ANAHEIM—Rather fitting, isn’t it, that the Winnipeg Jets will start the new NHL season just a hop, skip and a jump away from Disneyland, otherwise known as the Happiest Place on Earth.
After all, the club has plenty of reasons to be giddy — isn’t that Snow White’s eighth dwarf? — these days. Good vibes are flowing, the joy level has been notable through training camp and, just like the famous roller-coasters around here, expectations are sky-high as the puck drops tomorrow night in Anaheim.
As one of Winnipeg’s key off-season additions recently explained, there are no excuses. The focus and considerable pressure is squarely on the players and coaching staff to get the job done. Just as it should be with an organization spending to the salary-cap ceiling, built around a key core of players currently in their prime.
"That group will decide how far we go," defenceman Nate Schmidt, who might just be the poster child for positivity and might just have a future as a theme park mascot, was telling us the other day.
"That’s really the best way to look at it. Because it’s in the room. How we play and how we decide to conduct ourselves, that will determine how far we go. There’s a lot of things that can happen, a lot of things that have to go your way in a year to win the whole thing. But I really think we have a group that can ... determine where we go this year."
I do, too. And I’ve got plenty of company, as a number of hockey pundits around the league have Winnipeg not only competing with Colorado for top spot in the Central Division, but hanging tough with the other hockey heavyweights.
In other words, this is no Mickey Mouse operation. (Sorry, folks. I’m here all week. Try the veal).
With that in mind, here’s 10 things that need to happen for the Jets to author a story that ultimately has one of those Hollywood endings.
1. Mark Scheifele channels his anger over last season’s playoff meltdown that led to a four-game suspension — which concludes with missing the season-opener against the Ducks — and helps lead the way both offensively and defensively. A motivated Scheifele will hopefully be a dangerous Scheifele for the Jets, eager to prove his worth as a superstar in this league, especially with a likely spot on the Canadian Olympic team looming.
2. Pierre-Luc Dubois takes advantage of a clean slate and fresh start and begins to resemble the third-overall pick the Jets thought they were trading for from Columbus. There’s still a very good player there.
Winnipeg needs to start seeing it, on a consistent basis, from the 23-year-old. Teams win or lose in this league largely based on goaltending, and strength up the middle.
3. Connor Hellebuyck is afforded some rest. There’s no question the former Vezina Trophy winner will be rock-solid in net. But as much as he’d like to play every game, he can’t. Untested backup Eric Comrie needs to not only spell him off, but have some success. Otherwise, general manager Kevin Cheveldayoff has no choice but to look for another option in what appears to be the club’s one biggest area of worry.
4. Josh Morrissey reverts to form. He was privately fighting a battle last season as his father, Tom, was dying of brain cancer. Morrissey is a cornerstone on the blue-line, and his ability to help shut down the other team’s best will go a long way. His top-pairing with Schmidt has great potential.
5. Paul Maurice’s new systems really work: With Schmidt and Brenden Dillon on the back-end, Maurice has promised a more aggressive Jets team in all ends of the ice, one that dictates style of play, controls the puck more often and makes life a lot easier for Hellebuyck. In other words, the opposite of how they’ve played for large stretches over the last couple seasons. Seeing is believing, in this case, but it was a focus throughout camp.
Mike McIntyre | On Sports
Keep up to date on sports with Mike McIntyre's newsletter that is sent out each Thursday.
6. The Jets don’t cheat for offence. Skilled wingers like Kyle Connor and Nikolaj Ehlers, who will never have trouble filling the net, need to take another step on the defensive side of the game. Fortunately, both seem to recognize this based on training camp comments. But actions will speak louder than words.
7. The PK doesn’t kill them. Often an Achilles heel, this could be especially important early in the new year as officials crack down on cross-checking infractions. We may see a parade to the penalty box at times, so special teams will be huge. Maurice is still trying to sort out his best men for that job, but they better figure it out, and fast.
8. The Jets become a four-line team. We’re still not sure exactly what the bottom-six is going to look like, but the Jets need to be able to roll all four units over the course of a game. Look at every Stanley Cup champion and you’ll see that’s the case. It often hasn’t been with Winnipeg, where the top nine are often overworked.
9. The kids push for work. Whether it’s Ville Heinola on the blue-line or David Gustafsson and Cole Perfetti up front -- I expect all three of those players will start the season on the farm with the Manitoba Moose -- the Jets would benefit greatly from some internal pressure from their brightest young prospects.
10. They stay (relatively) healthy. Injuries are going to happen. And, as mentioned, the Jets seem to have the added depth to cover off the inevitable. Still, some areas are more important (and vulnerable) than others — yeah, I’m looking directly in the crease — so you may want to cross your fingers and knock on some wood.
Sounds easy, right? Hardly. The Jets have their work cut out for them, and plenty can happen between tomorrow’s opener in Anaheim and next June, when the Jets hope to still be hitting the ice.
They wouldn’t be the first to show up here in southern California with big dreams, only to have them fizzle out. Just check out all the coffee shops filled with baristas who swear they are just "one big break" away from landing an Academy Award or two.
However, thanks to some significant roster moves, the Jets appear better equipped than ever to navigate the inevitable ups and downs that come during an 82-game campaign and a prolonged Stanley Cup playoff run that ends with them triumphantly declaring their championship celebration plans: "We’re going to Disneyland!"
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.