WINNIPEG – The core pieces tell you a teardown is not required, that a few tweaks should be enough.
Nor is a fresh, new voice behind the bench required.
Garbage-bag day arrived quicker than the Winnipeg Jets were hoping for and with it brought a number of interesting discussions.
Finding that balance between the portrayal of disappointment for a playoff exit and hope for the future can often be a tricky tightrope to walk.
There are the usual declarations from pending free agents that would like to stick around, mixed with the understanding that some of them won’t be invited back or might find a more suitable opportunity elsewhere.
What we know is that the status quo isn’t going to be good enough for the Jets to take the next step as an organization.
Incremental internal growth remains an important part of the process, but the Jets roster as currently constituted isn’t deep enough to become a Stanley Cup champion.
Yes, there are prospects in the pipeline that are ready to contribute as early as the fall, but further changes are going to have to be made by Jets general manager Kevin Cheveldayoff.
And while a four-game sweep of the Edmonton Oilers in the opening round is not something to be dismissed, the Jets fell 12 victories short of the ultimate goal and have just one series victory since the run to the Western Conference final in 2018.
That’s a not-so-subtle reminder that, with the best roster the Jets have iced in 10 seasons since the franchise relocated from Atlanta, they still came up seven wins short of lifting Lord Stanley’s mug.
So close, but yet so far.
The road map of success isn’t often linear, but the clock is ticking for an organization that is trying to take advantage of its window to win.
The Jets aren’t a young team anymore, many of the primary core pieces remain in what should be the prime of their respective careers.
They’ve got one of the best goalies on the planet in Connor Hellebuyck, whose inner belief and positivity were once again on display on Wednesday morning as he shared his vision of where this group is heading.
“You don’t want to waste a year just going guessing. You want to win. I think having the conversations that I’ve had now, they do want to win, and they want to win now. They are looking for the right pieces,” said Hellebuyck. “My mindset is right now, and next year I’m going to say the same thing. You also don’t want to blow it for future years, so you want to be smart about it. Our organization definitely wants it now and they’re going to do what they have to do.
“Every year it seems as though we add a new piece that is a difference maker. You can see the pieces coming in, they’re making big moves and playing bigger than themselves. When that core starts to go like that, that’s when you start to get a dominating team. We’re close. Nothing that happened this year was a fluke. We are very close to being able to make runs and be a dynasty. It’s just going to take a few more pieces and we will be there.”
The roster also includes a number of highly-skilled forwards, including Nikolaj Ehlers, who made another remarkable step in his progression as a player.
That next step includes a spot on the top line and the top power-play unit.
When it comes to internal improvements, Pierre-Luc Dubois once again took responsibility for not reaching the level of play that was expected of him when he was acquired in the blockbuster deal with the Columbus Blue Jackets for Patrik Laine and Jack Roslovic.
Dubois said he didn’t feel extra pressure for being moved for a player as popular as Laine and dismissed the notion an injury played a significant role in his inability to contribute the way he has previously.
“No, I’m not hurt. I mean I’m as hurt as anybody, bruises and scratches and stuff like that. Nothing major that affected my game. In the playoffs, I’m someone who expects a lot from myself. I’ll be the first guy to say I didn’t play how I should have. I didn’t play how I thought I could and how I know I can. It was a disappointing year for me, a lot of ups and downs. The only person to blame is me.
“When you get to a new team you want to fit in, you want it to be the perfect fit. For me, it was kind of hard finding what that was. I had a hard time trying to find what I could do. I know I can be a lot better. This year was my fourth year in the NHL. One year doesn’t define you or my confidence of who I am and what I can do. You don’t change just because of one disappointing season.”
For the Jets to get where they want to go, they’ll need Dubois to rebound and take firm hold of that second-line centre job he was acquired to fill.
There are other young players that need more ice time and others like Ville Heinola, Dylan Samberg and David Gustafsson who are about to force themselves into the lineup.
Having the right high-character veterans to round out the roster remains important, but not at the expense of others who are ready to step in and make an impact.
A vote of confidence for Jets head coach Paul Maurice from Cheveldayoff is expected during the next day or two and will accompany the backing of numerous players to share their thoughts on Wednesday.
