May 26, 2017

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Record: 40 – 35 – 7

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Winnipeg Jets (40 – 35 – 7)

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Jets fans have reasons to be happy

Team won't make playoffs, but plenty of things are going right

Trouba’s one of the best defenceman in the entire league. And loyal fans like those ones in the background are pretty great, too. (John Woods / The Canadian Press files)</p>

Trouba’s one of the best defenceman in the entire league. And loyal fans like those ones in the background are pretty great, too. (John Woods / The Canadian Press files)

NEW YORK — And now for something completely different... what’s right with the Winnipeg Jets.

Yes, I’m serious.

All season long we’ve talked, at length and over and over again, about all the things that are wrong with the 2016-17 Jets.

They are irresponsible defensively. They have questionable blue-line depth. The goaltending is sketchy. They are wildly inconsistent. And, my personal favourite: they take too many penalties and are really bad at killing them.

Add it all up and you have a team that will miss the playoffs for the fifth time in six years and may finish with fewer points than last season’s team that, in turn, finished with fewer points than the season before — the only time the Jets have played beyond the first week of April.

If we were talking about a corporation, the CEO would’ve been sent packing long ago to pursue other interests. But it’s the Jets, so hey, contract extensions for everyone and let the good times roll.

But I digress. This is a column about what’s been right with the club this season and why there really is reason to believe things will get better.

That conversation starts with defenceman Jacob Trouba, who wasn’t a player on the team six months ago, mired as he was in an extraordinarily ill-advised holdout, demanding to be traded.

Today, Trouba’s not only the Jets’ best D-man, he is pound for pound one of the best defenceman in the NHL after what has been nothing short of a career season.

The kid has always been good defensively but what Trouba has demonstrated this season is that he also has the ability to jump into a rush and add an offensive component to his game, a skill the league’s best defencemen must have.

There have been games this season, especially lately, where I’ve thought Trouba was the most potent offensive threat the Jets had on the ice, which is high praise for a guy who plays on a highly skilled team that, for all its other troubles, doesn’t have a problem putting the puck in the net.

Then there’s the sandpaper Trouba has added to his game, a nastiness that was missing earlier in his career but is on display most nights now — never more so than Saturday in a titanic scrap with the Calgary Flames’ Sam Bennett that left both men bleeding and generated a YouTube highlight that will stand the test of time.

The most impressive part of the affair? Trouba finished the game despite being down what looked like a pint of the red stuff from the nasty gash on his head.

So yeah, Trouba is right with the Jets. After signing a quality, experienced and proven NHL goaltender, I’d argue locking down Trouba to a long-term deal this summer needs to be general manager Kevin Cheveldayoff’s highest priority.

You know what else is right about the Jets? Trouba’s pairing partner, Josh Morrissey.

There were lots of questions about Morrissey heading into his rookie season. He has answered all of them, emphatically.

You know how all great NHL teams have always had one great defensive pairing that anchors the franchise for years on end? The Jets now have one of their own in Morrissey and Trouba.

They’re not quite yet Niedermayer-Stevens or Coffey-Huddy or Robinson-Lapointe, but you can see the outlines of it from here.

So yeah, that’s definitely right with the Jets.

Elite centreman? With all due respect to Bryan Little, the Jets finally got their first one this season in the person of Mark Scheifele, who last summer signed an eight-year, $50-million contract — the largest in Winnipeg history — and promptly made it look like a bargain with a breakout season that had him presently ninth in league scoring heading into Wednesday’s play.

No less an authority than Toronto Maple Leafs head coach Mike Babcock singled out Scheifele a few weeks back as one of the NHL’s best centres. That endorsement is good enough for me.

Scheifele is very right with the Jets.

Oh yeah, then there’s rookie Patrik Laine, who at age 18 was tied for third in the league in goals with Evgeni Malkin and Max Pacioretty before Wednesday’s play and just two goals behind the leaders, Brad Marchand and some guy named Sidney Crosby. Did I mention Laine is 18?

Laine is astoundingly right with the Jets. He’s also the rightful winner of this year’s Calder Trophy, but that’s (yet) another column for another day.

You know what else is right with the Jets? Their goaltending.

I’ll wait here while you fetch a rag to wipe up that coffee.

What’s right about the Jets’ goaltending is this — they now have an answer to the question: is Connor Hellebuyck ready to be a No. 1 netminder in the NHL?

Whether you believe this season proved Hellebuyck doesn’t have what it takes to be starter or whether you believe it proved he just needs more time, what is no longer up for debate is the Jets clearly need some goaltending help next season if the parts that are working have a chance to succeed.

Yes, it’s too bad — and, in my view, entirely unnecessary — that the Jets wasted a season finding out that answer. But they’ve got it now, and that is going to work for them in the future.

The final thing working for the Jets? Their fans.

One playoff appearance — and the grand total of four games — in six years of existence in Winnipeg would test the loyalty of even the most patient hockey fans, much less ones who are paying among the highest ticket prices in the league.

While the grumbling about this team has been louder this season than ever before, the seats at the MTS Centre have been occupied night after night, delivering both time and money to get this thing right.

As they’ve been since the very beginnings of this most unlikely reincarnation of NHL hockey in Winnipeg, the fans remain the thing that is most right about the Jets.

Now it’s time the Winnipeg Jets finally do right by their fans.

paul.wiecek@freepress.mb.ca Twitter: @PaulWiecek

Read more by Paul Wiecek.

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History

Updated on Thursday, March 16, 2017 at 7:14 AM CDT: Edited

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