It has been 136 days since the Winnipeg Jets last played a game of any consequence. And while it’s been said that time heals all wounds, it’s evident the sting of that 2-1 loss to the Vegas Golden Knights at Bell MTS Place still remains.
They had come so far, accomplished so much, only to fall just short of the ultimate goal.
Now the Jets are just one day away from embarking on a new quest, one they hope will take them even further than Game 5 of the Western Conference final and to heights never before achieved by an NHL team in this city.
It all begins Thursday night in St. Louis, and if all goes according to plan, it will end some time next June with a parade ending at Portage and Main.
On paper, the Jets appear well-equipped to make another big run, but there’s a reason they play the games on the ice, where all kinds of unexpected obstacles and challenges can get in the way of even the most optimistic outlook.
All 31 NHL teams start the year tied for first place with identical 0-0-0 records. The majority likely believe they have what it takes to go all the way. The majority will be wrong.
“Nothing is permanent in the National (Hockey) League. And that’s winning or losing. You’ve got to be vigilant that you’re grinding every day to get better,” Jets coach Paul Maurice said this week in discussing increased expectations and the carry-over from last season.
“We’ve got a lot to prove in terms of being as good a team as we were last year. You don’t just roll into camp and you’re a good team. You roll into camp and say you’ve got good players. But you’ve got to pass some tests before you’re a good team. So there’s a challenge.”
With that in mind, we take a comprehensive look today at what to expect over the next six months — and possibly beyond.
Five things that must go right
• Connor Hellebuyck maintains his Vezina form
Is it fair to pin so much on one particular player? Perhaps not, but that’s the nature of goaltending. The literal last line of defence is typically the most important piece of any team, and the Jets certainly have a good one in Hellebuyck.
The 25-year-old was sensational last year, going 44-11-9 with a 2.36 GAA and .924 save percentage. And while he may be hard-pressed to top those numbers, Winnipeg will be counting on their masked man plenty this season. Expect Hellebuyck to carry a heavy workload, likely north of 60 regular-season games, and his play between the pipes will be a key factor in how they fare.
• Power play remains potent
When Blake Wheeler has the puck in his familiar spot along the half-wall, he must sometimes feel like a kid in a candy store. There’s Kyle Connor in close, Mark Scheifele in the slot and Patrik Laine waiting on the far wing for the deadly one-timer. Should all three of those options be negated, he can always throw it back to the point for a big blast from Dustin Byfuglien.
Yes, the Jets power play is truly a weapon, one that helped them win plenty of hockey games last year. Their 23.4 per cent success rate was fifth-best in the NHL, and it will be counted on once again this season to be a major part of their offence.
In a league where the difference between winning and losing is often finite, being able to punish your opponent for their misdeeds is a huge advantage.
• Central dominance continues
It was the toughest division in hockey by a country mile last year. And the Jets managed to test their mettle and prove their worth by going an impressive 15-9-2 against Central Division foes.
Winnipeg once again has 26 combined dates this season with Nashville, Minnesota, St. Louis, Dallas, Colorado and Chicago — including three of their first four games of the season, all on the road — and how they fare in those matches will go a long way in determining their fate.
• Early bird keeps getting the worm
Death, taxes… and the Jets faring well when they scored first. Winnipeg got the opening goal in an impressive 47 of their 82 games last year, going 37-4-6 in those contests (and 15-16-4 when they didn’t).
That early, quick-strike attack often put their opponents in a hole and forced them to chase the game, which Winnipeg routinely took advantage of.
A similar performance this year would be a huge boost.
• Top line drives the bus
What can they do for an encore? The Wheeler-Scheifele-Connor trio was one of the NHL’s most dangerous last season, as they combined for 77 goals and 131 assists, even though Scheifele missed a quarter of the year with an injury.
The fact Connor spent the first couple of weeks of the season in the minors with the Manitoba Moose makes it even more remarkable.
Now with a year of experience under their belts, even bigger things are expected from this No. 1 line.
