In the salary cap era, five of 12 teams eliminated in the Western Conference Final returned to the same round the following season, and four of those ended up going to the Stanley Cup Final and winning it all.
All things considered, it’s not too uncommon for a conference finalist to at least go the same distance the next season and the elimination may even be a building block towards becoming a championship squad.
But after the Winnipeg Jets finally experienced their breakthrough season in 2017-18, Mark Scheifele isn’t taking anything for granted. He knows it’s going to be an uphill battle to just get back to the same place they reached a season ago, since the West is so deep and the Central Division so loaded with high-quality rosters.
“We know what it took to get to the conference final last year,” Scheifele told NHL.com on Friday. “We know a lot of things have to go right to take it even further. There’s a lot more work to get to that next level. But in our minds we have to be pushing for that. We have to be pushing to get further than we did this year.”
The Jets succumbed to the expansion Vegas Golden Knights in the semifinal round, despite winning Game 1 of the series in convincing fashion. But they managed just six goals over the next four games, and lost them all.
You don’t have to go that far back to the last time Winnipeg seemed like it was poised for a significant breakthrough that didn’t come to fruition. In 2014-15, Scheifele’s first 82-game NHL season, the Jets got to the playoffs with 99 regular-season points, just three behind the eventual Stanley Cup champion Chicago Blackhawks. But rather than sprout from there, Winnipeg was swept aside by Anaheim and missed out entirely the next two seasons in a row.
The Jets are heading into their eighth season since relocating from Atlanta and the roster has fully matured and reached contender status. But as Scheifele knows, that just means the rest of the league recognizes that and prepares for you as such, which is what makes follow up success that much more difficult.
“I think we have to have that thought in our minds, that we are contenders,” he said. “But at the same time we’re not the new Winnipeg Jets team that just entered the league any more. We’re a team to be reckoned with. Teams are going to put their best foot forward against our team.”
As we know, Winnipeg will be facing a difficult salary cap situation a year from now, which will likely ultimately force them to shed an impact player from the roster. After Blake Wheeler signed a massive extension that will count for $8.25 million against the cap starting in 2018-19, it’s hard to see how everyone on the current roster will return next season.
This may be the last crack the Jets have to win a Stanley Cup with this group together as-is.
The situation isn’t as dire as it potentially could have been, though. Scheifele himself is on a steal of a deal that comes with a $6.125-million cap hit that is a bargain for a top-line centre in his prime who is capable of scoring at more than a point-per-game pace. Still just 25 years old, his contract runs another six seasons and buys up four of his UFA-eligible seasons.
Compared to the contract levels around the league now, it’s easy to see how he could have gotten paid much more, and pinched the Jets a little harder.
Because of his contract, Winnipeg could wind up being a top Cup contender for a longer period of time than they otherwise would have been.
“There’s not one second in my mind where I say, ‘Oh shoot, I regret signing that deal,'” he said. “I’m super-happy with the deal I got.
“I’m super-happy with the organization I’m part of and the team I’m part of. At the end of the day, if my deal helps us be in a better spot contractually then I’m happy.”