WINNIPEG – To suggest this season has not gone as planned for the Winnipeg Jets might qualify as one of the biggest understatements in quite some time.
Whether it was an 0-2-1 start, the transformation to a 9-3-3 team battling for top spot in the Western Conference to a team that dipped below the playoff line heading into the extended pause – the ups-and-downs endured by this group resemble an exhilarating ride at an amusement park.
Toss in several bouts of COVID-19, a suspected knee injury to Jets captain Blake Wheeler in what was his most dominant performance of the season and the unexpected departure of longtime head coach Paul Maurice, and you’ve had enough plot twists to leave even the most creative screenwriter shaking his head in disbelief.
So with 52 games left in the regular season, when the Jets are scheduled to resume on Jan. 2 in Vegas with a game against the Golden Knights, it’s time to make three bold predictions for 2022.
And yes, we encourage you to keep the receipts – knowing full well that these proclamations may or may not turn out.
Pierre-Luc Dubois will sign the richest contract in Jets 2.0 franchise history
The impressive turnaround for Dubois has been something to behold.
Although his challenges last season were well documented, Dubois has blossomed into the franchise cornerstone centre the Jets were hoping he would grow into when they made the blockbuster deal to acquire him and a third-round pick in 2022 from the Columbus Blue Jackets for Patrik Laine and Jack Roslovic.
Dubois has been one of the most consistent performers this season, putting up points and playing a strong, two-way power-forward game.
Not only does he embrace the difficult matchups, but he seems to thrive whenever he’s given additional responsibility.
His production has dipped a bit lately (one goal, two points over the past five games), but Dubois remains second on the Jets in goals (14) and points (25 in 30 games), he’s first in power-play goals (6) and is on pace to surpass career highs in goals (27), assists (34) and points (61) – all set in 2018-19, his second season with the Blue Jackets.
Dubois is a restricted free agent at the end of the season and he’s in the final year of a deal that carries an AAV of $5 million (though his salary this season is $6.65 million).
He’s also 23 years old and appears to be entering his prime, exhibiting a hard-to-find blend of skill and extraordinary strength/power.
While that potential has been on display with more regularity, the intrigue revolves around what Dubois’ ceiling is actually going to be – given his penchant for pushing himself for more.
The Jets are going to make a long-term commitment to him at some point in the new year, and that contract extension could be the most lucrative in Jets 2.0 franchise history.
Captain Wheeler currently carries the highest AAV at $8.25 million, while Josh Morrissey’s eight-year, $50 million deal has the biggest total.
Before next season begins, Dubois is likely to stand alone in both of those categories.
Kyle Connor will win the Rocket Richard Trophy
This would qualify under the bolder category, especially when you consider that the Jets scoring leader enters the race six goals behind Leon Draisaitl of the Edmonton Oilers.
That’s a pretty steep hill to overcome when you consider the two teams have the same number of games remaining.
Connor sits in a tie for fifth in the NHL in goals, though it’s important to remember that just two of his 18 goals have come with the man-advantage.
While the Jets power play has been a work in progress after a relatively hot start, Connor figures to heat up with the man-advantage.
He also leads the Jets in shots on goal (126) and his shooting percentage (14.3 per cent) is one percentage point lower than his career average, so it would not be a surprise if that number is on the rise.
Connor has done a nice job of improving his two-way play, but his ability to diversify where his goals are coming from are part of what makes him a legitimate threat to challenge Draisaitl, Alex Ovechkin and Auston Matthews for the Rocket Richard Trophy.
Connor expressed disappointment about not being able to participate in the Olympics, but you can expect he’ll channel that energy into a strong finish to the season.
Not only is Connor tracking to eclipse 40 goals for the first time in his career (he would have reached the total in 2019-20, but the season was shortened with him at 38 in 71 games), pushing for 50 isn’t out of the question – and that’s why he remains very much in the race to lead the league in goals.
Dave Lowry will have the interim label removed and become the next head coach
By the time the Jets return to action, it’s safe to say the initial shock related to Maurice’s departure will have worn off.
The players had plenty of time for navel gazing, looking in the mirror and assessing the situation.
With the extended break since the Jets' tidy 4-2 win over the St. Louis Blues, it’s safe to say they’ll be eager to get back to playing.
Thanks to what will equate to a mini-training camp, the Jets will begin the process of trying to push back over the playoff line while implementing tweaks to the system and style of play they’ll employ under Lowry.
It’s difficult to know how this group is going to respond, but they were challenged by general manager Kevin Cheveldayoff to do something about their current lot in life on the day Maurice announced his resignation, and that message seemed to resonate.
Lowry, 56, has worked a long time for this moment.
Given his vast array of experiences as a player and coach, he won’t be overwhelmed by the stage – even if these weren’t the circumstances he envisioned for his first NHL head coaching job.
Ultimately, it will come down to what he can extract from this group of players during the stretch run (and beyond) that will likely determine his future with the organization.
The Jets have recent first-hand playoff knowledge of the impact an interim head coach can have on a group.
Just last season, the Jets were swept in the second round by a Montreal Canadiens team that got a jolt after Dom Ducharme took over from Claude Julien.
And back in 2019, the Jets were eliminated in six games in the first round by a St. Louis Blues team that went from worst to first under Craig Berube – who was a teammate of Lowry’s on the Calgary Flames for two seasons (2001-03).
This round of bold predictions doesn’t include a trip to the Stanley Cup final or a parade to follow, but it says here that Lowry will help the Jets reach the playoffs and win at least a round.
That’s part of the reason he will follow in the footsteps of Maurice and continue in the head-coaching role after starting with the interim label.