The Jets are off to their third-best start to a season since relocating from Atlanta a decade ago and sit comfortably in a playoff spot. Mark Scheifele is fifth in NHL scoring. Neal Pionk is the league’s sixth-highest point producing blue-liner. The goaltending duo of Vezina winner Connor Hellebuyck and backup Laurent Brossoit have been dynamic. Pierre-Luc Dubois finally had his "Welcome to Winnipeg" moment. Blake Wheeler appears healthy and shows signs of rediscovering his old game.
Yes, life is pretty good right now for local hockey club, which flew home Monday after a successful 3-1-0 western road trip improved their record to 11-6-1, which is second-best in the Canadian division and eighth-overall in the league in terms of win percentage. Only 2017-18 (11-4-3) and 2018-19 (11-5-2) produced a more impressive first 18 games.
So why does it still feel like the angst and handwringing surrounding the Jets in some quarters remains sky-high?
For one, I get the sense some folks are only happy when they’re unhappy and will always find something to nitpick or complain about. The balmy spring-like weather on Monday? Bah, too windy, too slushy out! The shining sun, which we learned this past weekend is Gary Bettman’s arch enemy? Turn it off, too bright! A litter of adorable puppies? Too furry and slobbery!
You get the picture. Now get off their lawns and turn down that bloody music!
Social media has also made snap judgments the norm, not the exception. Whether it was shredding the Pionk for Jacob Trouba trade, declaring the struggling (and injured) Wheeler washed up, panning Scheifele’s two-way play or dumping on Dubois and declaring an immediate win for the Columbus Blue Jackets, crow should be on the menu for plenty of negative nellies these days.
Maybe it’s the ever-present sense of impending disappointment that seems engrained in our self-deprecating DNA, the idea that we can’t have nice things. When it comes to the Jets, aside from that memorable run to the Western Conference final three years ago, there have been plenty of examples where high hopes were met with crushing disappointments.
In the case of this unique 56-game season, I’ll be the first admit there’s reason to at least be a little leery. The Jets have played 13 of their first 18 games against the three worst teams in the division, going 4-1-0 against Ottawa, 3-1-1 against Calgary and 2-1-0 against Vancouver. As for the other three clubs currently holding down a playoff spot, they are 2-2-0 against Edmonton, 0-1-0 against Toronto and have yet to meet Montreal.
Which is why this next stretch of hockey is really going to tell us whether Winnipeg’s strong start is sustainable, or merely a smokescreen.
Starting Thursday, the Jets will play 23 of their next 34 games against the first-place Maple Leafs (nine games), second-place Canadiens (nine games) and fourth-place Oilers (five games). They’ll only see the fifth-place Flames (three games), sixth-place Canucks (six games) and seventh-place Senators (two games) 11 times in that stretch.
By the time the dust settles in early May, Winnipeg will have just four games remaining — three against Ottawa, one against Calgary — to conclude the 2021 campaign. Beating up on the lightweights is great, but the Jets will need to make some hay against the heavyweights if they want to be viewed as a true contender and still standing tall when the post-season gets underway.
This team, while far from perfect, looks well-equipped to handle the challenges ahead.
Consider that Sunday was the first time all year coach Paul Maurice truly had an entire healthy roster at his disposal. The fact it lasted all of two periods, before Tucker Poolman left the game with an upper-body injury, is sub-optimal.
But all the early roster juggling has shown this team has more depth than we thought. Whether it’s a guy like Logan Stanley on the blue-line, who would step in for Poolman, or talented young forwards such as Jansen Harkins and Kristian Vesalainen who now can’t get in the lineup — to the chagrin of many who can’t believe veterans like Nate Thompson and Trevor Lewis are playing ahead of them — there is reason to believe they can handle the inevitable aches and pains still to come.
It’s the big stars who truly drive the bus, which is why the Jets appear in good hands. Scheifele is one of the hottest players in the league, now with 26 points in 18 games (including 10 straight) and trailing only Connor McDavid, Leon Draisaitl, Mitch Marner and Auston Matthews. Nikolaj Ehlers has 10 goals. Kyle Connor has eight. Wheeler now has 17 points in 18 games. Paul Stastny has been solid. Andrew Copp and Adam Lowry, along with Mason Appleton, could be one of the best third lines in the NHL.
And, perhaps most encouraging, is the breakthrough two-goal, one-assist performance from Dubois in Sunday night’s 4-3 overtime victory over Vancouver. The 22-year-old is just starting to get comfortable with his new surroundings after a disjointed first month since the blockbuster trade, which could be bad news for the rest of the division.
On the blue-line, Pionk has been a revelation, scoring big goals and dishing out huge hits. Only Quinn Hughes, Morgan Rielly, Tyson Barrie, Jeff Petry and Darnell Nurse have produced more than his 15 points so far. Derek Forbort has been a great fit with Pionk on what’s become Winnipeg’s top shutdown pair. The rest of the defence has been spotty but serviceable.
Throw in top-notch goaltending and general manager Kevin Cheveldayoff has given Maurice plenty to work with, even on nights when their play may appear disjointed. Pure talent can overcome plenty of flaws. The Jets even have some cap space, thanks to Bryan Little’s long-term injured reserve status, which could allow them to add another piece or two before the Apr. 8 trade deadline.
It’s not going to be easy. It never is. My advice: Don’t start taking any premature victory laps or planning any socially-distant parades. Proceed with caution, absolutely. But don’t forget to stop and enjoy the journey. There’s plenty to like about what we’ve seen so far.
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.