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This article was published 9/4/2017 (1223 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.
The scene was a familiar one. So, too, was the prevailing message.
Sunday morning, with the Winnipeg Jets’ season officially at its end, players gathered at the MTS Centre to clean out their lockers and meet with the coaching staff and media one last time before parting ways to begin yet another long off-season extended by the absence of playoff hockey.
In total, 13 players, one by one, took centre stage in front of a semicircle of reporters and cameras, with the only notable absence being defenceman Dustin Byfuglien, the team’s highest paid player, who opted to forego a final address.
Those who did speak echoed much of the same from previous years: frustration and disappointment over another lost season, with many lamenting a tough schedule, particularly early on, and a series of injuries that affected all areas of the roster, none more than the blue line.
But with the regret came a healthy dose of hope and optimism for next season, a sentiment that, rightfully or not, didn’t feel as hollow this time around. After all, the Jets had gone all-in with their youth movement and though the experiment didn’t end with a chance to compete for the Stanley Cup, it did provide some valuable experience for a number of the newcomers, including 2016 second-overall pick Patrik Laine.
"I think we came in not really knowing what to expect," said Jets captain Blake Wheeler. "We were so young, so there was a little bit of patience with everyone coming in and not knowing what we were going to look like or how we were going to be as a team. I think that changed a little bit after the first month or two of the season. Seeing some of our young guys step in and have success early on, for me at least, it made it feel like we weren’t maybe as far behind or rebuilding as much as we thought we were going to be."
The Jets finished the 2016-17 NHL season strong, setting a new franchise record with seven straight victories to close out the year, capped off by a 2-1, come-from-behind win at home against the Nashville Predators Saturday night. But that streak did little to overshadow a campaign marred mostly by inconsistency, resulting in a record of 40-35-7 and a finish outside the playoff line for the fifth time in six seasons since relocating from Atlanta.
"We’ve got some really good young players and we saw it here at the end of the year, putting seven wins together in a row," said veteran centre Mathieu Perreault.
"We would have been one of the hottest teams going into the playoffs, if we would have made the playoffs. Instead, we’re one of the hottest teams going into the summer. It leaves a bit of a bitter taste in your mouth."
For those who prefer to simply consume the positives, look no further than Laine, the 18-year-old Finnish rookie, who was undoubtedly the team’s most promising young gun and maybe even their best player all around. Laine made quick work of his first season in the NHL, leading the Jets in goals with 36 and tied for third in points with second-year player Nikolaj Ehlers, with 64. Despite missing eight games with a concussion, Laine still finds himself in contention for the league’s rookie of the year award.
"He came in, especially in a small market like this, with a lot of expectation," said Wheeler, when asked about the pressures that followed Laine this year. "He was given a good opportunity to play a lot of minutes and he handled it with maturity, probably beyond his years. He’s probably one the main reasons there’s a lot of excitement with our team. A guy like that comes in at 18 and kind of exceeds all expectations for a guy that had huge expectations coming in. It just adds to the excitement of our group."
Though Laine certainly captured the hearts of the entire city, he wasn’t alone in doing so. Ehlers, 21, provides another example of someone who was able to turn added responsibility into a breakout season. He finished with 25 goals, making him one of five players on the Jets to eclipse the 20-goal mark.
In fact, heading into Sunday’s games, Winnipeg had four players in the top 30 in league scoring, with two veterans — Mark Scheifele (82 points), who made the first year of an eight-year, US$49-million contact look like a bargain; and Wheeler (74 points), in his first season wearing the C — leading the way for Winnipeg.
But as exciting as some nights were to watch an offensively gifted team, subpar defensive play and goaltending were ultimately what defined the Jets this year.
Winnipeg was among the top-scoring teams in the league, with an average of three goals per game, but it was the constant mental lapses in the defensive zone that ultimately did them in. As good as Winnipeg was at putting the puck in the net, they were equally bad at preventing it from entering their own mesh, with the Jets among the few teams in the NHL to average more than three goals against — 3.11, to be exact — each game.
"We score enough goals, and we won quite a few games, but it’s those losses and those goals against that are the biggest thing," said centre Bryan Little. "We’ve got to get better defensively, that is the main concern. I don’t think this team is ever going to have a problem getting offence and scoring goals. We just need to better defensively and work on getting the puck out of the net."
To address these issues, the Jets will likely start by searching for help in net.
Connor Hellebuyck, who, at just 23 years old, was also a big part of the youth movement, provided little security between the pipes in what was his first full season as the No.1 goaltender. Although Hellebuyck finished with a respectable record of 26-19-4, he struggled to get to a place in his game that suggested he was a viable plan for the near future.
In 53 starts, Hellebuyck finished with a 2.89 goals-against average and a .907 save percentage, both of which fall below the league average, while also being pulled from the net seven times. When things didn’t seem to get any better for Hellebuyck near the midway point of the season, and backup Michael Hutchinson didn’t offer much of an upgrade, the Jets recalled Ondrej Pavelec from the Manitoba Moose.
Pavelec, who had spent the first five seasons as the Jets’ starter before being designated to the AHL prior to the end of training camp, eventually suffered a knee injury, later opting for surgery just when it looked like he was close to a return. Hellebuyck made his way back into the mix but by the end of the season was splitting starts with Hutchinson, with one game even going to prospect and Moose No.1 Eric Comrie.
Perhaps no one was affected more by the Jets injuries on the blue line than the goalies. Tyler Myers was limited to just 11 games as he tried to navigate a never-ending struggle between physical and personal issues. Toby Enstrom missed 22 games while suffering from a concussion and an injured knee that required surgery. Ben Chiarot and Paul Postma missed games that totalled in the double digits. Then there was Jacob Trouba, who missed the first 15 games because of a contract stalemate (a silver lining to Trouba’s holdout was the emergence of Josh Morrissey, who flourished into a top-4 defenceman in his rookie year).
"Goaltending, defence, that’s all part of keeping pucks out of your net," said Little. "Our goalies are young, and like our young players are going to keep improving and getting better. It comes down to consistency for everything. There were times they played well and there were times that we kind of hung them out to dry and didn’t really help them too much. We can’t put all the blame on them."
It makes little sense at this point to start pointing fingers, but as is the case for most teams who don’t make the playoffs, it’s likely that change is on the horizon. And with expectations only to get higher next season, the consequence of failure will be even greater. But if the Jets are taking anything from this season, it’s that with all the moving parts and uncertainties that come with each new campaign, they feel better off not to think too far ahead.
"We don’t know what our team is going to look like next year, so you can’t put any labels on that yet," said Wheeler. "Certainly with the youth we have and some of the talent we have and our top six (forwards) and the guys on our blue line, you’d like to think we should be a team that’s in the playoffs every year. But a hockey team is more than just putting talent on the ice, so there are some areas we can improve on and if we make improvements there’s no reason why we shouldn’t be competing for a playoff spot next year."
After a slew of injuries playing hockey that included breaks to the wrist, arm, and collar bone; a tear of the medial collateral ligament in both knees; as well as a collapsed lung, Jeff figured it was a good idea to take his interest in sports off the ice and in to the classroom.
Updated on Sunday, April 9, 2017 at 11:03 PM CDT: changes cutline
April 10, 2017 at 12:26 PM: Corrects typo.
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