Five things to guard against
• Penalty kill springs a leak
A leopard never changes its spots. And the Jets likely aren’t about to become choir boys on the ice, meaning they’ll continue to take more than their fair share of penalties. It’s just the nature of being a fast, physical, aggressive team.
But it’s what they do while short-handed that’s most important.
Winnipeg finished tied for seventh on the kill last year with an 81.8 per cent success rate. They’ll want to ensure something in that range again this season to avoid major problems.
• Injury bug bites hard
It’s the nature of the game; players are going to be hurt.
But how many, and exactly who, will be important. Although there appears to be plenty of forward depth to weather any future storms — see the Scheifele and Lowry injuries of last season and how the team kept chugging along — things aren’t quite as robust on the blue line or behind Hellebuyck in net.
So break out the bubble wrap and hope for prolonged good health for all.
• Road warriors, not road worriers
Bell MTS Place was a house of horrors for visitors. But the Jets weren’t exactly pushovers when they went into enemy territory, either.
Winnipeg had one of the best road records at 20-13-8 and will need to continue taking their A-game with them on the plane if they want to remain among the league’s elite squads.
• Finland hangover
It’s the ultimate road trip — two games in early November in Helsinki against the Florida Panthers.(Technically, one will count as a home game for the Jets).
The bigger concern will be managing rest and recovery once they get back to North America. Other teams that have gone overseas in recent years have experienced a hangover effect in the weeks that followed, and having a more compressed schedule to make up for the Finland trip won’t make that any easier.
• Maurice’s message doesn’t grow old
They appear to be a tight-knit group who love playing for their coach. But you know the old saying — familiarity often breeds contempt. There’s no evidence to suggest this could happen, but even the best coaches in the world often reach a point where the message stops getting through.
Five players on the hot seat
• Connor Hellebuyck: See above. Sure, the Jets are expected be among the NHL’s most lethal offensive squads, but Hellebuyck still needs to be a pillar of strength and consistency in his crease for Winnipeg to take another major step.
• Bryan Little: He’s been pencilled in to begin the season as the Jets second-line centre since the moment Paul Stastny balked at Winnipeg’s offer and left for Vegas on July 1. Little, who will have a rising superstar in Laine to his right, says he relishes the pressure-packed role and believes he can deliver. It’s entirely fair to raise the issue of salary, too. Little is in Year 1 of a six-year deal that pays him just under US$5.3 million per season and really needs to earn his dough in the first few years of the contract while Winnipeg’s window to win is wide open.
• Jacob Trouba: Could this be the right-shooting defenceman’s final season with the Jets? For now, the question is pushed to the back burner and the 24-year-old from Michigan remains a significant piece as Winnipeg pushes on. The top-pairing defenceman was awarded a one-year, US$5.5 million contract through arbitration and must be completely committed, for the Jets’ sake and his own, as he looks to significantly increase his value with a solid performance this season.
• Tyler Myers: The towering veteran rear-guard is entering the final year of a seven-year deal he signed with Buffalo that carries an average annual value of US$5.5 million. He’s said he loves Winnipeg and wants to stay, but that could be tough for GM Kevin Cheveldayoff to manage with a cap crunch looming. Myers was healthy and productive last season, partnering with Dmitry Kulikov on a sound third pairing. He needs to mimic that performance to aid the Jets and also up his worth as he heads into unrestricted free agency.
• Nikolaj Ehlers: The Danish flash has all the makings of a legitimate NHL star, with all-world speed, eye-popping mid-ice manoeuvres and a rocket of a shot, reaching the 25-goal mark in back-to-back seasons. But Ehlers needs consistency in his game. His five-game disappearing acts need to, well… disappear. And he must eliminate giveaways from his game, demonstrating he can balance the sizzle with those bland but bright hockey plays coaches like to see.
Five looming milestones
• Maurice has 53 games to hit 1,500
He’s entering his 21st year as an NHL bench boss and is closing in a milestone that only five others in NHL history have achieved. He’s currently eighth on the list of most games as head coach but will move past hall of famer Dick Irvin and longtime Buffalo Sabres coach Lindy Ruff by the end of the regular season.
