Jets’ top line ready to soar higher

They burst onto the NHL scene last year, a bona fide top line with a blend of speed, skill and sandpaper that helped lead the Winnipeg Jets to new heights.

Mark Scheifele established himself as an elite centre. Blake Wheeler, the heart and soul captain of the club was a legitimate MVP candidate. Rookie Kyle Connor, the talented new kid on the block, made scoring big goals seem like old hat.

So with the team hoping to take another significant step this season — one that ends with them hoisting the Stanley Cup — what can this trio do to get them to the promised land?

“While you have the opportunity to play this game, you should get better every year. In our room, each guy wants to improve every single year, that makes us a better team and makes us better individually,” Wheeler said Sunday on the third day of Jets training camp at Bell MTS Iceplex.

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They burst onto the NHL scene last year, a bona fide top line with a blend of speed, skill and sandpaper that helped lead the Winnipeg Jets to new heights.

Mark Scheifele established himself as an elite centre. Blake Wheeler, the heart and soul captain of the club was a legitimate MVP candidate. Rookie Kyle Connor, the talented new kid on the block, made scoring big goals seem like old hat.

TREVOR HAGAN / WINNIPEG FREE PRESSWinnipeg Jets' Blake Wheeler (26) during practice at Iceplex, Sunday, September 16, 2018.</p>

TREVOR HAGAN / WINNIPEG FREE PRESSWinnipeg Jets’ Blake Wheeler (26) during practice at Iceplex, Sunday, September 16, 2018.

So with the team hoping to take another significant step this season — one that ends with them hoisting the Stanley Cup — what can this trio do to get them to the promised land?

“While you have the opportunity to play this game, you should get better every year. In our room, each guy wants to improve every single year, that makes us a better team and makes us better individually,” Wheeler said Sunday on the third day of Jets training camp at Bell MTS Iceplex.

The 32-year-old veteran, who just inked a five-year contract extension, had 23 goals and an NHL-leading 68 assists in 81 regular season games. He’s never shied away from praising the now 25-year-old Scheifele for the effect he’s had on his career, especially when it comes to keeping himself in peak physical shape. Wheeler and Scheifele are inseparable on the ice and spent a good chunk of their summer training together in Toronto.

But the right-winger was also quick to dish out some heady compliments about Connor’s contributions and potential as he enters his sophomore season.

“Why does he have to have a ceiling?” Wheeler said. “I think he’s got the ability to be one of the best offensive forwards in the league. He’s got that type of ability. He’s that type of person, with that type of drive. We’re lucky to play with a guy like that.”

Connor, 21, began last season with the Manitoba Moose but stuck following an early-season call-up. His 31 goals led all NHL rookies, and he added 26 assists in 76 regular-season games. The Michigan product ended up in fourth place in Calder Trophy voting as the league’s best first-year player.

“He was a rookie last year. That’s going to change, he’s going to be talked about in the same amounts as we are,” said Wheeler. “The things he can do with the puck, the way he sees the game offensively, the way that he skates, he’s as dynamic as they come. To have him, we’re pretty fortunate.”

Connor, selected 17th overall in the 2015 NHL draft, no longer has to worry about fighting for a spot on the team. He entered training camp this year as a lock and coach Paul Maurice will keep his No. 1 group together out of the gate.

“(The) mindset hasn’t really changed. I’m a little more familiar with the team, a year older. (We) created those relationships throughout the whole season last year. But for me I’m still playing the same game and built on what I’ve been doing this past summer,” Connor said Sunday.

“You still gotta go out there and play every shift like you’re trying to earn a spot and play with desperation. I think, for me, it’s just continuing to grow and learn from those two, Blake and Scheif. They’ve been so great and so intelligent about the game and their preparation. Just try to take my game to the next level.”

Connor, who is in the final year of his entry-level contract and due for a huge raise next season, didn’t want to speculate what that level would look like in terms of production. It’s about finding team success, he said.

“I think we all play a simple game. It’s effective, we like to play with a lot of speed and pace to our game. Forecheck, coming back on the rush. All three of us have that skill and the ability to make plays as well,” said Connor. “For me it’s playing that same game. I think working on that chemistry that we had last year, using our speed. I think when we’re using our feet and moving the puck and creating turnovers that’s when we’re at our best. Just playing my game, working hard and I think the results will come. Goals and points and that stuff.”

Maurice said Sunday there’s a misconception you can stick just about anybody with two elite players and have instant success. That’s not always the case, as Vancouver often found when trying to find a complementary piece to the Sedin twins, for example.

“Kyle is now a third of that line. Where last year he was trying to figure out where he should be, where those guys want (him). Trying to read them. And now he’s learned he just plays his game and then they read off each other. He’s a very important part. There’s something nice about playing in that spot, I can play just about anybody there and their numbers are going to go up. So everybody wants that job. But those two guys, with that speed, I think they really enjoy playing with Kyle as well,” said Maurice.

Like Wheeler, the bench boss believes the sky is the limit for Connor.

“He has had, from the start of the year to his finish, as steep a curve as I’ve seen. I don’t remember a young man coming in, starting in the minors, scoring 30 goals, and being a good all-around hockey player. So where he gets with that, I wouldn’t want to limit it,” said Maurice.

“The foundation for him is being on the puck and being hard on the puck and being competitive. But he’s show a real willingness and acceptance of that style of hockey and he has just a fantastic release. He can seem to find corners, it’s a different shot than Patty’s (Laine) but we think he can put the puck in the net an awful lot for us.”

Connor said last spring’s lengthy playoff run, in which he added three goals and seven assists in 17 games, will help both him and his teammates find another gear this season.

“It’s definitely a different step up from the regular season. You can see, just the intensity every play. Everybody is laying it on the line, it’s a different type of hockey. It’s good to get some of that under your belt and what it takes at that level,” he said. “I thought it was a good year. I think, obviously, there’s a lot I can improve on, all-around game, certain situations, finishing the puck a bit more, being in the right spot, I think it’s something I can improve upon from last year.”

Connor expects opponents to step up in terms of trying to shut his line down, knowing the damage they can inflict.

“I think we set that bar ourselves. We have high expectations going into each game and I think if we’re playing our game it’s going to be tough to stop,” he said.

mike.mcintyre@freepress.mb.caTwitter: @mikemcintyrewpg

Mike McIntyre

Mike McIntyre
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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.

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