Tomorrow is Canadian Thanksgiving and the 2019-20 regular season has just begun. Even at the outset of a season full of uncertainty, Winnipeg Jets fans have plenty of reasons to be thankful. Here are five to consider as you celebrate all of life’s blessings with family and friends.
1: A Dedicated General Manager
Kevin Cheveldayoff has been a patient pilot since he was given the cockpit more than eight years ago and has slowly but surely built the Jets into a contender with his wizardry at the draft table and negotiation skills.
The once transient team, bereft of any viable depth options is now brimming with homegrown talent thanks to Cheveldayoff’s commitment to his long-term plan and avoidance of short-term, band-aid fixes. Fourteen of the Jets’ 22 players to suit up so far this season are “Chevy” picks.
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Cheveldayoff’s been able to make the most of his high-round selections, but has set himself apart from other GMs with the number of gems he’s mined from later rounds, such as Mason Appleton, Sami Niku, and Tucker Poolman.
He’s also found a way to re-sign his core players at team-friendly prices: Mark Scheifele’s contract may be the NHL’s best considering the centre’s skills, and Nikolaj Ehlers’ deal is of similar good value. Josh Morrissey’s recent eight-year extension looks to be quite the steal.
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He hasn’t been perfect — he’s tendered some questionable extensions that bit him this summer, and the Kevin Hayes trade didn’t work out so well — but overall, Jets fans should be grateful to have someone so capable at the controls.
2: A New-Look Laine
If you’ said a few weeks ago that Patrik Laine would have ten points through six games, be playing a complete, 200-foot game for the first time in his career, and skating on the top line, Jets fans would have laughed hysterically in your face.
A month ago, Laine’s contract stalemate looked destined to last into the regular season and he implied that his most frequent linemates weren’t elite players.
However, in the six games after the Finn inked a two-year, prove-yourself bridge deal, he has been scintillating and looks nothing like a player who missed all of training camp.
“Patrik Laine is doing the big things, but also all the little things,” Mike McIntyre tweeted during Thursday’s home opener against the Minnesota Wild in which Laine recorded two goals and two assists in a 5-2 win. “Just a tremendous last shift, including a hard back check, big body check, then he gets back in the offensive zone, another hit, steals a puck, sets up a teammate.”
He’s skating hard and playing the right way; it’s been fun to watch. Fans should be grateful for his contributions so far, but will have even more reason to be so if the “new-look” Laine lasts the whole season and doesn’t go back to the one-trick pony everyone saw during long stretches last season.
3: Better Days for the Defence on the Horizon
Yes, the Jets’ blue line will be a season-long issue due to their offseason departures and Dustin Byfuglien’s (too long) leave of absence. The inexperienced crew they’ve assembled has been, and will continue to be, victimized.
They do, however, possess a number of promising players already beginning to make an impact, or will, in future seasons.
Ville Heinola, the Jets’ 2019 20th-overall pick, made the team against all odds thanks to his outstanding training camp and is playing not perfectly, but well above the way any 18-year-old has any business playing. He may force the Jets keep him around for the whole season.
Tucker Poolman has been just as solid as he was last season for the Manitoba Moose in 43 games, and Sami Niku — who was in a car accident and is still a bit hampered by the groin injury he battled through the preseason — still looks primed to bring his slick puck-moving and smooth skating skills to the Jets’ back end sooner than later.
Poolman and Niku — both with fewer than 50 NHL games played — will improve as they get more NHL reps, as will Neal Pionk, who is a veteran by comparison but really in just his second full season.
In a detailed piece this summer, THW’s own Rob Mahon explored the litany of Jets’ defensive prospects, including feted Minnesota-Duluth Bulldogs standout Dylan Samberg, Logan Stanley, Declan Chisholm, Giovanni Vallati, and Leon Gawanke.
Those five could be a big part of the future, so while the the Jets’ d-corp is depleted right now, it shouldn’t be for long.
4: A Terrifying Top-Six
The Jets may have to outscore their defensive problems to win this season, and should be able to (at times) due to their overall offensive firepower.
You can thank Cheveldayoff for building up most of this arsenal, which includes the aforementioned Laine but also many others.
Scheifele has evolved into an elite, two-way centre and will be a point-per-game player for the considerable future. Ehlers is coming off a down year with 37 points, but if his first six games are any indication of his compete level this season, should have no trouble getting back to 60.
Kyle Connor will be a Jet for the next seven seasons thanks to his recent extension. He exploded onto the scene in 2017-18, has posted back-to-back 30-goal seasons since, and has shown he’s a dynamic and dangerous player even when not paired with Scheifele and Blake Wheeler.
Speaking of Wheeler, the captain is getting better with age. The 34-year-old is one of the NHL’s most prolific play-makers but is also shooting more in this young season. He has posted back-to-back 91-point campaigns and his dedication cannot be questioned.
As the Winnipeg Free Press’ Mike McIntyre put it: “(Wheeler’s) work ethic is off the charts. He truly gives a damn. He raises the play of those around him. And you’ll never see him take a shift off,” (from ‘Wheeler already all-in for season,’ Winnipeg Free Press, 08/23/19).
5: True North’s Tremendous Work
It wasn’t that long ago Winnipeggers were saying farewell to their team as it departed for the desert after the 1995-96 NHL season.
A weak Canadian Dollar, a ratty arena, a stagnant economy, and no local owner willing to take things over were contributing factors that caused an entire generation to have no hometown big-league team to root for.
However, 15 years after the Jets 1.0 departed, True North Sports + Entertainment — who partly sated Winnipeg’s hockey desires in that decade-and-a-half by bringing in the Manitoba Moose in 1997 — acquired the Atlanta Thrashers and the Jets 2.0 era began.
It’s easy to take an NHL team for granted after eight seasons. The sheer joy of the Jets just existing — which was obvious in Winnipeg when thousands blew off work and school to celebrate the team’s return at The Forks and Portage and Main on that unforgettable day in 2011 — has understandably worn off.
However, fans should be incredibly thankful to True North every time they walk through Bell MTS Place’s Portage and Donald vestibule on their way to their seats for an evening of NHL action. They should remember when that was something they couldn’t do.
Executive Chairman Mark Chipman and his organization have made the team economically viable, purchasing it for $170 million and more than doubling its value to $415 million by 2018. They’ve invested in Winnipeg’s much-maligned downtown and their striking True North Square development has revitalized previously under-used blocks. Restaurants and bars are bumping pre- and post-game.
Most importantly, they’ve given a new generation a team to call their own. They’ve made sure kids have hometown heroes. They’ve become a community cornerstone and their impact on the city’s morale and pride is immeasurable.
Having an NHL team is something to be thankful for all season long, not just on Turkey Day.
Want to find out what reasons other Canadian teams fans have to be thankful? THW’s got you covered: check out Peter Baracchini’s piece on the Toronto Maple Leafs and Matthew Zator’s piece on the Vancouver Canucks.
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