The Winnipeg Jets are on the clock and the rest of the league can consider itself on notice.
For a little while now, Winnipeg’s enviable prospect collection has created a sense that, somewhere down the road, really good things are going to start happening in Manitoba. But last year’s unexpected playoff berth is an indication the Jets may be landing a bit ahead of schedule.
Competing in the NHL’s stacked Central division — with the defending champion Chicago Blackhawks, a perennial power in the St. Louis Blues, the always-competitive Minnesota Wild, the revitalized Nashville Predators, and the highly talented Dallas Stars and Colorado Avalanche — the Jets managed to grab the second last invite to the Western Conference playoff picture.
The tough competition means, even with Winnipeg’s impressive roster, a return trip to the big dance is no guarantee. But, as the old adage states, worry about the things you can control, not the things you can’t.
In terms of handling their own business, the Jets are positively killing it.
Winnipeg is a hybrid of size and speed set up to compete with any team in the NHL. Yes, the Jets were bounced in four straight contests in the first round last year, but that showdown versus Anaheim — a team that came within one win of the Stanley Cup final — was a tough, drawn out series masked as a sweep by the Ducks.
To be clear, last year was no walk in the park for Winnipeg, which at one point saw its blueline completely decimated by injury. When GM Kevin Cheveldayoff wasn’t dealing with that crisis, he was bringing about an end to the Evander Kane saga by trading the young power forward to the Buffalo Sabres for a package centred around defenceman Tyler Myers.
It’s not like Cheveldayoff can put his shoes up on the desk this season either. Captain Andrew Ladd and defenceman Dustin Byfuglien are both eligible to walk next summer as unrestricted free agents. The sense is Ladd will stick around, while Byfuglien may want to test the open market, in which case Cheveldayoff will have to examine trading the big man before he leaves for free.
Then there’s the goaltending situation, which brightened last year thanks to improved play from Ondrej Pavelec who was pushed by newcomer Michael Hutchinson. Despite a more competent crease showing, the position has previously been Winnipeg’s kryptonite for numerous seasons.
While the goaltending may worry some Jets fans, there are a couple of players that should inspire a good deal of optimism. Centre Mark Scheifele and defenceman Jacob Trouba are both six-foot-two skaters entering their third full season in the NHL. Scheifele, drafted seventh overall in 2011, is inching toward becoming the imposing, first-line stud every team needs to compete for the big prize. He registered 49 points in 82 games last year and the 22-year-old is entirely capable of finding another gear.
Trouba, the ninth overall pick in 2012, has seen both his first two seasons cut short by injury. In his rookie campaign, Trouba looked like the Next Big Thing among NHL blue-liners and there’s no reason to believe he won’t yet live up to that label. The pre-season saw him matched with Byfuglien on the top pair, a duo that has the potential to absolutely dominate.
As much as anything, the progress of Scheifele and Trouba will tell the tale of Winnipeg’s short- and long-term future.
There’s also a pair of third-liners to keep an eye on in Alex Burmistrov and rookie Nikolaj Ehlers. Burmistrov is entering his second tour of duty with Winnipeg. The 23-year-old spent three seasons with the Jets/Atlanta Thrashers, bolted to the KHL for a couple years, then opted to return to the NHL last summer. Ehlers is a gem from the prospect pipeline who might be ready to contribute. Between them, they should help make up for the 19 goals departed speedster Michael Frolik took with him when he signed with the Calgary Flames in July.
All told, the Jets aren’t yet in a spot where a deep playoff run is expected. But as we learned last year, this club’s countdown to greatness might not have as much time left on it as originally thought.
And if we’re even slightly underestimating this year’s version of the team, look out, because it doesn’t have that much farther to go.