So, when does it click?
When do the Winnipeg Jets, with their ample size, young skill, healthy stock of defencemen and smart front office staff start getting traction?
Does it begin now, with a two-game winning streak, the struggling Edmonton Oilers in town Thursday night, and centres Bryan Little and Mathieu Perreault healthy and back in the lineup?
Does it happen when management finally pulls the trigger on a Jacob Trouba trade, the way they finally moved out Evander Kane despite all the talk that Kane was going to be part of the solution?
Must we wait for the goaltending to stabilize under Connor Hellebuyck, whose uneven play includes a club record for consecutive scoreless minutes at home?
And what about Paul Maurice behind the bench? He’s a really good coach, but in his fourth season, is his job dependent on finally taking the next step with this club? When does that step come, Paul?
“The lines are built differently here now,” Maurice was saying to reporters after practice on Wednesday. “(Adam Lowry’s third) line excels against the big heavy players. (Little’s second) line we’ll use more against speed.”
His first line, with Mark Scheifele between Patrik Laine and Nikolaj Ehlers, could be one of the top trios in the National Hockey League one day soon. We all know about the 18-year-old Laine’s shot, Scheifele (23) spent some time atop the NHL scoring race in the season’s first quarter, and Ehlers (20) has 20 points this season and has missed a bushel of chances.
Ehlers has 16 assists, but there may well be an excellent goal scorer here once he matures and gains some confidence.
“You come in the first year, and … usually there are a couple of veteran guys who are teaching you,” Maurice said. “When he skates the way he’s capable of skating he affects what happens on the line with Mark and Patty. He pulls people off, buys them time.
“Nik has quite a bit more upside. He’s in a bit of a cold spell even though he’s putting numbers up. His speed … you can tell the way teams match against you teams are very, very aware of his quickness.”
There are organizations like San Jose and Washington that make the playoffs every year, but continually disappoint with their inability to make that final, championship step. Then there is a team like Winnipeg that we’ve picked to make the playoffs for a few years now, and watched them qualify just once, two seasons ago — only to be swept by Anaheim.
This is an uber-patient organization under general manager Kevin Cheveldayoff, a tact that will come under even more scrutiny if the Jets fail to make it out of the regular season again this spring. Cheveldayoff and his right-hand man Craig Heisinger have drafted and developed well, not to mention fleecing the Buffalo Sabres in the Kane deal. But they haven’t won a playoff game yet in Winnipeg.
Yes, they’re in the tough Central Division, but when does that stop being an excuse?
There is too much talent here, to these eyes, to fail any longer. Dustin Byfuglien is a one-of-a-kind No. 1 defenceman. Scheifele is a fantastic young leader and distributor of the puck. Lowry has disappointed offensively, but he’s six foot five and skates well — surely they can eke more production out of former NHLer Dave’s boy.
Laine is, perhaps, a generational goal scorer. Trouba is good enough either to keep and anchor a second pairing, or move for something of pretty good value.
“I think that, just when they think their goaltending is good enough, it goes on a slide,” said one pro scout who counts the Jets in his territory.
The Jets gave up on Ondrej Pavelec, and don’t want to subject Michael Hutchinson to waivers because they see him as one of the league’s premier backups. They’ve handed the reins to the 23-year-old Hellebuyck, and the only question seems to be if his career apex coincides with the apex of the Jets as a whole.
As in, the Jets are ready to win. But is Hellebuyck ready to take them there?
If not now, then when? And by whom?
It’s time, Winnipeg. Just being in the NHL isn’t enough anymore.