ANAHEIM — For the Winnipeg Jets, the ball is sitting on a tee. The bases are loaded. Nobody is out. All they have to do is step up to the plate and take a mighty cut.
Yes, I realize I'm mixing sports metaphors, but humour me for a second. Baseball is front of mind right now here in California, where MLB's two best regular-season squads, Los Angeles and San Francisco, have been engaged in a heavyweight playoff battle. I was one of the 53,299 lucky souls who took in Monday's pitching duel at Dodger Stadium. Speaking purely as a sports fan with zero rooting interest in the outcome, what a memorable night that was.
But I digress. For the local hockey club, which will open the 2021-22 NHL campaign tonight in Anaheim, I'm not sure you could have scripted a better way to begin what will be the first 82-game grind since way back in 2018-19, which seems like a lifetime ago. A pair of pandemic shortened seasons have followed, and this all feels so surreal in a way.
Consider: The last game the Jets played outside of Canada was on Feb. 25, 2020, a 4-3 shootout loss to the Washington Capitals. Every single contest since has happened in the Great White North. The last time the Jets played a non-Canadian team? March 9, 2020, a 4-2 win over Arizona at what was then known as Bell MTS Place. That also happens to be the last time the Jets played a game that required two anthems. Two nights later, in Edmonton, the 2019-20 season came to a screeching halt.
A modified playoff tournament would be held in August in the Edmonton "bubble," with the Jets dropping a four-game qualifying round series to Calgary. Then came the unique 2021 season, played exclusively north of the border against Canadian opponents only. So, yeah, it's been a while. As coach Paul Maurice noted earlier this week, it's all added an extra layer of mystery and uncertainty as to how the next nine months are going to shake out. The logos on the front of the jerseys are still the same — save for the addition of expansion Seattle — but the names on the back have changed considerably in some cases.
Still, I'd suggest the Jets should be licking their lips over the first month of the calender, and how it potentially shapes up for them.
Newsflash: The Ducks are not expected to be very mighty, as they are in the very early stages of a re-build. Not only do the Jets get them in the season-opener, they'll host them at Canada Life Centre next Thursday in what will be the first regular-season contest played in front of fans at the downtown rink since that win over the Coyotes 19 long months ago. And, get this, they'll meet for a third time in 13 days when he Jets head right back to SoCal for their second road trip of the year beginning Oct. 26.
But wait, there's more. Or less, in this case. The Jets head north to San Jose Saturday night to meet a Sharks club that has definitely lost its bite. They'll get the Sharks again on that return to the Golden State later this month, along with a game in Los Angeles against a young Kings team that isn't expected to reign supreme, at least not anytime soon. Throw in a second home game next weekend against Nashville, which is a shell of its former self, and Winnipeg has a a terrific opportunity to come out swinging.
In fact, seven of their first eight games are against teams oddsmakers have ranked in the bottom-third of the NHL. Other than a date next Tuesday night in St. Paul with a Minnesota Wild club that should be a heck of a lot more exciting than when we last saw them up close — hello, rookie-of-the-year Kirill Kaprizov — this isn't exactly Murderers' Row. After that comes a season-long seven-game homestand. Before you know it we're in mid-November, the Jets are 15 games into the new season and U.S. Thanksgiving is just around the corner. How pretty could they be sitting at that point?
I'll set the bar at nine wins. Anything beyond that would be a bonus. Anything below it should be considered a disappointment, especially for a team many expect to make some noise this season. It would also ramp up the pressure on both the players and especially Maurice, who has seemingly been given all the tools by general manager Kevin Cheveldayoff — with a pretty sweet assist from the NHL schedule-makers.
In addition to a pillowy soft string of opponents off the hop, another bonus for the Jets, at least in my eyes, is starting on the road. Six of the first eight in enemy territory gives an already tight-knit club filled with mostly familiar faces a chance to come together and gel early. That's a lot harder to do at home, sweet home, where the distractions are plentiful.
"This is a Stanley Cup calibre team." — Winnipeg Jets goalie Connor Hellebuyck
You can't win the Stanley Cup in October, of course. But you can make the climb all the more steeper with a sluggish first few weeks, especially with the so-called loser point making it difficult to make up lost ground. There's a reason American turkey day in late November is seen as an important cut-off, as the majority of teams that make the playoffs come April are in a playoff spot at that point.
And make no mistake: Simply getting to the postseason isn't the ultimate goal for the Jets. It can't be. The bar has been raised and the pressure, both internally and externally, should be amped up. They are expected to go deep. Goalie Connor Hellebuyck, in a chat with media on Tuesday prior to boarding the charter to fly down here, made that crystal clear.
"This is a Stanley Cup calibre team," Hellebuyck, never short of confidence, declared.
We're about to start finding out. Of course, hockey is played on ice, not paper. These early opponents, despite their many flaws, aren't just going to roll over. If the Jets think it's going to be easy peasy, they're likely in for a rude awakening. But I don't get that sense with this team, which has a strong leadership core in place to go along with a deep, talented roster. Time will tell, of course. It always does.
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.