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EDMONTON — Frustration. Anger. Disappointment. Sadness. Self-pity. Winnipeg Jets players, and no doubt fans, are likely fighting a tidal wave of emotions after the most unusual season in franchise history came to a painful end late Thursday night inside the bubble in Edmonton.
For a third straight playoffs, a Jets team that seemed to have plenty of promise came up short in its ultimate quest for a Stanley Cup. And there's a convincing argument to be made that the dream is getting further and further away. A third-round exit in 2018. A first-round demise in 2019. And now, not even making it out of a made-up play-in round in 2020, getting outscored 16-6 in the process.
"So the feeling we have now is complete emptiness," coach Paul Maurice said during his post-game media availability at Rogers Place, just minutes after Winnipeg was dumped 4-0 by Calgary to drop their best-of-five qualifying series in four games.
Before we put the body on the table, pull out the scalpel and perform the post-mortem, there's another feeling that should come to mind when you think of the Jets: Pride.
This current crop of players had it in spades, and it was evident pretty much every night they took the ice, win or lose. There was plenty to question about the club throughout a season that was filled with some peaks and plenty of valleys, but effort was never one of them. They busted their tails right to the bitter end, even when the deck was stacked heavily against them.
"It just never seemed like there was an easy night for us in the NHL," said Adam Lowry.
No, there certainly wasn't, and that was never more apparent than the past week here in the NHL's hockey hub, which started with so much promise and ended in predictable agony.
In reality, this series was over barley five minutes into Game 1, when top centre Mark Scheifele was taken out on a questionable hit by Calgary's Matthew Tkachuk. Maurice revealed his best overall forward suffered a "crushing" injury to his leg that was going to keep him out of the lineup indefinitely, but fortunately did no long-term damage to his Achilles.
Throw in sniper Patrik Laine spraining his hand later that same game and the promising Mason Appleton injuring his shoulder — both were at least two weeks away from a return according to Maurice — and the Jets went from hopeful to in a massive hole in the blink of an eye.
All of that is on top of losing Bryan Little to a potentially career-ending head injury last November, having top defenceman Dustin Byfuglien bail on them just days before training camp last fall, and having to bid goodbye to Jacob Trouba, Tyler Myers, Ben Chiarot and Brandon Tanev in free agency last summer due to salary cap constraints.
It's a shame we never got to see these Jets at their full potential when the stakes were highest.
"It starts from July 1 last year to August 6. I’ve never had a team go through what this group’s been through, the loss of just key people and then the injuries on top of that," said Maurice, who described Thursday's game as typical of the entire season: a shorthanded squad giving it their all, but getting little in the way of tangible results.
"They played as hard as they could, they truly did. The bench was right, they were supportive of each other, they were cheering the good plays, they were hanging with each other. Then we got behind it and they didn’t quit. They just kept fighting and grinding, and that was our year."
Always the storyteller, Maurice shared one from January, when the Jets were in the middle of a tough losing streak while their lineup was, naturally, decimated by injuries.
"I think we had about nine guys out, and I remember being on the airplane thinking, ‘This team can’t play harder than it’s playing. We can play better, sure. We can play smarter, maybe, but they can’t play harder than they’re playing,’" said Maurice.
"And the painful part of it all was we felt like we had just kind of survived it and then got healthy and had a rhythm going, and had a schedule that was favorable because our prior schedule had not been favorable at all, then the pause. It was extraordinary, to say the least, the circumstances that we were all in now, but par for the course, actually, for the Winnipeg Jets, for the year that we’ve had."
Ah yes, the pause, in mid-March, when the Jets suddenly had everybody except Little back, had added Dylan DeMelo and Cody Eakin at the trade deadline for depth, and had reeled off a season-high four wins in a row. There was hope they could pick up where they left off when the 24-team Stanley Cup tournament began last weekend, and maybe they could have had they not lost 25 per cent of their regular forwards in the first game, including arguably their two most important ones.
Blake Wheeler and Kyle Connor will take some blame, considering the two highest-paid players on the team had but two combined assists between them in four games. Go ahead and blast them for their lack of production, sure, but I would never question their compete. Same goes for goalie Connor Hellebuyck, who got outplayed by veteran Cam Talbot at the other end.
"We left our hearts out there," Hellebuyck said.
"You lose two of your best players, it makes it tough to really accomplish what you want to as a team. The guys that played this series, there’s nothing left in the tank. Our team left it all out there," added Wheeler.
There's no question this is weighing especially heavy on the captain, who will turn 34 later this month and realizes the number of shots he has left at a championship are dwindling.
"It was a year that was a test from Day 1. I couldn’t be more proud of this team. Realistically there are plenty of opportunities for us to fold it in and chalk it up to a lost season and move on to next year," said Wheeler.
"I would say I’m proud and I’m very disappointed that we just couldn’t catch a break. I’m not saying that this series gets flipped on its head by having Mark and Patty — you’ve got to give Calgary a lot of credit — but I would have loved to have played a series with those two guys and seen how that would have shaken out. Put our best foot forward and from there you never know what’s gonna happen."
Amidst the doom and gloom were some silver linings in this all-too-short series against the Flames, including the impressive play of Lowry, Nikolaj Ehlers, Andrew Copp, Jansen Harkins and Tucker Poolman.
It will now be incumbent on general manager Kevin Cheveldayoff to find a way to re-tool his roster to surround a solid core with better depth. He should have some salary cap room to play with, depending on what he does with a number of pending free agents, including seven who were in the lineup on Thursday night: DeMelo, Eakin, Dmitry Kulikov, Nathan Beaulieu, Gabriel Bourque, Logan Shaw and Nick Shore.
If he can do that, there's no reason the window of opportunity can't remain open for a few more seasons. Because in the end, the try level was always there. The talent level, once ravaged by injuries and departures, was not.
"I've never had a season like this where you'd faced so much adversity and not quit, right? That's how you should value yourself — how hard you compete in dire circumstances — and we just had a year of it," said Maurice.
"I think that we had an incredibly resilient group this year and I think they did what they could here. I think that... we're thin almost coming in some ways and then the injuries certainly hurt us. But no. This tournament at the end will be viewed in my mind exactly the way the entire year was. They fought till the end and did what they could."
And that, folks, can go right on the headstone of the 2019-20 Jets.
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.
Updated on Friday, August 7, 2020 at 4:05 PM CDT: updates with final version
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