Can the Winnipeg Jets Make the Playoffs?

The most magical night since the Winnipeg Jets returned to the prairies blindsided many experts. According to the preseason predictions, last year’s run to the postseason should never have happened for the Jets.

This, ladies and gentlemen, is why they play the games, and what makes watching NHL hockey so fun. Predict all you like, and base your predictions in the soundest logic you can, but no matter how right you may seem to be on paper, hockey can always surprise you. It surprised the Colorado Avalanche last night, who blew a 4-1 lead to lose 5-4, it surprised Sidney Crosby, who was held without a shot on goal, and at the end of the season it’s going to surprise the people who picked the Winnipeg Jets to finish outside the playoffs in the Western Conference.

It’s true the Central Division is the toughest in the NHL, and the playoffs are no guarantee for any team not named the St. Louis Blues. And I know I just moments ago said predictions can easily go belly up thanks to the unpredictability of the game, but I’m going to make one right now anyway. The Winnipeg Jets will make the playoffs.

Playoffs? You Want to Talk About Playoffs?

It’s early in the season, and I’m aware it’s easy to be overly high on the Jets following an impressive win in Boston, which is after all only one game. That said, this group made the playoffs last season, and I don’t doubt they’re capable of doing so again. The Central Division is a big, tough, nasty one, but the Jets are a big, tough nasty team.

What the media outside Winnipeg has never seemed to grasp is that the Jets are a team greater than the sum of their parts. The team lacks a marketable superstar up front (and in goal for that matter) and for that they often seem to get passed over. Early projections for where the Jets will finish vary wildly, from a distant memory in the playoff picture to comfortably in the middle of them and as with all things the truth likely lies somewhere in between the two.

The Jets bring a more balanced attack to the table this season than they have in years, and have one of the NHL’s strongest defensive groups. While goaltending had been a question mark for years, and it’s understandable some think it still is, last season went a long way toward answering it. A 1A-1B system is emerging in Winnipeg between Michael Hutchinson and Ondrej Pavelec, with each keeping the other sharp and picking up the slack in moments where the other falters. Teams have a hard time winning the Stanley Cup without a true number one goalie, it’s true, but I’m not here to tell you the Jets will win the Stanley Cup. I’ll leave that for another prognosticator.

(Tom Szczerbowski-USA TODAY Sports)
Tyler Myers will be a big (literally) part of the Jets potential playoff run this season (Tom Szczerbowski-USA TODAY Sports)

Unheralded Depth

The Jets lack of an individual superstar often masks their impressive depth up front and on defense. With a top line of Andrew Ladd, Blake Wheeler and Bryan Little, it’s true the Jets have no one reliably game-breaking forward, but they have three solid, capable contributors. Follow that up with a second line of Mark Scheifele, Nikolaj Ehlers, and Mathieu Perreault, and you have two solid scoring lines, with a third following behind (Drew Stafford–Adam Lowry–Alexander Burmistrov). The Jets even have, for perhaps the first time in their history, a serviceable fourth line (it can be argued the GST line of the team’s first year was more of a third line).

The NHL’s best teams all have depth, and in the big, bad Western Conference, where players can and do go down with injuries, depth is essential. The Jets depth allows them to compete with any of the top forward groups out west, and while a superstar would be nice, the emergence of youngsters like Scheifele, whose wicked wrist shot has been on display in the early going this season, gives the Jets even more solid scoring options.

Scheifele’s emergence is key, because as many experts have pointed out, the Jets made few improvements externally in the offseason, and allowed several veterans to walk away. Luckily the kids have stepped up so far, as Nikolaj Ehlers and Nic Petan both now have their first NHL points, and show signs of real promise. Their coming of age and high-end skill give the Jets three scoring lines, and even some of the west’s best can’t boast that.

For the Defense

The argument could be made the Jets have the strongest right side d in the NHL, and if defense wins championships, the Jets have a solid foundation for future playoff victories. Dustin Byfuglien does everything you could ask of a defender, playing the physical game and putting up points. Tyler Myers skates like a man half a foot shorter. Jacob Trouba looks like a future Norris Trophy winner. All this without even mentioning the quiet emergence of sophomore defenseman Ben Chiarot on the left side, who looks like the kind of solid, steady player every team needs in order to win.

The only teams in the loaded Central Division that can compete with the Jets defense corps, on paper at least, are the Chicago Blackhawks and Nashville Predators, and while both those teams have exceptional top fours, their third pair pales next to the Jets (which pair is the third varies night to night, but usually it’s Trouba and Mark Stuart).

As for goaltending, as mentioned above, the 1A-1B system seems to work for the Jets. Hutchinson and Pavelec had their bumps in the road last season, but both still managed to put up solid save percentage totals of .914 and .920 respectively. There is some uncertainty surrounding both goalies, but with that defense in front of them, and the aforementioned forwards putting pucks in the net at the other end, the Jets should be stable in goal, albeit not as much so as, say, Nashville. Not every team has a Pekka Rinne, after all. St. Louis seems to have done just fine (in the regular season at least) with a pair of solid goalies rather than a single spectacular one.

Listen, I understand making the playoffs in the cutthroat Central is no easy task. I’m a fan of course, and an optimistic one at that, but the reality of the NHL’s most tightly-contested division isn’t lost on me. In any given year, the Stanley Cup is likely to reside in the Central, as are five of the eight playoff spots out west. That said, I think  this iteration of the Jets can make the playoffs. It won’t be an easy task, but Paul Maurice has his players executing his systems and style perfectly, and believing in the team, and those things can go a long way. Long enough to overcome the challenges facing a young team trying to make the playoffs? Time will tell, but I believe so.