WINNIPEG — Paul Maurice is looking for a coming together of sorts.
With an augmented core group of forwards, a much-improved blue-line and an all-world netminder heading into the new season, the Jets are looking to build on their first playoff series win since the 2018 run to the Western Conference final.
The compressed season was certainly an interesting one for the Jets, who were the model of consistency before a late-season swoon threatened to derail whatever promise had been building while the team was challenging the Toronto Maple Leafs for the top spot in the North Division.
That seven-game losing skid served as a not-so-subtle reminder of the style of play the Jets actually needed to be committed to in order to have success when it mattered most.
So after surviving the tailspin, the Jets used the template to sweep the Edmonton Oilers in the opening round of the Stanley Cup playoffs, minimizing the production of Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl in the process.
But after bouncing the high-octane Oilers, the Jets' fortunes changed quickly, as defenceman Dylan DeMelo was lost to a groin injury on the opening shift of Game 1 against the Montreal Canadiens and top centre Mark Scheifele received a four-game suspension for his devastating hit on Jake Evans.
That second series was also a sweep, as the Jets never recovered and failed to solve Carey Price, who led the Canadiens all the way to the Stanley Cup final before they were eliminated by the Tampa Bay Lightning.
The mood around the Jets heading into camp is one of optimism as the team returns to the Central Division, which means a heavy dose of a Colorado Avalanche squad that enters the campaign as a Stanley Cup favourite.
There are the usual questions around the edges of the Jets' roster and which young player might end up being the biggest surprise, but many of the spots are already spoken for.
And while many of those prospects will be under the microscope during the six exhibition games, the Jets are going to use the coming weeks to try and ensure the smooth transition from bubble team back to contender status.
“At our age group and our payroll, we’ve got to win,” said Maurice.
Current salary cap space: $0 (will be into the LTIR pool for a second consecutive season)
GM: Kevin Cheveldayoff (11th season)
Head coach: Paul Maurice (ninth season)
Assistant coaches: Jamie Kompon, Dave Lowry, Charlie Huddy, Wade Flaherty (goalie coach), Matt Prefontaine (video coach)
Unsigned players: RW Evgeny Svechnikov (currently on an AHL deal, but expected to eventually sign a two-way contract with the Jets)
1. HOW WILL THE DEFENCE PIECES FIT?
With two bold trades in a 48-hour window, the Jets added a pair of experienced blue-liners in Nate Schmidt and Brenden Dillon to fill a long-term need.
Giving up future assets for D-men with cost certainty for four and three years, respectively, showed the Jets are committed to taking a serious run immediately.
Drawing up pairings on a white board in his office is one thing, but now it’s about seeing where those pieces best fit.
Maurice also mentioned the possibility of utilizing a seventh defenceman on occasion, which is something he’s preferred to avoid in the past.
Although there are ample options at the disposal of the Jets coaching staff, it’s expected the starting six will be Josh Morrissey with Schmidt, Neal Pionk with Dillon and DeMelo slotting in beside Logan Stanley, with Nathan Beaulieu as the seventh as long as they can fit him under the salary cap.
However, top D prospects Ville Heinola and Dylan Samberg are determined to show that they’re ready to challenge for work as well, so there is definitely some internal competition to monitor here.
2. IS DUBOIS READY FOR A BOUNCE-BACK SEASON?
Pierre-Luc Dubois has a new number (80) to honour his fallen former teammate Matiss Kivlenieks, and he’s determined to show that last season was nothing more than an outlier.
Based on how he sounded during a recent interview on the 31 Thoughts Podcast with Elliotte Friedman and Jeff Marek, it’s safe to say Dubois is feeling healthier and more comfortable than he did at any point last season after being acquired by the Jets in the blockbuster trade with the Columbus Blue Jackets for Patrik Laine and Jack Roslovic.
Dubois, 23, didn’t meet his own high expectations upon his arrival and figures to be ready to get back to playing the power forward game that allowed him to enjoy success during his first three NHL seasons.
Look for Dubois to have more stable linemates and to avoid bouncing between centre and wing, which should help put him in a position to succeed.
The Jets acquired Dubois to be the long-term solution behind Scheifele and if he can flourish in the 2C role, the Jets could have one of the deepest stables of middle men in the NHL.
3. CAN ERIC COMRIE HANDLE THE BACKUP JOB?
When an organization employs a workhorse goalie — and recent Vezina Trophy winner — like Connor Hellebuyck, the No. 2 job on the depth chart doesn’t usually represent a massive concern.
But at a time when the margins for error are remarkably slim when it comes to qualifying for the postseason, finding an effective replacement for Laurent Brossoit (who signed with the Vegas Golden Knights as an unrestricted free agent to serve as the backup for Robin Lehner) is of critical importance.
Especially during a season where Hellebuyck is in the mix with John Gibson to be the Team USA starter at the Winter Olympics in Beijing, the Jets are likely going to need Comrie to handle somewhere in the neighbourhood of 20-to-22 starts and give his team a chance to win in the majority of them.
Many observers have been quick to rule that Comrie can’t handle the job since he’s got only nine NHL games on his resume and the numbers in that small sample size have not been flattering. But Comrie has performed well at every other level and the organization believes he’s ready to take his game to new heights — much like Brossoit did after he was signed as a UFA in the summer of 2018 after the departure of Steve Mason.
During the past two seasons, Comrie was claimed off waivers on four separate occasions and was traded by the Arizona Coyotes to the Detroit Red Wings. Upon his return to the Jets organization last season, Comrie became the all-time wins leader with the Manitoba Moose of the American Hockey League.
That’s no guarantee of success at the next level and while it’s true the Jets had a limited budget when it came to filling the backup role, this isn’t a matter of loyalty ruling the day either.
The Jets' coaching staff and management team believe Comrie has earned the chance to show he can handle the responsibility. Now it’s up to Comrie to show he is capable of rewarding that faith the Jets have shown him.
“All of you have been around here enough and most of you have left the rink before he gets off the ice. His work ethic is unbelievable,” said Maurice. “He truly has earned this opportunity, so we are all pulling for him.”