Entering the season, few would have even pictured the Winnipeg Jets in the post-season. That they played in the playoffs this year should be enough to have the team holding their heads high, but it will take a few days for the sting to come off of being swept by the Anaheim Ducks.
When the team finally reflects on the year that was, however, there will be many reasons to be proud of what they’ve accomplished. From defying the odds and fighting through a litany of injuries on the blueline to their strong push in the late stages of the regular season to lock up a wild-card spot, the Jets not only proved they can hang in the tough Central Division, but that they can be one of the more physical and dominating teams in the entire league.
And while they’ll have to wait at least another season for the franchise’s first ever playoff victory, the 2014-15 Winnipeg Jets were a team that opened a lot of eyes.
Even though the result won’t show it, for four straight games the Jets gave the Ducks everything Anaheim could handle. For the pundits that picked Winnipeg to move on, the final series result doesn’t look great, but the games themselves were much more indicative of a series that could have gone either way. Were it not for late-game breakdowns and ill-timed penalties, the Jets could have very well been playing Wednesday night’s game with the chance to tie the series or even the opportunity to take a commanding 3-1 series lead. But, instead, the young Jets went into Game 4 facing elimination and were handily defeated by a Ducks team that finally broke through, moving on thanks to a 5-2 victory.
The upside here, though, is that the team is so young. Of all playoff teams, only the Ottawa Senators boast a younger average age. But even the Senators, for how incredible their run to the post-season was and the few young guns they have, don’t possess nearly the bright future of Winnipeg.
Already, Winnipeg has Mark Scheifele developing into a better player with every game, Jacob Trouba playing as arguably the team’s top blueliner and young, pesky center Adam Lowry displaying a two-way game that will make him a fixture in Winnipeg’s lineup for years to come. That’s not to mention goaltender Michael Hutchinson, who, though he stumbled down the stretch, proved he can play and win in the NHL this season. But there’s even more to it than that.
Though he didn’t suit up in Game 4, watching from the sidelines was Nikolaj Ehlers, a 19-year-old top prospect that stands a very real chance of making the Jets’ roster out of training camp next season. On top of Ehlers, next season’s camp will also feature center Nic Petan, right and left wingers Joel Armia and Brendan Lemieux, defenseman Josh Morrissey and goaltender Connor Hellebuyck. The Jets were ranked first in our Future Watch issue for a reason, and it’s because of the names listed here. Consider also that only two teams – Detroit and Winnipeg – boasted six prospects ranked in the top 75 by the scouts polled for the issue, and you can see why this isn’t the end for the Jets.
Going into Wednesday down 3-0 in the series, there wasn’t much to be hopeful about when it came to the remaining games. Only four teams in league history have overcome such a deficit and the rarity of the feat tipped fate’s hand before the puck had even dropped in Game 4. A victory tonight or another in Friday’s Game 5 would have served only to delay the inevitable, but the off-season gives the Jets – and their fans, for that matter – something to look forward to, even if it comes after being swept out of the first round.
They say you have to crawl before you walk and walk before you run. The first three campaigns in Winnipeg were the years the Jets moved along on all fours, slogging through the year and finding what hope they could in small victories. Throughout 2014-15 the team found their legs and took steps forward in every aspect – from on the ice to off of it. Now, with the first two phases out of the way, it wouldn’t be far-fetched to believe 2015-16 can be the season the Jets begin to run.