It was the publishing world’s equivalent of Owen Nolan pointing to the top right corner of the net on a breakaway, then burying the puck over the glove of Dominik Hasek in the 1997 All-Star Game. In their June 24, 2014, issue, Sports Illustrated boldly introduced the Houston Astros as “Your 2017 World Series champs.” At the time, the Astros were in the midst of a 92-loss season and were a year removed from losing 111. They even put George Springer on the cover, the same George Springer who was named MVP of the World Series, which the Astros won in Game 7 Wednesday night.
So, if the publishing and hockey gods have any sense of justice, they’re return the favor to us here at THN and the Winnipeg Jets will win the Stanley Cup in 2019. Mark Scheifele will win the Conn Smythe Trophy, Jacob Trouba will be a stud on defense and Nikolaj Ehlers will score the overtime winner in Game 7 of the Stanley Cup final.
Hey, it’s only fair. After all, we were just as bold as Sports Illustrated in our 2015 Future Watch edition when our headline boldly said: “Meet your 2019 Stanley Cup champions – Yes, we mean the Winnipeg Jets.” So the clock is ticking, Paul Maurice & Co. It’s time to start making things happen.
Of course, things were much different in the winter of 2015 in Winnipeg than they were in the early summer in Houston in 2014. The Jets were in the midst of putting together a 99-point season en route to making the playoffs before losing four straight to the Anaheim Ducks in the first round of the playoffs in a series that was far, far more competitive than the 4-0 result indicated and one that was punctuated by some of the most intense physical play we’ve seen in the playoffs in years. The Astros, on the other hand, were baseball’s running joke at the time.
And we do have to admit that the Astros and Jets have gone in opposite directions since their greatness was predicted. The Astros finished 10 games over .500 in 2015 and gained a wildcard spot, then beat the New York Yankees in the wild-card game before losing in five to the Kansas City Royals in the American League Division Series. Last season, the Astros finished six games over .500 before exploding for 101 wins in 2017. Since the Jets last made the playoffs, though, they’ve finished the past two seasons on the outside looking in by a fair considerable margin and have left us with more questions than answers.
So they have some work to do in the next 20 months. Things did not look good when they gave up a seven-spot in their first game and a total of 13 in their first two. But the good news is that since then, they’ve ridden the goaltending of Connor Hellebuyck (our No. 5 prospect on the Jets’ list that year) and turned things around in a big way by picking up at least a point in eight of their past nine games. They’re even in second place in the competitive Central Division at the moment.
Hey, we might just be on to something here. The Jets went out and signed Steve Mason in hopes of stabilizing their goaltending, but lo and behold, they’re getting the kind of play from Hellebuyck that they were hoping for when they drafted him back in 2012. Scheifele and Blake Wheeler are all producing at better than a point-per-game and Nikolaj Ehlers has seven goals. After scoring 36 goals as a rookie last season, Patrik Laine has just four, so that’s a bit of a cause for concern, but all in all, things are trending upward quite nicely for the Jets.
So what do the Jets have to do now to win a Stanley Cup on a hot summer night in June of 2019? Well, making some advancements this season and putting together a respectable playoff run would really, really help. But the Jets are not hockey’s version of the Houston Astros in as much as they will always have trouble attracting big-name free agents that could put them over the top. (Or completely throw their salary structure out of whack and wildly underperform, so there’s that, too.) So they have to build from within and keep their players around. Or as GM Kevin Cheveldayoff put it in the 2015 Future Watch edition: “I do believe that once we get a player here and they see how we treat the players, they’ll want to stay. We’ve said it from Day 1, once players come here they’re going enjoy being here. And we know the kids we draft and the kids we develop, they’re going to know from Day 1 what it’s like to be part of the Jets’ family and they’re going to embrace that.”
And the Jets have been good on their word. They’ve locked Scheifele, Ehlers and Little to long-term deals and when Dustin Byfuglien had the chance to sign anywhere else as an unrestricted free agent before last season, he re-upped with the Jets for five more years. The Jets will be able to sign Laine to an extension as early as July 1 and if Hellebuyck, a pending restricted free agent with arbitration rights, continues to shine as the No. 1 goalie, getting him locked up long-term will be a priority.
Are the Jets a serious Stanley Cup contender as we sit here on Nov. 2, 2017? Probably not at the moment, but they’re trending that way and that’s what really matters. So, hell yeah, we’re going to bet they make the playoffs this year and have a good run before winning it all in 2019. When that happens, just imagine how smart we’ll look.
And we’ll look even better the next year when Jack Eichel is parading down the streets of downtown Buffalo with the Stanley Cup over his head in 2020.
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