It looks as though the Winnipeg Jets have, finally, made it into the discussion as one of the NHL’s top teams.
Identified as a lineup with vast potential, but always falling apart for the past few years, Winnipeg has been getting the quality goaltending it once sorely lacked, while the young core is building on past breakouts and some of the vets, namely Blake Wheeler, continue contributing in huge, underrated ways.
We’re at the point now where we can legitimately wonder if the Jets are Canada’s best team.
To be sure, it is still early, just 25 per cent of the way through the season. The goaltending could still collapse and injuries could hit in a way that shake this team at its core, throwing off their terrific start. But for now, at least, the Jets’ potential is coming to fruition and they are who we thought for years they’d be.
THE GOOD: There is a lot of good in a 12-5-3 start, which has Winnipeg tied for the fourth-most points in the NHL. Mark Scheifele, who increased his point production by 21 last season to be better than a point-per-game player for the first time, is on pace to go even higher and approach 100 points. The amazing thing is captain Wheeler continues to fly under the radar — you may not realize he has the same point total as Scheifele. Laine picked up following a slow start after calling himself out and is now on a 40-goal pace, and rookie Kyle Connor looks comfortable on the top line.
But the best story through the first quarter has been the great goaltending from an unexpected place. The consistency isn’t coming from Steve Mason, brought in this off-season to settle the position with experience, but instead from Connor Hellebuyck, whose subpar play last season as a relatively untested 23-year-old led to the team to acquiring Mason in the first place.
Now, Hellebuyck is top-10 at his position in GAA (2.45), save percentage (.925) and wins (11) and is having his own much-needed breakout. The only reason the Jets missed the playoffs last season was because of play in net, so with this kind of performance you could easily make the case Hellebuyck is the team’s MVP so far.
THE BAD: It’s harder to pick out anything bad from a team that has had a breakthrough performance, but there are a couple areas that could still use some improvement.
Winnipeg brought in Paul Devorski to their training camp to get feedback from a retired referee to improve on their problems with taking penalties — last season the Jets were the third-most shorthanded team in the league. That number has dropped this season, but adjusting for games played, they’re still among the seven most penalized teams in the NHL and have a minus-13 penalty differential, which ranks fourth-worst. The 26th-ranked penalty kill from a year ago (77.5 per cent) is basically the same this season (78.4 per cent, ranked 22nd) so if you’re looking for an area to improve in, this is it.
TRENDING: As the top scorers keep performing, on track for another set of career years, and the goaltending has been stellar, the Jets are also getting to show off some of their team depth. With Toby Enstrom now out for an extended period, we get to see 24-year-old Tucker Poolman get a taste as he rises quickly from obscurity to Winnipeg’s starting lineup.
There is no mistaking that this team is trending up, but of their 12 wins, only four have come against teams holding down a playoff spot at the quarter mark. And considering that 78 per cent of teams in the playoffs at American Thanksgiving stay there until the end of this season, this isn’t an insignificant note. Winnipeg holds a 4-5-2 record against quarter-mark playoff teams, so they are undefeated in regulation against non-playoff teams. If they’re going to remain in contention for the division crown and home-ice advantage, they’re going to need to come away with more success against the league’s better teams the rest of the way.
BOLD PREDICTION: Given general manager Kevin Cheveldayoff’s history of staying quiet on the trade front and consistently taking a patient, long-term approach, it’s hard to predict any big trade or roster move to aggressively push this team towards the Stanley Cup. So instead of that, we’ll boldly predict a division title for this team, despite currently trailing the Blues by six points (with two games in hand).
The fact Winnipeg has gotten off to such a great start is a good omen — this is the first time in the past five years they’ve had a winning record at the quarter mark. Generally slow starters, the Jets have found their footing late in each of the past two seasons with 12-5-1 and 12-6-1 records in March and April in 2016-17 and 2015-16, respectively. In fact, they haven’t lost an April regulation game since April 7, 2014. So if they can continue those finishes, combined with this start, the Jets could take the division.
GRADE: A. How can it be any less than this? The power play has improved by 4.5 percentage points over 2016-17, most of the top scorers are on pace for career years, the goaltending has exceeded all expectations and they pass the eye test as a big, fast, young team with plenty of depth that looks like a playoff team.
In the past few years, they’ve been graded harshly because of the letdowns that have followed pre-season hype, but now that they look to be fulfilling the optimism, credit is due.