The 2017–18 NHL season begins this week, and with it comes a slew of new players, new front offices, and even a new team. And while familiar powerhouses like the Penguins and Blackhawks will once again be favored, the league’s hierarchy is changing. The Nashville Predators will be looking to defend their Western Conference crown, the youthful Oilers and Maple Leafs seem poised for deep playoff runs, and the new Vegas Golden Knights are ready to challenge any and all opponents (well, at least on Twitter). This could be a season that launches a new dynasty—that, or Pittsburgh could be the first NHL three-peat winner since the ’80s Islanders. We hope for the former, as we break it all down in our “Changing of the Guard” NHL Preview week.
The best conundrums come in unsolvable packages. That logic is why The Witness (video game) was so well-received, Gone Girl (the book) still haunts me, and we keep debating the meaning of Inception. People love a good puzzle, and, over the past year, the NHL’s biggest enigma has been the Winnipeg Jets.
It started last fall in 2016-17 previews, many of which held the Jets in high esteem. Pierre LeBrun (then with ESPN, now at The Athletic) picked Winnipeg to take the last wild-card spot in the West. Seventy-seven percent of voters in SportsNet’s preview thought the Jets would make the playoffs for just the third time in franchise history. And The Hockey News wrote that if the Jets could figure out their goaltending mess, “they have a very real chance at getting back to the playoffs.”
Winnipeg was launched into this playoff conversation partly because of Patrik Laine, the no. 2 overall pick (after Auston Matthews) in the 2016 draft. The electric Finn dropped into the Jets’ lap with a fully formed offensive game and the ability to score from anywhere on the ice. He immediately had their fan base, a rabid group that often ranks in the top five in attendance by capacity percentage, dreaming of rings—or at the very least, the ability to keep pace with young upstarts like the Oilers and Maple Leafs.
But Laine’s addition alone wasn’t enough for Winnipeg to join Edmonton and Toronto in the postseason. The Jets finished fifth in the stacked Central, but ended up seven points out of a playoff berth. They didn’t find a solution in net, giving up 256 goals, fourth worst in the league. Of the 41 goalies who started 25 or more games last season, Winnipeg’s Connor Hellebuyck finished near the bottom in save percentage (.907, 36th) and goals-against average (2.89, 35th).
The postmortem on last season offers plenty of excuses as to why the playoffs were a distant reality. The first is the most obvious: The Jets play in the Central, the toughest top-to-bottom division in the NHL. Of the teams that finished above them, the Blackhawks and Wild were the top two overall seeds in the West; the Blues, under Mike Yeo, surged to the second round of the playoffs; and Nashville shocked the league, going from a wild-card team to the Stanley Cup final.
But more devastating were issues the team could control: unsteady goaltending and a shallow defensive unit that allowed Jets opponents to average 3.11 goals a game against them (compared with the league average of 2.59). Winnipeg’s special teams were abysmal, from their 18th-ranked power play to the 26th-ranked kill, and, at even strength, the Jets’ forward lines were top-heavy. According to Dominik Luszczyszyn of The Athletic, Winnipeg’s top six forwards were all on pace for 55-point seasons before injuries struck, a number only the high-powered Maple Leafs managed to hit. That looks great until you realize that just 23.6 percent of Winnipeg's goals came from forwards outside the top six.
All those factors together seem to paint a clear picture of what went wrong last season, except it’s not the issues—goaltending woes and an injury-riddled defense—that are perplexing. The Jets were considered playoff contenders because their top two lines are among the most formidable in the NHL—especially after the addition of Laine—and at full strength, their blue line is a relatively solid unit. That’s still true this season. And yet, despite having some of last season’s problems worked out—defenseman Tyler Myers should be fully healthy after playing just 11 games last year, and fellow blue-liner Jacob Trouba got his bridge deal in November—there’s still uncertainty about how good Winnipeg can be with all of its pieces together.
