Was it excitement or jealousy? Maybe a bit of both. But what we know for sure is Winnipeg Jets captain Blake Wheeler felt something when he watched the Nashville Predators’ enjoy a magical run to the Stanley Cup final this past June. Those Predators share a division with his Jets and finished a stone’s throw ahead of them.
“They finished a couple wins ahead of us last year, and they were two wins away from the Stanley Cup,” Wheeler said. “The most important part is making the playoffs, and then from there everyone has an opportunity to win.”
Sorry to rub salt in the wound, Blake, but it was one win. Your Jets won 40 games, the Predators 41. That’s how thin the margin between Central Division teams is. When we met as THN staffers for our 2017-18 standings predictions, it took us longer to hammer out the Central than it did the Pacific, Atlantic and Metro combined. It’s clear the Avalanche, fresh off the lowest point total of the salary cap era, have no shot at the playoffs, but the six other Central clubs have a chance. The Chicago Blackhawks won the division only to get swept by Nashville. The Minnesota Wild finished with their most points in franchise history and fell to their Central neighbour St. Louis Blues in five games in Round 1. The Dallas Stars missed the playoffs one year after winning the division and added more pieces than any other team this off-season.
And even the Jets have reason for optimism in 2017-18. That’s where the excitement stands out more than jealously in Wheeler’s mind. They own some of the league’s must potent firepower, no longer just reliant on him and fellow veterans like center Bryan Little and blueliner Dustin Byfuglien. No, this team belongs to Winnipeg’s enviable group of young forwards now, led by franchise center Mark Scheifele, powerhouse goal scorer Patrik Laine and slick speedster Nikolaj Ehlers. More young talent will arrive up front soon, too, with sniper Kyle Connor likely to make the team and two-way center Jack Roslovic close behind.
But we’ve been saying this about the Jets for years, right? They’re perennially the sexy team on papers, supposed to be better than they are. Future Watch 2017 has ranked their crop of drafted 21-and-younger talent the NHL’s best twice in the past three years. But why doesn’t theory translate to success for this team far more often? Allow Laine to sum it up. Sometimes being new to English helps you simplify your language more, and he thus can’t beat around the bush.
“Last season, we just allowed too many goals,” he said “It’s hard if you have to score three or four goals every night to win.”
It’s the easiest answer but the truth. Winnipeg boasted a top-seven offense last season, but only three teams allowed more goals per game. Winnipeg’s pitiful penalty kill was partially to blame. And there’s no denying the young netminding tandem of Connor Hellebuyck and Michael Hutchinson wasn’t good enough, combining to place Winnipeg 28th in the NHL in save percentage. It’s no coincidence the last time Winnipeg made the playoffs was 2014-15 when Ondrej Pavelec had a .920 save percentage in 50 appearances. Rather than cross their fingers and hope big-time prospect Hellebuyck figures it out immediately, GM Kevin Cheveldayoff got proactive this off-season, signing UFA Steve Mason. At a $4.1-million cap hit, it’s clear he’s no backup. He’s set to play 1A to Hellebuyck’s 1B in an apprenticeship.
“We need better goaltending,” Wheeler said. “It’s a tough business, and being a goalie is tough. By no means is this closing the door on anyone, but I think having competition back there is really important. Because if you keep putting somebody back into the net, and they’re 24 years old and maybe they’re not quite ready for it, it can be damaging to them a little bit. And seeing someone go in there who has worked for it, who’s had success doing it, can really only help them. Having competition back there, having that hunger to get back into the net, that’s a huge thing for any team. The ideal situation is that we have two No. 1 goalies and we ride the hot guy, and the guy who’s not playing is pissed off, and when he gets into the net, he gets hot, and they work out like that. And if one guy grabs the job and runs with it, that’s great, too. There are 31 starting goalie jobs in the entire world, so there’s an incredible amount of competition, so it’s a thankless job a lot of times. But for us to get to where we need to go, we need to have that position solidified.”
The captain doesn’t mince words, but he makes it very clear he’s not trying to call out Hellebuyck or the Jets’ goaltending in general. To Wheeler, allowing too many goals falls on the skaters just as much as the netminders. And, for him, it’s the forwards who need to make the biggest strides. They have Big Buff, Trouba and the rising Josh Morrissey back on ‘D,’ with towering prospect Logan Stanley on the way, but the uber-talented forward group has to learn greater commitment to two-way play.
“The forwards need to help our defensemen out, because if we want to put up those big numbers our guys can put up, we need our defensemen to keep plays alive and move pucks for us, and that’s sometimes going to require to not be standing on the blueline,” Wheeler said. “So we need to be responsible as forwards to get back and help them out and figure out a way to have a really strong identity defensively, where we’re equally as difficult to play against defensively as offensively.
“We can score goals, so at no point in a game should we be so concerned with scoring goals that we should completely abandon our defensive game to score goals. We have guys who can take the puck and put it in the net from pretty much anywhere on the ice. We’re lucky like that. We don’t need to pack five guys in front of our net to get it done. We need everyone to buy into that.”
So the plan is pretty clear. We know Winnipeg will score a ton, maybe even more this season. Laine is my pick to lead the league in goals. And this team is just a few extra wins away from posting a playoff-worthy point total. But now we wait to see if the Jets will actually improve. That means getting better puck-stopping from a veteran in Mason who was deemed expendable by a non-playoff team in Philadelphia. It means Hellebuyck taking a step forward. Neither is a sure thing. That’s why greater overall devotion to team defense is so important.
If the Jets can pull that off and squeak into the big dance, who knows? Place your bets.
“If you make it to the playoffs, it’s a whole new chapter,” Laine said. “The game is so much different in the regular season. I haven’t played NHL playoffs, so I don’t know what it will be, but I played playoffs in Finland and all the tournaments. We saw against Chicago last season that we can beat them. It’s hard, but we can still do it. Hopefully if we make it to the playoffs, we can be a good team.”
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