WINNIPEG – It’s amazing to think where these Winnipeg Jets came from. It wasn’t a splashy free agent signing or blockbuster trade that put them in the conversation to end Canada’s quarter-century Stanley Cup drought.
They built patiently and steadily, progressing from 78 points to 87 points to 114 points after turning the keys over to their younger core.
With Game 2 of the Western Conference final set to be played against the Vegas Golden Knights on Monday, the Jets are seven wins from a championship. You could make the argument they continue to progress this spring.
"We’re still learning how good we can be," said head coach Paul Maurice.
They should become the new poster boys for patience. They are proof that if you make enough good decisions again and again and again, the clouds will eventually clear from the horizon.
Kevin Cheveldayoff held on to his first-round pick for the first six years of Jets 2.0, passing on stop-gap trades that would have helped in the moment but grown more costly over time. He built a top defensive pairing of Jacob Trouba and Josh Morrissey using those picks and found No. 1 centre Mark Scheifele, elite sniper Patrik Laine and dynamic wingers Kyle Connor and Nikolaj Ehlers.
With proper care, this core could contend for a generation.
The general manager shifted gears slightly last spring by trading back 11 spots in the first round as part of the deal to ensure he lost pending free agent Chris Thorburn to Vegas in the expansion draft. He then dealt away his 2018 first-rounder to St. Louis to bring in Paul Stastny at the Feb. 26 trade deadline.
By then, it had become clear that this group was in the middle of a huge step forward. Cheveldayoff’s timing now looks impeccable given that Winnipeg is down to the final four.
In speaking with players, there was no ah-ha moment for them. The light didn’t magically turn on one morning in December. They were beaten 7-2 by Toronto on opening night and got hammered 6-3 by Calgary a few days later – eventually finding their footing after giving Connor Hellebuyck back the No. 1 goaltending job from Steve Mason.
"It’s a daily improvement in your game," said Maurice. "We were a very, very consistent team. We started with two losses and after that, I don’t think we had three regulation losses [in a row] over the course of the year. So, it slowly built. The silver lining kind of theory in our season, we were so injured for most of the year and we were able to win.
"We had a whole bunch of trades at the deadline [and then] guys that were on our roster but weren’t in our lineup started to come back and we got stronger and healthier."
"Last year we weren’t in the same position as we were this year," explained defenceman Tyler Myers. "Maybe we were a little bit tighter last year, it’s tough to say. But the work and the prep that each guy in the room has put in to become the team that we are right now, it just shows how much work we actually did put in, how much work the coaches have put in to make sure that we’re ready for each and every game. We’ve developed a consistency that’s allowed us to be here today."
Think of it like compound interest. The small, incremental growth of a player like Scheifele has turned him into a force greater than most scouts could have projected. Trouba and Morrissey were drafted in 2012 and 2013, respectively, and it’s taken them years to get to the point where they’re handling heavy minutes against the NHL’s best players.
We don’t have to look too hard to find other teams in this country who seem to have lost their way. Organizations that have fallen well short of fan expectations. The people in charge would do well to choose stability over short-term measures like they did here in Winnipeg.
There are simply no quick fixes in this league anymore. But as the people flooding the streets here each game night are learning, there just might be a pot of gold at the other end of the rainbow.
"You could see it starting to turn a little bit towards the end of [last] year and you could feel it in the room here," said Myers. "I don’t want to say if this is exactly what happened, but we almost went from a ‘I hope we win’ type of mindset to just focusing on the things that will give us the wins that we got this year. We drove that into the room here throughout the entire regular season and it’s translated here in the playoffs.
"We just want to make sure we keep that mindset and make sure we focus on the little things."