ANAHEIM — For many of the Winnipeg Jets, not making the playoffs has been the only way they've known. But for the next generation — the spawn of GM Kevin Cheveldayoff's draft and develop plan — soon the only way of life they will understand will consist of ragged spring beards and increasingly shorter summers at the lake.
Jacob Trouba, Mark Scheifele and Adam Lowry won't be spending half their careers bemoaning the fact they've never played in a playoff game. They plan on spending their careers building reputations earned beyond the regular season. And they're not waiting.
Coach Paul Maurice remarked Monday his team would not be in the post-season if not for the trade additions made by Chevy and that's true. But the biggest difference in the Jets since they arrived in Winnipeg has been the push provided by Cheveldayoff's youth movement.
A pair of 21-year-old centremen with size and hockey sense in Scheifele and Lowry, as well as the blue-line beast Trouba, have added talent and depth to the roster. The kids haven't taken over just yet but they've served notice their time is coming. This will be their team soon.
Blake Wheeler, Bryan Little and Tyler Myers aren't going anywhere in the near future and they'll remain in the core, but they'll be making space at the big table for the next wave. Maybe they already have.
Expectations can be unreal and forced. Everyone says they want to be in the playoffs, but getting there takes more than words. The trio of Lowry, Trouba and Scheifele has talent and confidence and soon they'll have experience. The puck follows some players around. It's just innate. Achievement has been organic for the young Jets, the natural progression of their careers.
Lowry went to the Calder Cup final in the AHL last season with the St. John's IceCaps and raised his game with each passing round. During that run, he earned his spot with the Jets for this year. Maurice saw him play on back-to-back nights and came away knowing he had to instill the edge and competitiveness Lowry embodies into his roster.
No one should be surprised if Lowry takes his game to yet another level when the playoffs begin Thursday night for the Jets.
"I think everybody likes to play in the playoffs," he said. "You obviously want to play games that mean something and when there's something on the line it's always a little more fun. The intensity picks up and the physicality is always there. It's fun to go into those games and know it's going to be a battle."
The lasting images of Adam's father, Dave Lowry, are of him bending over to take a draw late in a playoff game. A reddish shrub of beard, dripping sweat and a gleam of intensity. That's how his son remembers his pop from his playing days, too.
"I think you look at the style, the way he played and the style of player he was. I think it was in these tough, tight-checking games where he was at his best," said Lowry, who watched his dad play in 111 playoff games during a 20-year career in the NHL. "I like the style he played and I tried to model my game a little bit after him. You know, being a smart defensive player and making sure to finish my checks. A goal of mine for a long time was to play in the NHL. But now I'm on the next goal. The playoffs. I'm excited for this next chapter — my first taste of NHL playoff hockey."
Scheifele has been all smiles this week. His first pro season ended with an injury and outside the playoffs. It wasn't the script he wrote or wanted to read.
"This is much better. We've become a tight group this year," he said. "We're ready. We're ready to challenge ourselves and to see what we can do. And we have confidence. Anaheim is obviously a very good team. We'll have to bring our best. But that's what we plan on doing."
Lowry and Scheifele are careful with their words. Honest, but never too revealing. They lead with humility in the old school fashion of hockey players.
Trouba, however, even when he's trying to hide what he's really thinking, can never suppress the confidence that is the lifespring to his every action.
Put it this way: Trouba would put money on himself in a prayer contest with the Pope. It's not arrogance. It's the way he is. He has complete and ultimate belief in himself. He understands he has to earn the respect of others, but in the interim he's quite comfortable in the knowledge that will eventually happen. It's his essence and his veteran teammates encourage it. Trouba isn't the cocky kid in the corner the veterans want to knock down a peg. He's the real deal they're preparing to be one of their leaders.
Trouba doesn't buy into the lack-of-experience storyline being thrust upon the Jets right now.
"Yeah, I mean I'm not really too worried about (playing in his first NHL playoffs). It's going to be something you're going to have to learn on the fly. I can't say it's nothing different. It probably will be, but yeah, I think I'm pretty good at learning on the fly and just kinda adapting as things go," said Trouba. "It's just kind of always how I've been. Maybe it has a lot to do with my dad and how he kind of would push me towards bigger games and bigger things. This a bigger stage and it's always something I've kind of embraced."
Maybe this first playoff run will be an opportunity for youth to gain experience. Or maybe it's the chance to prove they were born for this stage.
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