Thus, this year’s preseason predictions are a bit more reserved. The Hockey News tried to predict “How the Jets can get from ‘good on paper’ to ‘actually good.’” In ESPN’s Jets preview, an anonymous scout called the team “better” and “deeper” than the Blackhawks, but ended the assessment by saying, “I just don’t understand how they’re not better.” And SportsNet’s preview opened with the line: “Is there a harder team to project in the NHL than the Winnipeg Jets?” Luszczyszyn’s system has the Jets once again finishing fifth in the Central this season with 95 points, giving them a 68 percent chance of making the playoffs. The Hockey News says they’ll finish sixth, just out of a postseason spot. But it was Jets players, not pundits, who made the most telling projections this offseason.
“We know that we’ve got to make the playoffs,” center Mark Scheifele told the Winnipeg Free Press. “It’s not we hope to make the playoffs — we need to make the playoffs.”
Captain Blake Wheeler echoed his linemate: “It’s gotta be this year. It just has to be.”
Wheeler also launched an Instagram account Tuesday, and his first post emphasized that the team is “ready to compete, ready to excel, ready to emerge.”
If it sounds like they’re desperate, well, frankly, they are; the window for success in their current cap situation is, at most, two seasons. When the Jets landed Laine in 2016, the team’s timeline to return to the postseason rapidly accelerated. Laine’s on a rookie deal for the next two years, and though Wheeler is 31, his cap hit can’t be $5.6 million forever. And after agreeing to terms on a seven-year, $42 million extension Wednesday, winger Nikolaj Ehlers’s cap hit will no longer be under $900,000 after this season. Just as quickly as Winnipeg’s window opened, it feels like it’s closing again. And the teams that were at their level just a few years ago—the aforementioned Oilers and the Leafs—are now legit Cup contenders. Where does that leave the Jets?
They have Wheeler, the team’s leader on and off the ice, locked up for two more years. Perpetually underrated, Wheeler was second on the team in scoring last year—with 74 points—while eating up more than 20 minutes of ice time a night. And though he’s 31, he still embodies the youthful knucklehead that won Minnesota the 2007 WCHA Final Five on this swan dive of a goal:
Scheifele, 24, had a 21-point spike between 2015-16 and last season and finished seventh in the league in scoring with 82 points. He’s no. 15 in TSN’s top-50 players preview (above Jamie Benn and Steven Stamkos), and he’s under contract with a reasonable cap hit—especially given last season’s bump in performance—through 2024.
And Laine more than lived up to the hype. Apart from Matthews, Laine was the best rookie in the league last year. His season was so electrifying that I enthusiastically watched this 20-minute video, in full, that shows all 36 of his freshman goals:
Winnipeg’s goaltending situation should improve, now that the team has added 2009 Calder Trophy winner Steve Mason to the roster. Mason has struggled in recent years—his save percentage decreased 10 percentage points in each season since 2014—and he was just barely better than the combination of Michael Hutchinson (a recent cut) and Hellebuyck (who is still considered Winnipeg’s netminder of the future) last season, but even that is an improvement.
After joining the team as a free agent this summer, Mason told Eric Duhatschek of The Athletic that he picked the Jets because of their overall talent level. “You look at the top players on this team, and also see that they are the hardest working guys – and what a huge effect that has on the young guys coming in,” Mason said. “The Blake Wheelers, the Mark Scheifeles, the Bryan Littles, are doing all this extra work to improve their games.”
That extra work will either lead to the team’s third-ever playoff appearance—and potentially its first postseason win—or it will become another season with a heartbreaking conclusion, a real possibility in a division that now also boasts a revamped Stars squad. Winnipeg head coach Paul Maurice, with an overall record of 136-112-33 with the Jets, should be on the hot seat, but he signed a multiyear extension in September. Even with that ostensible job security, though, if Maurice can’t coach his team up to its talent level in a short window, the NHL’s fourth-longest tenured coach may be out of a job by season’s end.
For now, the Jets remain a conundrum. The answers this season will primarily lie with Mason and the defense, but star Jets defender Dustin Byfuglien believes it’ll also take another great effort from Laine to get to the postseason. “A young kid like that, you hope that he can come in and do what he did last year again for us,” Byfuglien said. “You always look forward to the next season after you’ve seen what they’ve done, and you always look forward to what they’re going to do next.” The Jets don’t have much more time to look forward. But if they can unlock their potential this season, they’ve got the tools to make—and win in—the playoffs.