Wheeler says Jets need to make playoffs: ‘It’s gotta be this year’

Jets head coach Paul Maurice discusses what needs to happen in the offseason for his club to grow and develop and improve on a difficult 2016-17 season.

When doing pre-season predictions, a few teams stand out as especially difficult to forecast.

The Ottawa Senators were the only playoff team with a negative regular-season goal differential, and although they reached the Eastern Conference final, did they overachieve and will they fall back in a competitive division? The Dallas Stars won the Central Division two years ago, but crashed to 11th in the conference in 2016-17; will huge additions Ben Bishop, Alexander Radulov and Ken Hitchcock bring them all the way back?

How about the Winnipeg Jets?

This is a team almost everyone is waiting for a breakout season from. Their mix of vets and prime youth seems just about perfect. They have some top scorers, a deep blue line and at least steadied their goaltending with Steve Mason. But in a Central Division flush with tough teams, will that breakout season come, or is this a case of wrong place, wrong time?

Ryan Dixon and Rory Boylen go deep on pucks with a mix of facts and fun, leaning on a varied group of hockey voices to give their take on the country’s most beloved game.

Captain Blake Wheeler spoke to the media on Wednesday after skating at the team’s practice facility and was asked about the Jets’ playoff hopes.

“It’s gotta be this year, it just has to be,” Wheeler told the Winnipeg Free Press. “We have enough talent. There’s no reason why we can’t push this to the next level this year. It’s going to be about getting this group together and figuring out how we have to play to win hockey games.”

When the Jets did get to the playoffs in 2015, their first appearance since returning to Manitoba, it looked like the start of something. Instead, the past two years have been marked with inconsistency throughout the calendar, each good month followed by a bad one. Last season, Winnipeg started with just 10 points in its first 13 games and then won each of its last seven in the regular season right after being officially eliminated.

Sure, it worked in their favour two years ago when Patrik Laine fell in their lap, but that’s now led to heightened expectations.

Upgrading the goaltending from a Connor Hellebuyck-Michael Hutchinson platoon was the most pressing need this summer — which Wheeler touched on last week. And although Mason wasn’t particularly good for the Flyers in 2016-17, over the three seasons prior he had one of the best 5-on-5 save percentages in the league. It all starts with him being good enough to not lose the team a playoff spot.

It’s not just on Mason, though. Laine, Mark Scheifele and Nik Ehlers all set high bars for their young careers and cannot step back. The collection of depth forwards and their solid-looking blue line also need to come together to make Mason’s life easier and be a better unit on defence. Last season, the Jets averaged 31 shots against per night, 11th-most in the league, and that number needs to drop.

“We’ve got to figure out a way to win hockey games. A part of that is getting better goaltending and a part of that is playing better in front of our goalies, allowing them to maybe not see as many odd-man rushes or the breakdowns that we have sometimes,” Wheeler told the Free Press.

“That’s about our group knowing each other and figuring out how we’ve got to play in front of (the netminders).”

Like the Oilers did with their youngsters, and the Canucks are trying to do just to shield their cupboard of prospects, the Jets added some experience to their depth this summer to shoulder the load. Matt Hendricks will play a fourth-line role and Wheeler spoke about what he’ll bring as another voice in the room. Dmitry Kulikov is just 26, but he’ll start his ninth NHL season this year and rounds out a terrific blue line hurt by the injury bug last season. The Jets already had the pop and didn’t need to make any big moves in the summer outside of the net — they just needed to get the right complementary pieces.

Overall, it was a good summer for the usually quiet GM Kevin Cheveldayoff. Now we’re about to hit another season with expectations that Winnipeg will join Toronto, Montreal, Calgary and Edmonton (maybe even Ottawa) as the promising Canadian teams playing for the Stanley Cup starting in April.

And if they don’t at least get a wild card this time it will be a disappointing year that leaves us scratching our heads, wondering just what this team’s ceiling is.

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