Jets’ page-turner of a season in limbo Hard to predict how this topsy-turvy story will end
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Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 13/03/2020 (1060 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.
The Winnipeg Jets were writing a pretty compelling story, one filled with enough emotional swings, heroes and villains and unexpected developments to keep you on the edge of your seat.
But now we’re all staring at a blank page, not knowing when, or if, any more chapters will be penned in the 2019-20 NHL season.
What if we never find out how this was all going to end?
Thursday’s indefinite shutdown of the NHL, along with pretty much every other sport at every other level, couldn’t have come at a worse time for the local hockey club. They had won a season-high four straight games, including an impressive 4-2 victory in Edmonton Wednesday night that put them back into a playoff spot.
After resembling a MASH unit at times this season, they were finally healthy, with every regular player except Bryan Little back in the lineup. Throw in trade-deadline additions in defenceman Dylan DeMelo and forward Cody Eakin and this was the deepest Jets roster we’d seen all season.
Connor Hellebuyck was becoming not only a runaway favourite to win the Vezina Trophy as the league’s best goaltender, but there was growing talk about the possibility he could even get some Hart Trophy votes as league MVP. And with every passing game, those whispers were growing louder. Based on the wording of the award, it would be hard to find a player who’s meant more to his team’s fortunes than Hellebuyck.
Jets’ leading goal scorer Kyle Connor, with two more goals against the Oilers, was on the cusp of hitting 40 for the first time in his career, with just five other NHL players ahead of him in the scoring race.
The schedule, a thorn in the Jets’ side down the arduous stretch last season, was actually working to their advantage, with plenty of time for rest and recover to ensure the fuel tank was on full every time they dropped the puck. And it was showing, too, with much better starts and much stronger finishes lately.
With the Western Conference seemingly wide open and no dominant teams running away in the standings, it seemed like the planets might be aligning for another post-season run. And if they could just get to the dance, who knows what kind of noise they might be able to make?
And now? Whether the season resumes, the playoffs begin or the Stanley Cup even gets handed out remains to be seen. We’re in uncharted waters here, with society in lockdown mode due to the coronavirus pandemic.
Players are being told to stay put awaiting further instructions. Large group workouts are prohibited. Everyone is in wait-and-see mode, wondering where it all might be headed.
There’s no question team owners are going to do everything in their power to continue play, given the hit their bottom lines are going to take if they don’t. That could even mean skating in empty arenas, if necessary, or going well into the summer.
But all of this is much bigger than sport. We’re all at the mercy of something medical professionals are still working to get a handle on. There are no guarantees.
As a result, we may never find out just how far this Jets team might have been able to go. Small potatoes in the grand scheme of life, of course. But it would still sting for all those who had invested in the journey to date and couldn’t wait to see what comes next.
No, I’m not suggesting this group is the 1994 Montreal Expos. Remember them? They were sitting in the Major League Baseball penthouse, at 74-40, when the season abruptly shut down due to a player strike. It never resumed.
And the Expos, enjoying their best year ever in 26 years of existence, never got a chance to compete for the World Series many pundits had them winning.
Swing and a big, painful miss.
In that sense, teams like the Boston Bruins (100 points, leading the NHL) and the St. Louis Blues (defending champs, 94 points, second in the NHL) would be especially sore this year, although unlike the Expos they have a much more impressive recent track record to at least take some solace in.
The Jets, for what it’s worth, sat tied for 14th in the NHL standings at the time the pause button was hit, with a 37-28-6 record and 80 points. That’s good for fourth in the Central Division, only two points back of the third-place Dallas Stars, which had gone winless in their past six. It also had the Jets in the first Western Conference wild-card spot, albeit with the Nashville Predators, Vancouver Canucks, Minnesota Wild and Arizona Coyotes in hot pursuit.
The remaining schedule was not easy, including back-to-back games that were supposed to be played this weekend in Calgary and Vancouver. After that, nine more contests, five of them on the road, against teams still fighting for playoff spots and jostling for position.
Their fate was very much in their hands, and the Jets were certainly trending in the right direction.
A sobering thought: What if the NHL were to eventually return at some point this spring, but decide to immediately drop the puck on the playoffs and choose the 16 participants based on win percentage given the fact teams have played an uneven number of games?
That would be very bad for the Jets, who would miss out by literally a fraction of a point. Nashville (.565) and the Calgary Flames (.564) would be the two Western Conference wild-card teams under that scenario. Just outside the line would be Winnipeg, with a winning percentage of .563.
NHL commissioner Gary Bettman told reporters Friday they are doing “all sorts of modelling” about how this might play out and that a number of possibilities are under consideration. He reiterated the hope is to eventually finish the season “in some form” and award a championship.
All will be sorted out in time, and extreme patience and understanding is likely going to be required.
Maybe this will all pass fairly quickly and life as we know and love can resume in a few weeks, with the Jets picking up where they left off and giving fans plenty to write home about.
Or, perhaps, this page-turner of a season really is over, with a dramatic plot twist nobody could have predicted.
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.