• Wheeler is 17 assists short of 400
Winnipeg’s captain and most gifted playmaker, who tied with Philadelphia’s Claude Giroux for most assists last season and led the league with 48 primary helpers, could hit this mark within the first 15 games. He’ll be feeding linemates Kyle Connor (who had 31 goals in his rookie year) and Mark Scheifele (who had 14 playoff tallies) and will get significant power-play time.
• Laine closing in on 100 goals
The Jets right-winger is set to begin just his third NHL campaign and he’s already considered the heir apparent to Alex Ovechkin as the league’s top sniper. The 20-year-old from Finland scored 36 in his rookie year, upped the total to 44 in his sophomore campaign and will be gunning for 50 this year.
• Little eyeing 800 games
Staying healthy was a major stumbling block for the versatile centre in three previous seasons but he managed to suit up for all 82 in 2017-18, and now needs 46 contests to reach the games-played milestone. The Jets need his presence but they require production from the 30 year old.
• Hellebuyck seeks 100th triumph
Winnipeg’s top puck-stopper is coming off a sensational break-out season (44 wins), and will likely get north of 60 starts in 2018-19. He needs just 17 victories to get to career win No. 100.
Five key dates on the calendar
• The home-opener, Oct. 9
It’s a tough sell suggesting a lot rests on just the third game of the season. However, perception counts for something and the Jets need to demonstrate to the home crowd that they are still very much the real deal. Remember what happened a year ago in the home-opener: the Jets’ renewed commitment to defence went out the window in a 7-2 defeat to the Toronto Maple Leafs, an outcome Laine aptly labelled as “just embarrassing.” Handling the Kings, who’ve added Ilya Kovalchuk but are minus the injured Dustin Brown, will be a tough assignment indeed.
• In Nashville, Oct. 11
Again, we’re pointing out an early matchup that’s likely not worthy of “must-win” status. But one can safely assume the Jets and Predators, who hooked up in an epic seven-game playoff series just five months ago, will reignite their hate-on at the first opportunity. Neither squad has undergone much of an alteration since Winnipeg won Game 7 at Bridgestone Arena, so the Preds will be out for redemption while Jets try to prove they can still rock in Smashville.
• Game 1 in Helsinki, Nov. 1
Usually fans of Laine and fellow Finn Aleksander Barkov of the Florida Panthers have to stay up to the wee hours of the morning to watch their hockey heroes. But the Jets and Panthers will play a pair of regular-season contests in Helsinki’s 13,400-seat Hartwall Arena Nov. 1 and 2 as part of the NHL’s Global Series. The games sold out in mere minutes. Laine and Barkov are from Tampere, about 175 kilometres north of Helsinki, and are close friends, so bragging rights are also on the line.
• Home versus Vegas, Jan. 15
There was plenty of pain and suffering the last time the Golden Knights visited Bell MTS Place. Winnipegger Ryan Reaves scored the game-winner and goalie Marc-Andre Fleury stopped 31 shots as Vegas eked out a 2-1 victory in Game 5 of the Western Conference Final May 20 to advance to the Stanley Cup championship series against the Washington Capitals. Expect an electric vibe in the downtown barn in their first meeting since then.
• Swimming with Sharks, Feb 5
There’s no great Winnipeg-San Jose rivalry to speak of, but we include this matchup because there’s always hype surrounding Evander Kane’s return to Winnipeg. The track-suit saga and his eventual trade remain a captivating part of Jets 2.0 folklore. Now, it appears the talented forward is as content as he’s been in his pro career, signing a seven-year, US$49 million contract to stay with the Pacific Division squad. The Sharks made a huge move in early September, acquiring star defenceman Erik Karlsson from Ottawa and, like the Jets, are considered among the NHL favourites.
Mike McIntyre grew up wanting to be a professional wrestler. But when that dream fizzled, he put all his brawn into becoming a professional writer.
Assistant sports editor
Jason Bell wanted to be a lawyer when he was a kid. The movie The Paper Chase got him hooked on the idea of law school and, possibly, falling in love with someone exactly like Lindsay Wagner (before she went all bionic).