“I’ve been on teams where the coach has lost the team and the message isn’t being received and the guys roll their eyes every time he says something,” said Jets captain Balke Wheeler, who remains a staunch supporter. “I mean, that’s just never happened with Paul. His message is still received.
“In some respects, the way Paul handled our team this year was almost as good as he’s ever been.”
Jets centre Mark Scheifele spoke vehemently on behalf of Maurice after saying earlier that he disagreed with his very public benching against the Toronto Maple Leafs.
“I have full support in Paul Maurice. But I know I’m not alone there. There’s a lot of guys that love him, he’s a fantastic coach. He’s definitely one of the good ones in this league,” said Scheifele, who finished ninth in NHL scoring but must sit out the season opener in 2021-22 to finish his four-game suspension for charging. “What happened against Toronto, that’s learning lessons. That’s coaching. I’m a guy that loves to learn, I’m a guy that loves to improve my game. And I want the coach to push me, I want my peers to push me.
“That’s what makes good teams, that’s what bonds relationships. You want to be pushed to be better, you want to be pushed to be a better person, a better player, a more hard-working player.”
Maurice is going to need to do an even better job next season, otherwise his run as the second-longest tenured head coach in the NHL behind Jon Cooper of the Tampa Bay Lightning could be in danger of coming to an end.
Lessons have been learned.
Young players have graduated into larger roles and leadership responsibilities.
Unexpected developments have been dealt with and growing pains have been endured.
Advancing to the final eight is nothing to dismiss, but expectations are back on the rise for this team, even as they return to the meat grinder that is the Central Division.
It’s not necessarily Stanley Cup or bust for the Jets next season, but another step or two needs to be taken and the clock is most definitely ticking.
Jets forward Paul Stastny was a great fit in his second tour of duty with the Jets and one of the off-season questions revolves around whether he will stick around on a short-term deal at a discounted rate or if he plans to chase a Stanley Cup elsewhere.
Stastny expressed a willingness to stay, though the decision won’t be made hastily and there are a number of factors he will weigh with his family and his agent before coming to his conclusion.
Whether he’s back or not, Stastny offered his take on where he sees this group as it heads toward an incredibly important summer in terms of charting the path for the future.
“The belief is strong. If you break down a team, you’re looking at coaching, offence, defence, goaltending,” said Stastny. “If you find a team that has world class in all four, they’re obviously going to be head and shoulders above everyone, but I don’t think there’s anyone like that. So, when you have a world-class goaltender you can obviously win any series, you can win any game, that’s one thing. When you have world-class offensive players, which they do here, and all of a sudden you have some good defencemen and you can play a better team game.
“You either invest more up front or invest more in the back end or you find that happy medium, and I think every team’s like that. When you saw the way we could play defensively, when you do play a certain system, when you do understand the game plan, you realized that at playoff time, you can beat anybody. When all the guys stick to the game plan, you realize all the guys want to win. That’s the most important thing. You see guys sacrifice in one end of the spectrum to help out the team in the other end. You saw that in this group and that’s really important for the future and for building a winning team.”
Pending restricted free agent Andrew Copp also expressed his desire to remain with the Jets and said “nothing is off the table” when it came to whether his priority was to ink a long-term deal.
He also weighed in on the matter of where the Jets stand in the grand scheme of things.
“I don’t think we’re very far off at all,” said Copp. “We believe in our core. We have a lot of great pieces in here that are capable of going all the way. Obviously there are always changes year to year and it’s just a matter of making the right changes to push us over the top.
“We’ve got to find a way to be a little bit harder to play against and be more consistent on a night to night basis, but I think we’ve got a lot of pieces here for that. Our belief is there. We have the belief and the talent and it’s just a matter of putting it all together.”
The last word belongs to Wheeler, who just completed his 13th NHL season and 10th in Winnipeg.
“You just want opportunities. I would categorize this year as an opportunity, so looking forward, that’s all I care about,” said Wheeler. “I care about being on teams that are in that conversation, that have a chance, that are playing in the playoffs because from that point, anything can happen.
“It’s so hard to win. Even the teams that come into the playoffs as the favourite or the teams that everyone thinks are going to win the Stanley Cup, it never works out that way. The bounces, hot goaltending, all these little factors play into it and my perspective is that basically what I’ve always done here, I’m going to give everything I have to this team, to this city, for the rest of my career here and I hope that that ends with our team raising the Stanley Cup.”