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Why a trip to the conference final is only the beginning for the Winnipeg Jets

The Jets suffered the disappointment of falling short in the Western Conference final, but the current crop and the next wave of prospects have the future looking bright in Winnipeg.

As the Winnipeg Jets awoke Monday morning, they did so with the book closed on their 2017-18 campaign. And while that is sure to come with a certain level of disappointment and emptiness, particularly for those who were of the mind this was Winnipeg’s year, the Jets should be filled with nothing but pride and faith in an exceptionally bright future.

To be sure, the past season was the most brilliant in the franchise’s history, and that includes the organization’s dire days as the Atlanta Thrashers. The upstart Jets were a sight to behold for much of the season with a rapid-fire offense, deep blueline and a Vezina Trophy contending goaltender. And after Winnipeg utilized its mix of youth and experience to flirt with a Presidents’ Trophy victory and Central Division crown, the Jets knocked off the very team that bested them for both titles, the Stanley Cup favorite Nashville Predators, in order to earn a trip to the Western Conference final.

So, sure, there’s a disappointment that comes along with falling short and doing so in rather spectacular fashion at the hands of an expansion team that took the series largely on the strength of a talented top line and an incredible goaltending performance. But there’s no reason to believe this is anything but the beginning for Winnipeg.

If nothing else, consider what the Jets had on their hands this past season in terms of pure talent. Led by veteran captain Blake Wheeler, who has arrived as a point per game player across the past three seasons, Winnipeg had one of the league’s best offenses and there’s no reason to believe that can’t continue. Patrik Laine followed up a stunning rookie campaign with another outstanding goal-scoring performance, blasting his way into the Rocket Richard Trophy race with 44 goals, and chances are he’s only going to improve as he continues to develop. Likewise, Nikolaj Ehlers set a new career high by scoring 29 goals and there’s untapped offense lying under the surface. Meanwhile, rookie Kyle Connor fired home 31 of his own to lead all freshmen and he continued to prove his offensive flair throughout the post-season. To top it all off, 24-year-old Mark Scheifele continued to emerge as one of the league’s legitimate stars and flashed superstar potential. His 23 goals and 60 points in 60 regular season contests were one thing. His 14 goals in 17 playoff games was another eye-opener altogether.

Remarkably, though, the Jets have another potential wave of young talent that can make an impact as early as next season. And chief among those who appear NHL ready is 21-year-old Jack Roslovic.

In and out of the lineup throughout the post-season, Roslovic’s base numbers alone may not portend big-time success come next campaign — he had three points, all assists, in 10 games — but the way he played in limited minutes throughout the back half of the Western Conference final gave hope that he can follow in the footsteps of a player such as Connor. He played with speed, generated opportunities and there were moments during the conference final in which Roslovic appeared to be one of the few Jets who could generate anything on the rush. True as it may be, too, that Roslovic didn’t flourish from a base statistical perspective, Roslovic’s rate of scoring per 60 minutes at 5-on-5 was slightly better than that of Connor. Matter of fact, he was only slightly back of Blake Wheeler, who led the Jets with 21 points in the post-season, and Scheifele and Paul Stastny were Winnipeg’s only other scorers with a better points-per-60 than Roslovic.

Roslovic isn’t the only up-and-comer who could force his way into the lineup and potentially into a top-nine role next season, either. Nic Petan, Brendan Lemieux and Mason Appleton, who led all AHL rookies in scoring by notching 22 goals and 66 points in 76 games, could all push for roster spots in training camp next season. It’s not just up front that the Jets have big potential, either.

As the Jets prepare for some potential turnover on the blueline — Toby Enstrom’s tenure is almost certainly over and it wouldn’t be shocking if another playoff regular, perhaps Ben Chiarot or even Tyler Myers, sees their time in Winnipeg come to an end — there are two defenders, 24-year-old Tucker Poolman and 21-year-old Sami Niku, who could work their way into the lineup come opening night in 2018-19. Poolman had a taste of NHL action throughout this campaign as a sixth defenseman, skating in 24 regular season and two playoff contests. As for Niku, he was a standout in the AHL. His 54 points were second-most among all Manitoba Moose skaters and he posted 15 more points than any other rookie rearguard in the feeder league.

It’s almost unfair, too, that Winnipeg has the likes of Poolman and Niku at the ready, particularly as the Jets already had two young talented blueliners at their disposal. Jacob Trouba, 23, has earned his rightful place in Winnipeg’s top four and he boasted the second-highest average ice time of any Jets blueliner in the playoffs. And Josh Morrissey, 23, has improved on a near game-by-game basis over the past two seasons to become a fixture of the top four himself.

Of course, this is to say nothing of Connor Hellebuyck, either. Returning from a dreadful sophomore campaign, Hellebuyck finds himself heading to Las Vegas at season’s end as one of three Vezina finalists and will likely finish second in voting behind presumptive winner Pekka Rinne. But Hellebuyck has only just turned 25, celebrating his birthday just days before Winnipeg’s playoff elimination. He’s the youngest Vezina finalist since Sergei Bobrovsky won the award in 2012-13 as a 24-year-old. And if Hellebuyck uses this post-season disappointment to fuel him in a way that even resembles his bounce back performance this past season, the Jets could have a Vezina winner, not just a finalist, in their crease next season.

So, again, while the disappointment of coming oh-so-close will sting today, tomorrow and for weeks to come, that pain will subside when the puck drops on the 2018-19 campaign, and there’s an honest-to-goodness chance these wounds will be healed in the not-too-distant future by a team that has what it takes to reach the NHL’s summit.

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