The National Hockey League has become the strangest place.
Today, an expansion team can make it to the Stanley Cup Final, while Canada, the place where hockey means the most, can go 25 years without winning one.
Connor McDavid can play for the team with the worst power play in the game. while the Washington Capitals can finally get past their nemesis in Pittsburgh, only to face a red-hot Marc-Andre Fleury should they make it all the way to the Final.
And the Winnipeg Jets?
Well, in any normal place, we’d say you could save a spot in the second round for the Jets for the next five springs. But haven’t we said that about a lot of good, young Canadian sides over the past 15 years?
“It’s a real serious topic, because there is enough evidence to say that it’s possible [to fall off],” said Jets head coach Paul Maurice, seated beside his general manager, Kevin Cheveldayoff, as the Jets met with the Winnipeg media one last time on Tuesday. “We saw it with some good young teams that thought they had crossed a threshold.”
So, how do Mark Scheifele’s Jets avoid becoming McDavid’s Oilers? Allow Maurice to break that down for you.
“The first would be, [Winnipeg has] a very, very focused veteran group that’s in their prime and they value that,” he began. “We’re excited about the [Patrik] Laines and [Nikolaj] Ehlers of the world, Kyle Connor — brilliant young players. But the drivers of our team — Blake [Wheeler], now Mark [Scheifele], Dustin [Byfuglien] — are in their prime. They’re not [saying], ‘Hey, we’re going to be a great team for six years.’ They’re pushing for next year.”
He’s right. The 30-something veterans here show no signs of falling off.
Wheeler, an incredible leader, also tied Claude Giroux with an NHL-best 68 assists this season. He had a career-high 91 points, that prototypical big man who at age 31 found exactly what his game should be.
Scheifele had 14 playoff goals at 25. He’ll not only be a productive leader for Winnipeg for years to come, but for Team Canada from here on out.
Byfuglien? Who knows for sure. He’s still Zdeno Chara-like in his freakish way of being 250 pounds and skating so well. There are no signs of that stopping. But there never are — until it stops quickly.
“Second,” continued Maurice, “in the exit meetings, while positive, they were wanting more. There were more positive [meetings] four years ago [when] making the playoffs here was such a big deal here because it hadn’t happened. There was a sense of relief. They were different this year.
“There’s a sense that, give us a couple of weeks rest and maybe we can get back to work again. There’s an urgency to it.”
That’s the feeling in Winnipeg today. As Wheeler said, “I think you still wake up today and you were prepared to still be playing.”
The reality is, players will now depart from the cocoon of a playoff journey with their 25 closest buddies, and go back to their people across the hockey world. Some of those people will influence changes that make them more valuable to the Jets, and some may do the opposite with feelings of “you weren’t used right” or “that coach should play you more.”
Contracts need to happen. Lots of contracts.
And this we know for sure: The player who earns $875,000 on an entry-level contract, and the one making $4 million-$6 million on his next deal? They’re not always the same person.
So it’s one thing to deal with the actual player losses like if unrestricted free agent Paul Stastny moves on. Then you have the new players who return who may have been changed by success and money.
Some get hungrier. Others, they get full. And you never know who’s who until it’s too late.
Cheveldayoff’s job is to pay the right people the right money. Frankly, with this roster, there are more than 25 other GMs who would trade him places.
“At one point they’re all young players, all learning what it takes,” the GM said. “They graduate on to veteran players, and somewhere in the middle they really figure out exactly how tough of a league it is to have ultimate success.
“We’ll do our best, sharpen our pencils and do as good a work as we can on the business side of it to make sure everybody feels like they’re a part of it on the fairness of a contract, and also build within the constraints.”
The real fun starts now in Winnipeg.
And there are absolutely no guarantees.