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Missing the post-season (again) hurts, but Jets’ future is in good hands

Winnipeg was hoping for a single-season turnaround from lottery team to playoff contender, but the Jets shouldn’t be disheartened considering the steps the franchise took this season.

Unfortunately for the Winnipeg Jets and their faithful, they’re used to this feeling by now. On Monday night, the Jets were mathematically eliminated from playoff contention, missing out on playing into mid-April for the fifth time in six seasons. So, another year passes with Winnipeg still waiting for something to celebrate beyond game No. 82, the Jets heading towards summer once again as the league’s only franchise without a single playoff win under their belt.

It’s disappointing. That’s exactly what you’ll hear from about every Jets player in the dressing room. Making the post-season was their goal, one they believed attainable at the start of the campaign, and falling short isn’t easy to stomach. 

Was this season perfect? No. Were there some flaws that will need addressing in the off-season? Absolutely, but the same can be said for any team that ends up watching the post-season instead of participating in the pursuit of the Stanley Cup. But there was at times a different feel to this season than past campaigns and reason for a feeling of hope that’s much greater than ever before.

Consider where the Jets finished in 2015-16. One season after a near-100-point campaign, Winnipeg finished with 78 points, four games below .500 and only five teams had a worse point total. It was a massive step in the wrong direction, a season derailed by injuries and inexperience that led to Winnipeg selling at the deadline instead of taking a run at a second-straight post-season appearance. And though the season could have gone much the same way, the Jets have remained in the playoff hunt far longer than most would have expected and are set to finish with an improvement on their point total from the past season, however slight that may be. But the stage is set for even bigger gains in 2017-18. 

The centrepiece of it all, or at least the one grabbing all the headlines — and possibly some hardware, has been Patrik Laine. The Finnish Flash, he is not, but what Laine lacks in ability as a Selanne-esque speedster he more than makes up for in his ability to fire the puck. Much was expected of Laine in his rookie campaign, but few would have guessed he’d burst into the league as a near 40-goal scorer. By the time the season ends, it’s likely Laine becomes one of only eight players over the past two decades to score 35-plus goals as a rookie.

To focus on Laine alone, though, is to overlook the growth the rest of the team has shown. Back in 2014-15, the Jets’ lone playoff year, they were led by Andrew Ladd and Blake Wheeler, both of whom barely cracked the 60-point plateau. After Ladd departed at the 2015 deadline, however, the new-generation Jets were cemented, and this new group has more than an upstart rookie to look forward to in the coming seasons.

Wheeler, who took the captaincy from Ladd, has come into his own over the past two seasons. He was a top-10 scorer with 78 points in 2015-16 and is on pace for another 70-point season. Mark Scheifele, now an alternate captain, was only starting to emerge in 2014-15, but he’s become one of the league’s premier scorers since. Matter of fact, since the start of 2015-16, only 13 players have found the score sheet more often than Scheifele. That’s not to mention that Dustin Byfuglien continues to be an offensive powerhouse on the back end, while the likes of Bryan Little and Mathieu Perreault continue to provide a steady veteran hand.

More impressive yet has been the single-season growth of Nikolaj Ehlers. He was solid in his rookie campaign, posting 15 goals and 38 points, but few would have expected him to breakout in the way he has this year. Not only has Ehlers cracked the 20-goal plateau for the first time in his young career, but he’s on pace for 60-plus points and has established himself as a true top-six winger. His speed has made him an effective weapon and the projection that he'd become a top flight NHLer seems to be on the money. He’s the sneaky scorer often overlooked with Scheifele, Wheeler and Laine blasting away at the top of the lineup.

And offense certainly isn’t a worry. With 226 goals, the Jets are the seventh-highest scoring team in the league, and the list of clubs who’ve been more effective offensively includes some of the league’s very best, such as the Washington Capitals and Pittsburgh Penguins. Winnipeg has consistently shown they can produce top-tier offense under Paul Maurice, and continuing to find the back of the net shouldn't be a worry with the likes of Kyle Connor and Jack Roslovic on the way.

It’s not all sunshine in Winnipeg, of course. The defensive aspects of the game were a struggle for the Jets this season. Even with the superb offense, Winnipeg has a minus-15 goal differential. No other team in the top 10 in goals for has a negative differential. 

Some of the blame for the defensive deficiencies can fall on injuries. Losing Tyler Myers for almost the entire season was a massive blow on the back end, as was the contract dispute with Jacob Trouba to start the season and the knocks that Toby Enstrom has sustained. But there’s also a glaring hole when it comes to depth. Having Myers around to start the season would have shored up the top pairings earlier, but it still does nothing to solve the issues that face the bottom two defenders.

As it stands, Mark Stuart, Ben Chiarot and Paul Postma have alternated to fill those two holes, but few would suggest that any combination of the three makes a fearsome bottom pair. What could help that, though, is the emergence of Josh Morrissey. Morrissey’s development over the course of the campaign has been exciting to watch and he projects to play a much bigger role next season. He’s already seen top- and second-pairing minutes, proven he has a flair for offense and his defensive game is coming. His presence gives the Jets a solid core group of defenders alongside Byfuglien, Enstrom, Trouba and Myers, who hopes to be healthy by next season. And a stronger defense gives hope for better goaltending which, above all else, is what really sank the Jets this season. 

Connor Hellebuyck has been hailed as the starter of the future in Winnipeg for a few seasons, but his season was largely forgettable. In 2015-16, Hellebuyck posted a .918 save percentage and 2.34 goals against average, but his GAA shot up by more than half a goal this campaign and save percentage dipped to .905. He faced nearly three more shots per 60 minutes, however, and the attempts came from much tighter than years prior. With that in mind, there’s hope Hellebuyck can shake off 2016-17 en route to a resurgent 2017-18. There’s no guarantee, sure, but as of yet there’s no reason to believe this season’s play is much more than an aberration due to growing pains.

Are the Jets destined for the Stanley Cup next season? Certainly not. But the growth Winnipeg has shown this season is promising. Laine and Ehlers have proven to be strong additions to an already strengthened attack and there’s reason to hope a healthier blueline, with Morrissey continuing to impress, leads to a more sound defensive team. The 2019 Stanley Cup champion prediction was a bold choice, but the Jets may not be too far off if they continue to move in the right direction.

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