Perhaps Blake Wheeler was getting a little tired of the hype building around the Winnipeg Jets, or maybe he just wanted to make sure the collective heads in the locker room didn't swell too big. Either way, Wheeler, the Jets captain and most influential voice, was quick to dismiss a reporter's question he clearly viewed as hyperbolic.
With the moves made over the summer, including a pair of trades to shore up the defence and some contract extensions up front to keep consistency with the forwards — all of which complement the top-end goaltending they have with Connor Hellebuyck — Wheeler was asked if this was the best team, on paper, that's he's seen in his 11 years with the Jets?
Wheeler, as he sometimes does, offered up a bit of a reality check, mixed in with some of his signature sass.
"Let's play some games," he quipped, noting it had just been one on-ice session with the team, "because 'on paper' means s---."
The captain continued: "It doesn't mean a thing. The best team on paper is not the team that (usually) wins."
Wheeler isn't wrong in his assessment; still, there are plenty of reasons for optimism in these parts, even with COVID-19 once again hovering over another NHL season. The Jets did what their fans asked of them, addressing what for years had been a leaky defence by trading for veterans Brenden Dillon and Nate Schmidt. They lost Mason Appleton to the Seattle expansion draft but lightened his exit by inking forwards Andrew Copp and Paul Stastny to one-year deals.
"It doesn't mean a thing. The best team on paper is not the team that (usually) wins.” — Winnipeg Jets team captain Blake Wheeler
Add it all up and the expectation is a busy offseason should pay dividends once the puck drops next month on the 2021-22 NHL campaign. While it's made for some eye-popping projections from pundits, and entertaining sound bites from players, what the Jets were able to do over the last couple months has also created a unique feel to this training camp compared to those in year's past.
With the early narrative of this team no longer centring around gaps in the roster, contracts holdouts or, as was seen in the fall of 2019, with the strange exit of defenceman Dustin Byfuglien, this season lacks much drama. And though only time will tell just how effective this Jets lineup is, there's an edge to be gained simply from the lack of question marks heading into a gruelling 82-game season.
"Yeah, if you take advantage of it," Jets head coach Paul Maurice said, adding there's also the benefit of loosened COVID-19 health protocols compared to last season. "It feels different, and I’ve said this before, but the silver lining in all of this is I have a better appreciation for hockey — the NHL and the fans — than I ever had before. And I’m really excited about this training camp. It’s one day, don’t squeal your tires in the driveway, but it’s exciting."
A lack of distractions is always a good thing, especially in a year where the potential for disruption might just be at an all-time high. For instance, the biggest issue for some NHL teams right now is getting all players fully vaccinated.
"I’m really excited about this training camp. It’s one day, don’t squeal your tires in the driveway, but it’s exciting." — Winnipeg Jets head coach Paul Maurice
Unlike some clubs around the league that have either had to release players, juggle their rosters or live with the fact some skaters will potentially be in and out of the lineup depending on geography — unvaccinated players won't be able to cross the Canada-US border — the Jets are fully vaccinated. There are other clubs, including in Detroit, Edmonton and Pittsburgh, that still haven't hit the 100 per cent mark.
NHL Deputy Commissioner Bill Daly has estimated there will be around 10-15 total players unvaccinated by the start of the regular season on Oct. 12.
"All distractions are opportunities for either an advantage or a disadvantage for you or an opponent," Maurice said. "That’s what we don’t have to deal with, thankfully. Whatever else is coming over the horizon, we will have to deal with it. But it won’t be (vaccinations) and that’s nice."
There was a palpable sense of relief among players this season, though not exactly normal, will be much different from last year. There will still be mandated health protocols, but vaccinated players will no longer be confined to their homes or hotels on the road. While staying at hotels, players will now be able to visit bars, restaurants, gyms or the pool and will be able to do so in the company of teammates.
Teams are also able to suspend unvaccinated players if they're unavailable to attend club activities, meaning those players who can't cross a country's border due to their health restrictions will not get paid. Forfeiting pay rarely sits well with anyone, let alone highly paid professional athletes.
“Just being able to be able to go outside on the road is going to help a lot. Being in your hotel room from three o’clock to bedtime (was rough)." — Winnipeg Jets forward Pierre-Luc Dubois
Jets forward Pierre-Luc Dubois agreed having a fully vaccinated team is an obvious advantage and he's impressed with how his teammates have handled the push to get vaccinated. He's also a big fan of the loosened health restrictions, especially after having to quarantine for two weeks last season following his trade from the Columbus Blue Jackets.
"Just being able to be able to go outside on the road is going to help a lot. Being in your hotel room from three o’clock to bedtime (was rough)," he said. "Last year, one of the tough parts was coming to a new team and you can’t have team dinners and you can’t go out with guys, you can’t go to guys' houses for dinner and that’s a big part of team building and a big part of winning. The teams that win are the teams that are closest to each other. This year, to be able to come back to a more normal life than we’re used to, that’s definitely going to help."
Wheeler is acutely aware issues that can arise within a season, whether it be health protocols or game-by-game success, are fluid and can often shift over time. It's why he often takes a more measured approach. But he's also feeling optimistic about the work that’s been put in and will continue over the next three weeks of training camp should make for a promising year ahead.
"There's no guarantees here. I think we learned that last year. We take these things day-by-day," Wheeler said. "Hopefully we can continue on the trajectory where we can, I don't even know if normal is the right word but have a less chaotic year and worry about playing hockey and playing in front of people, and kind of get back to what makes this an exciting thing to do for a living."
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.