WINNIPEG — It’s the eighth home opener for the Winnipeg Jets since providence smiled on hockey fans in Manitoba, freeing up an Atlanta Thrashers franchise that nobody wanted to own for a quick transfer north.
After 15 years on the sidelines, the Jets were back in business in Winnipeg. Patience was needed that first night – it was Nik Antropov who finally got the Jets on the board early in the third period – and more has been required in the years since. The Thrashers weren’t bursting with talent, but Blake Wheeler, Bryan Little and Dustin Byfuglien were there, and they’re still there as this October begins like no October has ever begun in these parts with respect to the hopes of the local NHL club.
Not since the Avco Cup days of Bobby Hull, Anders Hedberg and Ulf Nilsson have the Jets been as serious a contender for a championship as they are now. Over the years, Wheeler, Little and Byfuglien have been joined by the likes of Jacob Trouba, Patrik Laine, Connor Hellebuyck, Mark Scheifele, Nik Ehlers and Kyle Connor, giving Winnipeg as much pure talent as any team in the league going into the 2018-19 season.
That was enough to get Paul Maurice’s team to the Western Conference final last year where it was upset by the Vegas Golden Knights, a team nobody could quite explain. Paul Stastny was so impressed he left Winnipeg to sign with Vegas in the off-season, but otherwise, the Jets retained everybody, signing Wheeler and Hellebuyck to $37-million contracts – Wheeler for five years, Hellebuyck for six – and deciding against making other significant moves to replace Stastny or significantly alter the roster. Only Finnish youngster Kristian Vesalainen, the team’s first-round pick in 2017, is a noteworthy addition, and we’ll see how long he sticks.
Which brings us to opening night No. 8 on Tuesday, with the Los Angeles Kings in town, a team that still has remnants of the squads that won Stanley Cups in 2012 and 2014. Injuries have already hit the Kings hard, sidelining forward Dustin Brown and starting goalie Jonathan Quick, but a rebuilt first line of Anze Kopitar between youngster Alex Iafallo and newcomer Ilya Kovalchuk is promising, Drew Doughty signed up for another eight years in Hollywood and rookies Austin Wagner and Jaret Anderson-Dolan are giving the Kings a new, faster look.
In theory, however, these are teams heading in different directions, the Jets perhaps set to win a championship, the Kings trying to avoid a total rebuild. After this, Winnipeg heads to Nashville on Thursday for a rematch of last spring’s terrific, seven-game playoff collision won by the Jets in seven games. It was one of those rare Stanley Cup series that matched the hype, as many suggested going in it was the “real” Cup final between the NHL’s two best teams.
All in all, it’s a week for Winnipeg to get its teeth into the season after delivering one good performance and one weak performance so far.
The good one was Thursday in St. Louis. The Jets led 1-0 going into the third, then blew the game wide open with three goals in 1:44 and won the game 5-1.
“It changed quick,” noted Blues goalie Jake Allen, impressed by Winnipeg’s offensive power.
Two days later, however it was totally different type of game for the Jets. This time, they got blown out by the offensive ability of the opponent, the Dallas Stars, and fell 5-1 in Texas.
In that loss, the Jets gave up five power plays to Dallas (four in the first 25 minutes), surrendering 15 shots while short-handed and three power-play goals.
“We didn’t give ourselves a chance to get going,” said Maurice.
Given that Winnipeg also gave the Blues four power plays in that game, the old bugaboo of discipline is already rearing its ugly head with the Jets. That, and they couldn’t handle the Dallas top line of Tyler Seguin, Jamie Benn and Alexander Radulov.
The bright spots so far? Connor has two goals in two games. Hellebuyck, meanwhile, has already faced 77 shots, 42 against the Blues and 35 against the Stars, a workload beyond the average 31.9 shots the Jets gave up on a game-by-game basis last year.
Ehlers started the season on the fourth line but was bumped back up to the second with Laine and Little against Dallas. Laine, meanwhile, has a goal, and managed to get Vancouver fans riled up with his comments on the Canucks’ decision to ban the video game Fortnite from team trips.
So that’s where we are heading into the home opener against the Kings and the visit to Tennessee two days later. The expectations for this club are higher than they ever were during the Dale Hawerchuk years, and the Jets go into the ’18-19 season in the unusual position of favourites, a talent-laden team that needs to get through the regular season and into the playoffs before any real assessments can be made.
They were strong last across in the board in goals for, goals against, power play and penalty-killing efficiency and faceoff percentage. So how do they get better? Great question. Maintain what they had, handle being the hunted rather than the hunters with poise, get another Vezina-type year from Hellebuyck and avoid getting involved with too much discussion about how Laine, Trouba and Connor will all need new contracts – big ones – after this season.
The stars seem aligned in Winnipeg now, but the salary cap, just as with the Maple Leafs in Toronto, could play havoc with the best-laid plans down the road. So the time to go for it could be right now. GM Kevin Cheveldayoff added Stastny at the deadline last year, and it would be a surprise if he didn’t again strengthen his roster this winter.
Seven years after hockey in Winnipeg was reborn with the Jets 2.0, there’s a thirst for a championship here. The Blue Bombers haven’t won the Grey Cup since 1990, so it’s been a while since they held a parade in these parts.
Next June would be the perfect time to hold another.