When the Jets returned to Portage and Main three years ago, the pure joy of having NHL hockey back in Winnipeg was enough to inspire the team’s passionate fan base. It had been 15 years after all; the homecoming bash was tremendous. But last season, after the Jets finished with 84 points and missed the playoffs yet again, the hangover finally started to set in. If there is a cure for what ails Winnipeg, though, it comes in the form of six-foot-two defenceman Jacob Trouba—a franchise player in the making who’s been compared to both Chris Pronger and Rob Blake by former coaches.
It’s premature to suggest that a 20-year-old sophomore deserves to be mentioned in that company, but Trouba has already proven that he was a steal at No. 9 in the 2012 draft—especially considering that he was the fifth defenceman taken.
“Can you tell me who the other four were?” asks Red Berenson, head coach at the University of Michigan, where Trouba played for a year before entering the draft. “And have any of them played as well as Jacob Trouba, in his situation?”
Trouba was already a known commodity when he arrived at Michigan in 2012, but Berenson didn’t realize what his freshman blueliner was truly capable of until his first skate in training camp. His skill and physical ability were similar to most elite players his age, Berenson says, but his competitive streak set him apart.
“It was like a Stanley Cup game at every practice,” Berenson says. At the end of the season, Berenson—who has coached the Wolverines for three decades, following a long NHL career—took Trouba aside.
“You’re as ready as any defenceman I’ve ever had,” he said. “If you want to leave, I don’t blame you.”
In Winnipeg, Trouba benefited immediately from the team’s reliance on young talent. After losing more than a month of his rookie season to an injury he sustained smashing face-first into the boards, Trouba finished with 10 goals and 29 points in 65 games—a single point less than Tobias Enstrom, the Jets’ top-scoring defenceman, who played all 82. He was arguably Winnipeg’s best blueliner, with considerable offensive talent and intimidating strength for a guy still in his teens.
Jets fans can be encouraged by Trouba’s development. In three years with the U.S. national development team, Trouba showed remarkable poise and maturity, says Danton Cole, a coach with the program.
“He was a calming influence on the bench and the ice,” he said. “He turned into a complete player with an understanding that there are a lot of different ways to affect the game and it’s not always just running somebody over.”
Though this almost certainly won’t be the year for a parade in The Peg, Trouba gives Jets fans something—something!—to hope for. He and centreman Mark Scheifele are the future of an organization still working with the leftovers of its Thrashers days. The headache will last a bit longer, but then a new kind of party will begin.