Jets challenged to focus on present, not playoff aspirations

Mark Scheifele and Kyle Connor scored to back a great start from Connor Hellebuyck as the Jets beat the Kings 2-1.

WINNIPEG—Paul Maurice knows how this works. He knows the way this city feels about its Jets, or more important, what this city is expecting from its Jets this season.

"10-1, right?," he said drily. "Every night."

Twenty-two years after Winnipeg lost its franchise, and seven years after it got one back, the city is primed for a Stanley Cup, clearly one of the NHL’s best teams with arguably the most impressive collection of quality big men in the sport.

Maurice is the coach and low-key Kevin Cheveldayoff is the general manager who get to manage all that, get this team from October to April in shape to begin the long, hard slog that the Jets and their fans got a taste of last spring with a run to the Final Four.

"You could see the excitement level generated with this city, how it grew over three rounds," said Cheveldayoff. "It’s not hard to understand how important this is, and how excited this Jets Nation could become."

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The challenge is not thinking too far ahead.

"You can fall into a trap with this league. It’s a very humbling league," said Cheveldayoff. "The moment you take a breath, someone passes you by."

If the Jets looked on the weekend in a loss to Dallas like a team that was taking a breath, they looking far more focussed on the task at hand in their home opener Tuesday against the Los Angeles Kings. The Jets weren’t perfect, but they were very, very good, winning a 2-1 game they dominated but couldn’t turn into a one-sided contest because of the combination of good work from Jonathan Quick’s goaltending understudy, Jack Campbell, and some inefficient shooting of their own.

Still, the Jets held the Kings to only 19 shots after giving up 77 shots in their first two games. Only in the third did L.A. press, and it wasn’t in convincing style.

"I thought in our own zone we were very detailed," said Winnipeg goalie Connor Hellebuyck. "That made it very easy on me."

Opening night in Manitoba was thus a successful one, and a feel good one. Fans yelled "TRUE NORTH" during O Canada as loud as ever, the Dirty Catfish Brass Band provided a nice respite from the non-stop audio assault you get in most rinks these days, they honoured the Jets’ first captain from the WHA days, the late Ab McDonald, and there were plenty of those snappy alternate "Aviator" jerseys in the crowd, with the team set to officially unveil them on Rogers Hometown Hockey this weekend when they host Carolina.

The Jets made few changes over the off-season, but they are asking more of talented youngsters like Nik Ehlers and Kyle Connor, and integrating players like Jack Roslovic and Kristian Vesalainen into the lineup.

"We’re going to find ourselves, develop our team," said Maurice. "The expectations got considerably higher and our team got considerably younger, so there’s a balancing act that’s going to have to go on there. I’m sure it’ll go on for about 82 games this year."

The Jets dominated the first period on Tuesday night, outshooting the visitors 14-4, but came out tied 1-1. Ilya Kovalchuk, back in the NHL after five years in the KHL, scored at 6:26 after a Kings rush caught Jets in the middle of a line change. Drew Doughty worked his way down the right boards in the Winnipeg zone and found Kovalchuk unmarked slicing between Tyler Myers and Joe Morrow.

The 35-year-old, who ended up playing 23 minutes and was L.A.’s best forward on the night, redirected the pass past Helleybuyck’s glove for his first NHL goal since April 25, 2013.

The Jets answered back just over four minutes after some excellent forechecking kept the Kings bottled up in their own zone. Brandon Tanev, another youngster destined to inherit a bigger role with the Jets this season, worked his way out of the corner up the boards, then quickly threw it into reverse to create some space between himself and L.A. defenceman Jake Muzzin.

That move caught Muzzin by surprise, and apparently had the same effect on rookie Kings forward Austin Wagner. Wagner was on Jets centre Mark Scheifele, but then lost him, and Scheifele tipped the centring pass by Campbell, tying the game 1-1.

The Jets were completely dominant in the second, outshooting the Kings 19-5, but only came up with one goal, and that was a little lucky. Blake Wheeler’s goalmouth feed for Connor was intercepted by Alec Martinez, but he inadvertently directed it into Campbell. The puck popped loose, and Connor pushed it across the line for his third of the season.

Earlier in the day, Maurice had raved about Connor’s progress as an NHL player playing alongside Wheeler and Scheifele, the team’s biggest stars.

"I don’t think I’ve seen a player go from where he was in training camp last fall to where he got to in the playoffs last spring," said Maurice. "Now, he’s not the kid on the line any more. He’s making his own decisions, making the plays he feels are right. He’s made incredible progress."

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If Connor, who scored 31 times last year, can continue to progress, and Ehlers can start finding his game, the Jets should have more than enough firepower spread over two lines. The question is whether they can be disciplined enough to play the kind of grinding game that suits them, keeps the pressure off Hellebuyck and still creates loads of offensive opportunities.

"We did such a good job last year of getting to a certain way we have to play to win hockey games. We’re going to try and do the same this year," said defenceman Tyler Myers. "There’s no question teams are going to look at us differently. We expect to get every team’s best given the success we had last year. We’re going to have to make sure we play within our system, within our game plan, very consistently."

At 2-1 on the season, the Jets now head for the first big NHL tussle of the season, a rematch with 2-1 Nashville on Thursday after the two clubs met in the playoffs last year in what many hyped as the "real" Stanley Cup final.

"I know it’s going to be intense," said Hellebuyck. "So we’ve just got to go in there with the right mindset."

Like the high-scoring Toronto Maple Leafs out east, the Jets are putting their best foot forward this season knowing they’re going to have solve vexing salary cap problems over the coming months. Winnipeg has to sign Patrik Laine, Connor and defenceman Jacob Trouba. Myers is also a free agent, and it seems likely he’ll be the one who has to go to pay the others.

Cheveldayoff, like Kyle Dubas with the Leafs, will have to figure this all out.

"It’s something you think about every day," he said. "People ask me about Laine and how we’re going to sign him. I said I started thinking about that a couple of seconds after winning the lottery and drafting him. As a manager, you have to keep abreast of what’s going on. There are so many uncertainties. You try to manage it with the best information you have."

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Beyond that, Cheveldayoff doesn’t talk about whether he’s talking contract with any of the players, or hopes to sign any of them like he signed Ehlers to an extension last fall.

"We’re just not a team that ever talks about what we’re doing," he said.

Last winter, the Jets were able to do something many believed they would not be able to do, and that was bring in an established NHL veteran, in this case Paul Stastny, at the trade deadline. It was complicated. Stastny had to waive his no-trade clause, St. Louis had to retain part of his contract and the Jets had to have the combination of assets the Blues were looking for.

Stastny ended up walking in the off-season as a free agent, but it was a meaningful move. With all the youth the Jets have, you could see them trying to do something like that again this coming winter.

"We have to earn the right to even be able to consider doing something like that," said Cheveldayoff. "What we’ve tried to assemble here is a group of players who can think the game, play the game with passion and energy, play multiple different styles."

He and Maurice, not to mention owners Mark Chipman and David Thomson, have a keen sense of responsibility of what this team means to Winnipeg, and what winning a Cup could mean.

"We know it’s a great task," said the Jets GM.

They won’t have to win 10-1 every night to make it happen.

But 10-1 once in a while would sure make it easier on one and all.

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