Jets Could Be Canada’s Only Stanley Cup Hope in 2018
At the midpoint of 2017-18, the Winnipeg Jets and Toronto Maple Leafs are the only two Canadian franchises that can be consider legitimate playoff contenders.
With 59 points in 45 games as of Jan.12, the Jets sat atop the Central Division. The Leafs, meanwhile, were third in the Atlantic Division with 53 points in 45 games.
Most of the Canadian media seems to be focused on the Leafs and their defensive woes, as well as the plight of former Stanley Cup favorite Edmonton Oilers, the pathetic performance of the Montreal Canadiens and the follies of the Ottawa Senators. Questions over whether the inconsistent Calgary Flames can clinch a postseason berth and potential trade-deadline moves by the rebuilding Vancouver Canucks have also gobbled up headlines.
Meanwhile, the Jets have quietly become Canada’s best hope for ending the country’s quarter-century Cup drought.
Sitting in first place in one of the league’s toughest divisions at mid-season is rarefied air for the Jets. They’ve made just one brief postseason appearance since relocating to Winnipeg from Atlanta in 2011, getting swept from the opening round of the 2015 playoffs by the Anaheim Ducks.
Through most of those years, the Jets were often consider underachievers. The only thing reliable about them was their inconsistency. With each passing year, general manager Kevin Cheveldayoff was criticized for his inability to build the Jets into a legitimate contender. There were calls for head coach Paul Maurice to be replaced with a proven winner.
Cheveldayoff may be patient to a fault, but this season it looks like it’s finally paying off.
Thanks to the emergence of Connor Hellebuyck as a reliable starting goaltender, the Jets finally have stability between the pipes. The 24-year-old Hellebuyck sits among the league leaders with 23 wins, three shutouts and a 2.40 goals-against average. As a result, the Jets’ goals against per game has dropped from last season’s bloated 3.11 to a more respectable 2.74.
Another contributing factor is their improved defense corps. The development of Jacob Trouba into a first-pairing defenseman, the emergence of sophomore Josh Morrissey and a healthy Tyler Myers bolstered the Jets’ blueline depth. They were able to withstand the absences of veteran rearguards Dustin Byfuglien and Toby Enstrom when both were sidelined earlier this season.
Scoring was the Jets strength in 2016-17, finishing seventh with a 3.00 goals for per game. As of Jan. 13, 2018, it’s risen to fourth overall at 3.30.
Powering their offense is a solid mix of veterans, led by Blake Wheeler, Bryan Little and Mathieu Perreault, and 24-and-younger forwards such as Mark Scheifele, Patrik Laine, Nikolaj Ehlers and Kyle Connor.
Such is the Jets’ scoring depth that losing first-line center Scheifele until sometime in February to an upper-body injury hasn’t significantly hurt them. Since Scheifele went down on Dec. 27, the Jets ran up a record of six wins, two losses and an overtime defeat. They adjusted by Wheeler taking over Scheifele’s spot and moving Perreault up to the second-line left-wing position.
Most of the Jets’ leading scorers are trending upwards this season.
Wheeler, 31, is on pace for a career-high 95-point campaign. Prior to his injury, Scheifele tallied 38 points in as many games and was on track to match last season’s career-best 82-point campaign. Ehlers could match last season’s 64-point performance while Laine could reach 70 points. Connor, the rookie, is on track for 30 goals and 55 points
Maurice continues to have his critics in Winnipeg. However, calls for his replacement have faded as his club piles up victories. He’s proven more willing this season to put his trust in his younger players. His charges also appear to be fully buying into his system this season.
The Jets still face a difficult challenge staying atop the Central over the remainder of the season.
They’ll have their hands full fending off more experienced divisional rivals such as the Nashville Predators, St. Louis Blues, Dallas Stars and Chicago Blackhawks. Their penalty-killing percentage (81.4), while improved over last season, is middle of the pack. The coaching staff must be on guard against bad habits and overconfidence creeping into their game. Should they reach the playoffs, their limited postseason experience could be a hindrance against more accomplished foes.
Still, the Jets appear well-positioned for what should be a strong second half. They’re powered by a lethal offense and buoyed by improved goaltending and blueline depth. Toronto will likely continue to dominate the Canadian hockey headlines, but the Leafs are inferior to Winnipeg in every major category.
If the Jets maintain their current high level of play over the rest of this regular season, they’ll have to be taken seriously as a Cup contender.