What a difference a year has made.
You will recall that 12 months ago at this time, the biggest question in town was: is this the season the Winnipeg Jets return to the playoffs?
Well, flash forward to today, with the season-opener looming a week from Thursday and the new burning question in town is decidedly loftier: Is this the season the Winnipeg Jets win the Stanley Cup?
And Jets fans aren’t the only ones asking. Indeed, the notion that the Jets have a realistic chance to hoist a Stanley Cup at Portage and Main next spring has become so ubiquitous that in a preview of the NHL season this week, one writer at USA Today even went so far as to declare the Jets this year’s “trendy pick” to win it all.
When was the last time anything from Winnipeg was trendy? I’ll wait here while you don’t find that answer.
Crazy talk? Hardly, and hardly new.
For starters, you will recall the venerable Hockey News made headlines way back in 2015 when it made what was an incredibly bold prediction at the time: the Jets would win the Stanley Cup in 2019.
It’s been a roller-coaster ride since that cover story was published, but the oddsmakers in Vegas, who make a living at this sort of thing, are now supportive of the proposition that a Jets team that just 12 months ago was considered a 50-50 chance to even make the playoffs is today a legitimate contender to win those same playoffs.
The Jets at 19-2 are currently listed on bodog.net as the third favourite to win it all next spring, behind only the Tampa Bay Lightning (which makes sense) and the Toronto Maple Leafs (which is insane, but that’s a column for another day).
And then there’s the hockey analytics guys, including the Freep’s own Andrew Berkshire, who argue a deep dive into the hard numbers suggests there’s good reason to believe the Jets can repeat — and even improve on — their appearance in last season’s Western Conference final.
Put it all together and we find ourselves living in a very strange moment: Winnipeggers can’t wait for winter to get started.
When was the last time we wished winter would just get here already? You will find that answer in the same place as the last time someone called us trendy.
Now, to me, all of the high expectations before the puck drops in St. Louis next week is just noise — loud, impossible to ignore and fun to consider, but none of it really means much.
Because to me, any analysis of the Jets’ prospects this season — Stanley Cup or otherwise — begins and ends in the same place it has always begun and ended for this team: between the pipes.
And so, mark my words, as Connor Hellebuyck goes, so go the Jets this season. Again.
If Hellebuyck puts forth a reasonable approximation of the record-breaking season he put up last season (.924 save percentage, 2.36 GAA, 44 wins), the prospect of a Stanley Cup celebration at Portage and Main graduates from delirious fantasy to legitimate possibility.
But — and you knew this was coming — if Hellebuyck regresses to even a reasonable approximation of his performance from two seasons ago (.907 save percentage, 2.89 GAA), the Jets and all the stratospheric expectations surrounding them at the moment will be done sometime next April.
So boil it all down and the question we should be asking right now isn’t, “What are the Jets going to do this season?” The question is, “What is Connor Hellebuyck going to do this season?”
Let’s begin that analysis with this cold, hard fact: it is a lot more likely that Hellebuyck will regress than it is that he will improve.
That’s not a knock against him. On the contrary, he sounds like a man who has once again worked his tail off over the summer to give himself the best possible chance to succeed.
But certain mathematical realities intrude and those begin with the fact that when you’re coming off a season in which you’ve just broken the all-time NHL record for wins in a season by an American-born goaltender, the most likely scenario the following season is not that you will break the record again.
If you look at Hellebuyck’s entire body of work over the course of three seasons in the NHL, last year’s performance looks a bit anomalous, and I’d argue the most likely scenario in 2018-19 isn’t a repeat but a regression to mean.
Now, that might not be so bad. Because even something between what Hellebuyck did for the Jets last season and what he did for the Jets two years ago — say a GAA in 2018-19 of 2.50 and a save percentage in the high .9-teens — would still probably be good enough to make for a very competitive team, given its ridiculous abundance of offensive talent.
And some of this will be on Hellebuyck’s teammates. The numbers guys will tell you today what your eye told you every game last year — the Jets were really, really good at keeping the shots they surrendered to the perimeter and when they did that, Hellebuyck usually made the save and the Jets usually won.
If they again keep the shots on Hellebuyck to another steady diet of blasts from the blue line, things will be that much easier for their netminder.
But there is also one big unknown in all this.
It is probably not coincidental that Hellebuyck put up the best season of his short career in a year in which his contract was expiring and another goaltender, Steve Mason, had been brought in (at great expense) to take his starting job.
Hellebuyck made no secret last season that it was all extra motivation for him and the results were there on the ice for all to see.
But that’s changed dramatically; Mason is long gone and the starting job is undeniably Hellebuyck’s now that he’s signed a brand-new six-year, $37-million contract.
So how does that change things? Nobody knows for sure — not the Hockey News, not the oddsmakers, not USA Today and not the data-crunchers.
Maybe Hellebuyck’s new deal is exactly the security he needs to thrive, and he morphs into one of the handful of elite NHL goalies who bring it year after year after year.
Or maybe Hellebuyck gets a little fat and sassy with that new deal. It’s not like he’d be the first pro athlete whose game went backwards in the year after signing a big long-term contract.
Either way, it’s the biggest question heading into the 2018-19 campaign.
And the answer will determine whether a parade to Portage and Main next June becomes a real possibility or remains the impossible dream.
Paul Wiecek was born and raised in Winnipeg’s North End and delivered the Free Press — 53 papers, Machray Avenue, between Main and Salter Streets — long before he was first hired as a Free Press reporter in 1989.