Curtain rises on Jets’ season, but are they ready for Broadway?

NEW YORK — Mark Scheifele's most recent Instagram post shows the Winnipeg Jets centre caught in a tense stare down with a referee. He clearly has his game-face on — not just in the photo, but in the biting caption written underneath for his nearly 100,000 followers to see.

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Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 02/10/2019 (1160 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

NEW YORK — Mark Scheifele’s most recent Instagram post shows the Winnipeg Jets centre caught in a tense stare down with a referee. He clearly has his game-face on — not just in the photo, but in the biting caption written underneath for his nearly 100,000 followers to see.

“That feeling when they count us out,” Scheifele writes.

“They,” of course, could be you or I, and the scores of other hockey fans, writers and pundits from both inside this market and around the league who have the audacity to think these Jets are about to hit a whole lot of rough air as they take to the skies for another NHL season, beginning Thursday night here in the Big Apple.

Mark Scheifele has his game-face on and wants to show the doubters how wrong they are about this year's team. (Ruth Bonneville / Winnipeg Free Press)

Scheifele isn’t the only member of his squad who feels this way, although he’s certainly been the most public in terms of delivering the message. There’s plenty of “let’s show them all how wrong they really are,” coming from the locker room these days, which isn’t the worst way to approach things. After all, the annals of sporting history are filled with examples of teams left for dead who used that as motivation to climb to the top, with the Stanley-Cup winning St. Louis Blues of last season being the most recent.

So the scrappy underdog with a bit of a chip on the collective shoulder seems to suit these Jets just fine as they launch a ninth campaign since returning to Winnipeg, with perhaps more mystery than ever about what we’re about to see unfold following a training camp that was filled with turbulence.

Seriously, who are these guys? Are they somehow still a bona fide Cup contender, as they appeared over long stretches of the past two seasons? Are they at least a solid playoff team, capable of making some noise if they get a few breaks along the way? Or are they more likely to be competing for a lottery draft pick than a spot on the NHL’s spring dance card?

One thing is clear: Scheifele and crew are a lot higher on themselves than pretty much everyone else, judging by the number of expert picks that have them in a season-long battle to stay above the clouds.

Buckle up, Jets fans, for what I expect is going to a season-long emotional roller-coaster. There’s no question the club still has enough elite talent to look dangerous at times, but also enough holes in the lineup to risk being exposed by quality opponents.

A world-beater one night, beaten soundly the next. Get used to seeing a lot of that. Consistently inconsistent might end up being the best way to describe them. Consider yourself warned.

A Las Vegas gambling outfit called BetOnline sent me their latest odds on Wednesday, showing the Jets over/under for points set at 92.5. That’s down from 95.5 from early July, which tells you what they think about Winnipeg’s off-season. And it’s a major plummet from last season’s 106.5 on opening night, when the Jets were a popular pick to go all the way.

Even signing Kyle Connor (above) and Patrik Laine hasn't improved the odds on the Jets, according to some pundits and odds-makers, including one Las Vegas company that has the Jets ending up fifth in the Central and 16th overall in the NHL. (Phil Hossack / Winnipeg Free Press)

They have the Jets sitting fifth in the Central — behind Colorado, Nashville, Dallas and St. Louis and just ahead of Chicago and Minnesota — and 16th overall in the league. Seems about right, I’d say.

Getting forwards Patrik Laine and Kyle Connor back under contract hasn’t seemed to move the needle, as those developments were pretty much a given and the ability to score goals is not exactly a concern. It’s keeping them out of the net, with the surprising absence of defenceman Dustin Byfuglien looming large on top of off-season departures of Jacob Trouba, Tyler Myers and Ben Chiarot.

Byfuglien’s bombshell that he was considering retirement on the eve of training camp came at least a couple months too late for Winnipeg, with the ship having already sailed on all kinds of potential contingency plans. And so they’re left to soldier on, with a suspended Byfuglien creating some salary-cap breathing room they can’t really do anything with. Until they get clarity on his situation, it must be reserved for a possible return.

Even if he does come back, what exactly will the Jets be getting from a 34-year-old coming off an injury-plagued campaign who has barely skated in recent months to the point he wasn’t ready to start camp?

Consider this: Josh Morrissey is the only defenceman from last season’s opening night in St. Louis who will be in the lineup Thursday against the Rangers. And unless he’s going to play 60 minutes a night, the state of the defence is, at best, a work-in-progress. At worst, it’s a disaster that will have most opponents licking their chops.

The Jets will get an instant reminder about their not-so-distant past at Madison Square Garden, where old friend Trouba is waiting for them. There has been plenty of angst over the summer trade that sent him to the Blueshirts for Neal Pionk and the 20th-overall pick in NHL draft, which Winnipeg had originally traded away along with Brendan Lemieux to get Kevin Hayes for the playoff run last spring that ended with a thud in just six games.

Trouba was never long for Winnipeg, making that clear. And the Jets couldn’t have afforded the $8-million-per-year contract he ultimately signed with the Rangers. He had to be moved, although whether the return was adequate is a fair question, one I suspect we’re still a few years away from answering.

Josh Morrissey is the only defenceman on the team who started with the Jets last season. (Mikaela MacKenzie / Winnipeg Free Press files)

Perhaps a bit of the sting can be erased if Pionk can prove to be a capable defender. The Jets clearly need him to be that, and then some. The true wildcard here is 18-year-old Ville Heinola, who the Jets selected with the pick they lost, then regained.

The fact that Heinola has cracked the opening-night lineup tells you a few things about the current state of affairs. Yes, he’s talented and looks to be a great addition to the prospect pool, but unless your name is Laine, rushing a teenager into action has not been the traditional Winnipeg way, especially on the blue-line.

Heinola’s inclusion speaks to necessity, more than anything, with Byfuglien still contemplating his future, Sami Niku recovering from a groin injury, Nathan Beaulieu out for at least a month with an upper-body ailment and free agent signing Anthony Bitetto underwhelming, so far.

It’s tough to just out-score your problems, but you wonder if the Jets are going to have to do that to have any shot. Coach Paul Maurice and his staff have spent much of training camp pushing tweaks to the defensive system they hope will play better to some of the team’s strengths, particularly on the back-end where they do have some mobile, puck-moving players.

The Jets will need a major buy-in from everybody, including forwards such Laine and Connor, and even Scheifele, who have to make defence a priority. That isn’t always easy with young snipers who want their offensive cookies, but it’s a necessity if you want to win in the NHL.

Connor Hellebuyck and Laurent Brossoit are going to need to push each other hard in net, and the crease situation is definitely an early storyline to keep an eye on. Brossoit looked great in the pre-season. Hellebuyck did not. How many games until we have a full-blown goaltending controversy should the understudy continue to impress over the leading man?

Ultimately, these Jets will be judged not by what they say, but what they do.

Teenager Ville Heinola is a wildcard on the blue line. (Ruth Bonneville / Winnipeg Free Press)

The dress rehearsals are over. Despite a slew of cast changes, the hope is that everyone knows their part and is ready to deliver a virtuoso performance on a nightly basis. The spotlight will be huge, and the critics will be out in force should something go wrong.

Fittingly, it all begins on Broadway.

Twitter: @mikemcintyrewpg

Mike McIntyre

Mike McIntyre
Sports columnist

Mike McIntyre grew up wanting to be a professional wrestler. But when that dream fizzled, he put all his brawn into becoming a professional writer.

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