In some ways, the Winnipeg Jets’ season was a success before it started.
One day prior to the 2023-24 NHL campaign kicking off, the Jets made their fans extra grateful on Thanksgiving Monday in Manitoba by announcing Mark Scheifele and Connor Hellebuyck — both eligible to become UFAs next July — had inked identical eight-year extensions to remain in Winnipeg.
Jets backers had been bracing for the probability that at least one of those guys — both drafted and developed by the squad — would be wearing different colours at some point either before the trade deadline in March or next summer. Instead, their new pacts with the organization created a warm glow around the start of the season.
Then the puck dropped and things got even better.
Where are the Jets relative to expectations?
Any conversation about where this club was expected to be this season has to be set against the backdrop of how last year played out. Yes, the Jets made the playoffs, but they had a losing record from Jan. 17 through the end of the year and wound up hanging onto the final wild-card berth by a fingernail. After they were easily dumped in five first-round games by the Vegas Golden Knights, coach Rick Bowness basically questioned their character.
Throw in an off-season where Pierre-Luc Dubois was finally traded and former captain Blake Wheeler was bought out and it’s safe to say even the more optimistic souls on the Prairies wondered what this season had in store for Winnipeg.
Well, since Game 5 of the season, the Jets sport an 11-4-2 record. Overall, they sit third in the Central Division and — without taking too much for granted — when you look at the lay of the land in the group, it’s pretty easy to envision Winnipeg sticking right there in the three-hole.
Top-six forwards Grade: A
Their top two horses have been fantastic. Kyle Connor is in the Rocket Richard chase with 14 tallies in 21 outings, making his first 50-goal season within reach. Scheifele, meanwhile, put pen to paper on a new contract and immediately went about justifying his payday. Winnipeg’s 1C is on pace for the first 90-point season of his career.
The biggest development, though, might be Cole Perfetti’s emergence as a real top-six guy. After beginning the year centring the second line, Perfetti was swapped out to the wing with Vlad Namestnikov moving to the middle. The former has 13 points in his past 13 outings and is very much starting to resemble the offensive player the Jets thought they were stealing when they got him 10th overall in the 2020 draft.
If the Jets could find a way to get Nik Ehlers going — he’s on pace for just 43 points — they’d really have something cooking on the top two lines.
Bottom-six forwards Grade: B+
New captain Adam Lowry has been his usual sturdy self anchoring the third line. The 30-year-old has also kicked in more offence than usual, tracking his first 50-point season.
Lowry’s production has gone hand-in-hand with an eruption in Mason Appleton’s numbers. The former has 15 points this year, putting him on pace to nudge up toward 60 points. The 27-year-old has played more than 60 games just once in an NHL season and the only time he flashed any intriguing offensive potential was during the pandemic-shortened 2020-21 campaign. This is a whole new level, though, for the Wisconsin native so we’ll see what happens if he can indeed post his first 82 GP season.
Appleton is six-foot-two and, with six-foot-five Lowry and six-foot-four Morgan Barron leading the way, size is a real calling card of this bottom-six group.
Defence Grade: B
It’s not a group that’s going to wow you, but the Jets blueliners are certainly doing their part.
Josh Morrissey is following up his breakout 78-point campaign by scoring at a very similar pace this year. Neal Pionk is turning in his usual reliable 20 minutes on the right side of the second pair every night and the third unit of Dylan Samberg and Nate Schmidt has been perfectly serviceable.
Recall, this group was dealt a blow on the eve of the season when 2019 first-rounder Ville Heinola was lost long-term with a fractured ankle. He may have been ready for full-time duty this year, so this team had its defence depth tested right out of the gate.
Goalies Grade: C
Two weeks ago, this was probably an easy decision to grade Hellebuyck and Laurent Brossoit with a D. But the former is rounding into classic Vezina form, going 4-1-0 in his past five starts with a .940 save percentage that’s pulled his overall save percentage up over .900. If Hellebuyck can maintain his current level of play, Winnipeg is going to start picking up points on nights it both does and doesn’t deserve them.
Brossoit, meanwhile, has not been able to replicate the success he had during his first go in Winnipeg five years ago or from last season with the Golden Knights. Even if Hellebuyck is becoming his old self, Winnipeg needs Brossoit to reliably spell him here and there.
A big question for the second quarter
There’s not really one huge question floating over this team so much as a series of smaller ones.
Can the special teams keep improving? The Jets were bad on both ends of them during October, but the power play really came along in November. It still ranks 21st in the league, but Winnipeg has the ninth-best unit since Halloween.
The penalty kill improved this month, too, but not nearly to the same degree and still ranks way down at No. 29.
What can Gabriel Vilardi contribute? Vilardi was the centrepiece of the return from Los Angeles for Pierre-Luc Dubois. He’s missed all but three games with a knee injury this season, but could return Thursday night versus the Edmonton Oilers. Vilardi, of course, stormed out of the gate last year in L.A., scoring 13 times in his first 24 games. However, he tallied just 10 more times the rest of the way. Can he settle in to a nice 20-goal pace? If so and Ehlers can manage to pick things up, a top six that already boasts Scheifele, Connor and an improving Perfetti starts to look very strong.
Can they get better on home ice while maintaining road excellence? The Jets’ .650 points percentage away from Manitoba is sixth-best in the league, but they’re a middle-of-the-pack team at Canada Life Centre with a .590 mark.