Jets can’t take anything for granted Talented team needs to hit the ground running entering season’s home stretch
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The National Hockey League season may be a marathon. The Winnipeg Jets, however, are about to embark on a sprint to the finish line.
Yes, the boys are back in town after a 10-day hiatus that included the all-star break and the player break. Tropical vacations were enjoyed. Piña coladas were consumed. Tans were obtained.
Now it’s time to get down to business.
The rested and relaxed Jets return to the ice on Thursday afternoon for practice, preparing for a Saturday night visit from the Chicago Blackhawks that kicks off an intense, high-stakes stretch of 30 games in 62 days.
It promises to be one of the most intriguing phases in franchise history. Here are three compelling storylines surrounding the squad as we enter an action-packed stretch.
1) A thirst for first:
When the season began last fall, the common consensus among hockey pundits was the Jets would likely be in a tough battle to make the playoffs as a wild-card team.
The reigning Stanley Cup champs in Colorado were supposed to run away with the Central Division, while teams such as Minnesota, St. Louis, Dallas and Nashville would provide stiff competition. Meanwhile, Vegas, Edmonton and Calgary would likely battle for top spot in the Pacific Division, and the Western Conference.
Yeah, about all that.
Fortunately, the game is played on the ice, and not paper. Winnipeg is absolutely in the mix to capture a first divisional title, and perhaps even a conference crown. Heading into Wednesday night’s schedule, the Jets were just three points out of top spot in both the Central and the West, which is currently held by the Stars.
Head coach Rick Bowness has repeatedly talked about the quest to be No. 1, and I expect that will only intensify over the final nine weeks of the schedule. That should provide plenty of motivation as well, in addition to the obvious excitement.
It also means Winnipeg is no longer catching anyone by surprise. Teams know they’re in for a battle and will likely bring their best more nights than not. In other words, take nothing for granted.
Two of the first three games out of this break are against the two worst teams in the NHL. In between Saturday’s visit from Chicago (35 points) and Thursday’s start of a four-game road trip in Columbus (34 points) will be a Valentine’s Day date with the surprising Seattle Kraken.
There’s a chance for Winnipeg, which snapped a three-game losing streak with a solid 4-2 victory over St. Louis in their last contest back on Jan. 30, to really hit the ground running before the schedule starts to toughen up considerably.
2) Go big or go home:
The March 3 trade deadline is fast approaching, and it could (and should) be a busy one around here.
I’m on record as saying this is the season for general manager Kevin Cheveldayoff to go all-in, for a variety of reasons. As noted above, the Jets are already a legitimate contender with no dominant, runaway team either in the division or the conference. Opportunity is right there staring them in the face.
There’s also the uncertain future of key players like Mark Scheifele, Pierre-Luc Dubois and Connor Hellebuyck, who could also pursue unrestricted free agency in the summer of 2024. The Jets would obviously like to lock up all three for the long term, but that decision isn’t in the team’s control. But they’re here right now, and all playing at or near career-best levels.
Depending on how those situations ultimately play out, this team could look a lot different in the not-so-distant future. That should only add to the urgency to live in the moment and take advantage of what appears to be a wide-open window in the present.
Throw in the fact that fans in the market appear to be responding well to a talented, hard-working and exciting team and True North is no doubt excited about the prospect of a prolonged playoff run and what that could mean to the bottom line after three straight COVID-impacted seasons left a major mark.
Winnipeg has the assets — draft picks and prized young prospects — along with ample accrued salary cap space it can weaponize in order to make a big splash. Rumours involving the Jets are heating up.
It’s noteworthy that Cheveldayoff was spotted at Amalie Arena in Tampa Bay on Tuesday night, where San Jose Sharks forward Timo Meier put on another impressive display. Two goals, including the overtime winner, and an assist brought him to 51 points (30 goals, 21 helpers) on the season. The pending restricted free agent is widely viewed as the No. 1 trade chip, and the Jets would be wise to explore every opportunity to land the 26-year-old Swiss superstar.
There’s a lot of other interesting names out there, including a pair of players we’ll see up close on Saturday night at Canada Life Centre in hometown product Jonathan Toews and Max Domi, who the Jets have had major interest in for years. Both are pending UFAs who could be on the move.
You can expect other Central and Western teams to try and beef up. The onus is on the Jets, who have just nine games left until the trade deadline, to ensure they don’t get left in the dust.
3) Winner, winner:
Bowness for the Jack Adams as top coach? Hellebuyck for the Vezina as top goaltender? Josh Morrissey for the Norris as the league’s No. 1 defencemen? Cole Perfetti for the Calder as rookie of the year?
There’s no shortage of individual accolades on the line.
I’d absolutely have Bowness, Hellebuyck and Morrissey in my top three if ballots were cast today, and Perfetti would be just on the outside looking in.
A bunch of franchise records and personal milestones could fall as well.
Morrissey, who has already obliterated his career high, is just four points away from passing Dustin Byfuglien for the best offensive season by a Jets/Atlanta Thrashers defenceman.
Scheifele needs 17 goals over the final 30 games to set a new Jets 2.0 record (held by Kyle Connor who had 47 last year). Fifty is not out of the question, either. Nor is Ilya Kovalchuk’s franchise mark of 52.
Speaking of Connor, he needs 35 points over the final 30 games to break his own Jets 2.0 record of 94 points in a single season. 100 isn’t out of the question, which would tie him with Marian Hossa for most all-time in franchise history.
Of course, every member of the Jets would gladly put aside these impressive accomplishments in favour of one shiny silver team trophy they’d love to be raising in mid-June.
On your marks. Get set. Go.
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.