fill this year. Luckily they have a number of prospects who’ve been knocking on the door, ready to prove their worth at the NHL level. Defenceman Sami Niku has already proven everything he can at the AHL level, winning that league’s defenceman of the year in 2018. Tucker Poolman has impressed on the farm and his pre-season performance has him looking ready to make the jump.
You can also add 18-year-old defenseman Ville Heinola to the list of youngsters making a push. Heinola’s looked at ease playing against NHL-calibre competition this pre-season, earning him a spot in the Jets’ NHL group at camp. You may just find him in the Jets’ locker room come October but if not, Winnipeg looks to have a long-term solution waiting in the wings.