September 1, 2015

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Winnipeg Jets

Jets in strong upswing

Lay of the land going into Olympic break looks positive, intriguing

Blake Wheeler celebrates a recent goal with his Jets teammates. The forward says his team is now fulfilling the potential it has always had.


Blake Wheeler celebrates a recent goal with his Jets teammates. The forward says his team is now fulfilling the potential it has always had.

ST. LOUIS -- Picture a dirt-stained hand -- fingers clenched, the nails raw and bloodied -- shooting out of a casket dumped into a shallow grave.

Yes, if there is one image that might perfectly portray the Winnipeg Jets right now, we'd suggest it's one ripped straight from the script of Wes Craven horror flick.

Given up for dead less than a month ago, this corpse suddenly -- improbably -- has life again.

And regardless of what happens in Saturday's matinee against the St. Louis Blues, the last game before the Olympic break, the Jets are smack dab back in the Western Conference playoff discussion again.

"I think we've been reinvigorated here in the last month," said Blake Wheeler. "We're playing really well. There's a direction. We're pointed north right now and that's exciting for everyone. We have realistic expectations of still achieving goals that we set out at the beginning of the year and with 20 games left, that's really all you can ask for.

"You know, I've said it all along, I've said it to my wife, I've said it to my teammates: I still don't think we are what our record says. I think we're a better hockey team than the results have shown.

"We're starting to believe in ourselves more. So much has been up and down with us and our overall confidence -- what we are and what we do -- was kind of fragile and that's the product of not having a lot of success. We've been pumped with a lot of confidence from our head coach right now."

And that -- the immediate and positive after-effects that came with the coaching change and the 9-3 start under Maurice -- is THE story, to date, of the Jets' 2013-14 season.

So, with the Olympic break on the horizon, a perfect opportunity is presented to take stock of the juiciest storylines -- so far -- in what has already been a dramatic campaign.



The players have bought in and 12 games into the new boss's tenure are gulping down his Kool-Aid. Maurice's credentials were important for a team needing a veteran voice and his tweaking of the defensive system has been the cornerstone of the foundation he is building. But two things are also in play here: First, a coaching change often rattles a team to life and he's already managed to decipher when to crack the whip and when to throw an arm around a shoulder in support.

Bottom line: As corny as it sounds, this team is starting to believe in itself. And that's a powerful part of what is unfolding in front of everyone's eyes.



The Jets opened training camp with two spots on their depth chart reserved for their first two first-rounders. And the growth, frankly, has been spectacular. Both are legit Calder Trophy candidates -- Scheifele third in rookie scoring; Trouba leading all freshmen in ice time -- and are the key components of True North's attempt to rebuild this franchise.



The move up front still feels, from this perch at least, somewhat temporary. Dustin Byfuglien has always been labelled a difference-maker -- sometimes for the Jets, sometimes against the Jets -- as a defenceman.

His impact as a forward has its moments because he's a beast with the puck on his stick and does have both a cannon and excellent hands. And dropping him back to the point on the power play is critical because he's the lead piston on that engine.

A couple of talking points, however, to mull over here: Is Byfuglien's buy-in as a forward the byproduct of the coaching change? And has the move made him tastier for teams hungry to make a move at the trade deadline?



Al Montoya will start today against the Blues and there is a growing segment of Jets faithful that wants to see the veteran puck-stopper between the pipes more often. His numbers this season, across the board, are better than Pavelec's but there's a reason he was available to the Jets dirt cheap a couple of years ago. He has yet to have a real extended stint as a No. 1 goaltender and has also battled injuries.

Pavelec's game has also improved under Maurice, but the organization has to be quietly concerned whether he is capable of taking the proverbial next step as a goaltender. This question remains unanswered, just as it was when the Jets relocated to Winnipeg: Is he a championship-calibre goaltender or is what you see, what you get?



When the Jets return from their Olympic break on Feb. 19 they could look considerably different. Jim Slater is here with the team and skating, Evander Kane could be back from his hand infection and Matt Halischuk from his broken arm.

That could have a dramatic impact on their forward lines, with Kane sliding back onto a line with Scheifele and Blake Wheeler, with Slater possibly centering a fourth line of Chris Thorburn and Halischuk.

It also makes what the Jets might consider at the trade deadline on March 5 a lot more interesting. Olli Jokinen, Devin Setoguchi, Thorburn, Mark Stuart, Zach Redmond, Adam Pardy and Montoya are all unrestricted free agents and -- seemingly -- the most likely candidates for trade.

Strap in and hold on, Jets fans, for as riveting as the first chunk of the season has been, the most compelling is yet to come. Twitter: @WFPEdTait

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition February 8, 2014 A1

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