Consider it the new normal around these parts, an expectation that it won’t simply be enough to make the playoffs. No, the Winnipeg Jets say this deep run toward the Stanley Cup has significantly raised the bar going forward.
Even if coming up short this spring leaves a scar.
“You know, there’s a genuine hurt. It’s going to take a few days, probably more, to really come to grips with just the emotion that goes in to what we’ve just gone through. And that’s good. I think that’s really good,” Jets general manager Kevin Cheveldayoff said Tuesday as coaches and management met with players for a final time before they parted ways for the off-season.
“My message to a lot of the guys was take a couple days off, or a couple weeks off, enjoy your families and then let’s get ready.”
Hockey history is filled with teams that showed tremendous growth and potential one year, only to crash right back to Earth the following season. See the Edmonton Oilers of 2016-17 and ’17-18 as a recent example.
Head coach Paul Maurice said that will be something they’ll spend time focusing on when the team reconvenes in September for training camp.
“It’s a real serious topic, because there is enough evidence to say that it’s possible (to fall off). We saw it with some good young teams that thought they had crossed a threshold,” said Maurice.
Jets No. 1 goalie Connor Hellebuyck said the pain of falling short this spring only fuels the squad’s resolve to make even greater strides in 2018-19 and beyond.
“We learned a tremendous amount about this. Yes, we’re going through hardship right now. But we’re going to be so much better from it,” said Hellebuyck. “We’re talking about being a dynasty and really making pushes every single year.”
Winnipeg is set to retain the majority of its roster, with only five unrestricted free agents (Paul Stastny, Toby Enstrom, Matt Hendricks, Shawn Matthias, Michael Hutchinson). Another nine restricted free agents who played regular roles with the Jets will need new deals.
Maurice believes another year of growth and development for the team’s young core of stars, plus the continued strong leadership on the team, will keep pushing the pace for the Jets.
“We’re excited about the (Patrik) Laines and (Nikolaj) Ehlers of the world, Kyle Connor — brilliant young players. But the drivers of our team — Blake (Wheeler), now Mark (Scheifele), Dustin (Byfuglien) — are in their prime. They need to make the most of it now. They’re not (saying), ‘Hey, we’re going to be a great team for six years.’ They’re pushing for next year,” said Maurice.
The Jets were bounced from the NHL post-season Sunday after falling 2-1 to the Vegas Golden Knights in Game 5 of the Western Conference final. The miraculous expansion squad will play either the Tampa Bay Lightning or Washington Capitals in the championship series.
Sunday’s loss was a profoundly disappointing defeat for a team that blew away all expectations by finishing as the league’s second-best team during the regular season (52-20-10), then ousted the Minnesota Wild in five games in an opening-round series and outlasted the Nashville Predators in a thrilling seven-game showdown.
Wheeler, who completed his second season as Jets captain, was asked to reflect on the campaign.
“It’s still pretty fresh. I think you still wake up today and you were prepared to still be playing. So, that’s the hard part. In the span of seven days you go from having everything right in front of you, where you have a lot of hope and expectation, and it all changes in a week,” said Wheeler. “Eventually, to answer your question, I’ll take only positives away from this year. The progression of our group, obviously, qualifying for the playoffs, was a huge step for us.
“This organization never won a playoff game before this year and that Game 7 in Nashville will probably be what stands out about this group, what we’re made of. Winning a game like that is certainly something we can build on going forward.
“As hard as maybe it is to admit, maybe trial by fire is how this works.”
Defenceman Tyler Myers said he and his teammates fully expect and welcome high expectations from Jets supporters — because they’ve set their own lofty goals moving forward.
“Looking at our group, I would confidently say every guy thinks we have the group to do it. What happened in the playoffs this year just goes to show how hard it is to win the Cup,” said Myers. “It hurts, especially when you know you have the group to do it. Whether it changes a little bit or not, we’re coming into next year with the same mindset.”
Among the many items on Cheveldayoff’s to-do list is a possible contract extension for Wheeler, who enters the final year of a six-year, US$33.6-million deal this fall and is eligible to be extended as early as July 1.
Wheeler said he’s not ready to ponder his future.
“It’s a fair question but at the same time it’s not something I’ve given a whole lot of thought about. You’re so invested in the now and, like I said, you kind of prepare yourself mentally to still be playing right now,” he said. “So, I’d maybe have a better answer for you down the road a little bit. But I don’t know today. I’m not there yet.”
Meanwhile, there were several indications Tuesday the organization will try to find a way to make Stastny a long-term fixture up front.
Jets sniper Patrik Laine said he’d love to see the veteran centre return.
“I think he made a huge impact in the same way with me and (Ehlers). He’s such a great pro on and off the ice. He would always talk to us on the bench after, maybe if we made a mistake, and when he would make a mistake, he was kind of teaching us what to do next time,” Laine said.
“I mean, I think our game was on a different level after he came. It was real nice to play with him and hopefully we can play together sometime in the future. But it was awesome to play with him.”
Maurice recalled how most Jets players in 2015 were just satisfied the squad had finally made the playoffs. There was also a much different vibe during Tuesday’s exit meetings with players, he said.
“While positive, they were wanting more,” said Maurice. “There’s a sense that, give us a couple of weeks rest and maybe we can get back to work again. There’s an urgency to it. And, we would be aware as a staff of the prep it’s going to need to take and the focus we will need to bring to bear early at camp next year.”
Veteran centre Bryan Little, who’s been a part of the organization since the 2006 NHL Draft, is hungry for another strong run.
“It was a great experience. We all had a lot of fun going through it together. But at the same time, it makes you want it a lot more,” said Little. “It makes you want to get to that Stanley Cup final and play for the Cup. Once you get a taste for it, you want to be right back there. You want to hit fast forward to next year already.”