Back in October 2011, the Winnipeg Jets returned to the National Hockey League when a sellout crowd at the MTS Centre gathered to watch their beloved team take on the Montreal Canadiens in the city’s first official NHL game since 1996.
The team took a beating in the form of a 5-1 loss that saw center Nik Antropov score the lone goal in the Jets’ return to the league. It would be a sign of things to come for the next few seasons for the Jets and their fans.
Questionable decisions, tough losses and missed opportunities on the ice have marred Winnipeg since the team’s return to the NHL. Off the ice, there’s been no shortage of drama.
Highly-regarded prospect Alexander Burmistrov took off for the KHL after being upset with his playing situation under then coach Claude Noel, budding superstar Evander Kane has been the subject of trade rumors and dysfunction ever since the team moved from Atlanta to Winnipeg and the team ultimately replaced Noel with Paul Maurice after failing to see any sort of success.
What happened then was a turnaround that started to take shape towards the end of the 2013-14 season.
Maurice led the Jets to an 18-12-5 record to close out the season which, while not overly impressive, was still the first time the Jets and their fans were given a real sign of hope for success in the future.
Winnipeg entered the 2014-15 season with many questions still to be answered, especially at the goaltender position, but there was just something different about this team; something special.
Though the start of the season wasn’t ideal, the Jets showed that they weren’t the same team that everyone saw under Noel. Instead of going into a long funk, putting their heads down and just going through the motions, this team buckled up and fought out of a stretch that saw Winnipeg start 1-4 to the season.
The on-ice leadership in the form of captain Andrew Ladd, winger Blake Wheeler and defenseman turned forward turned defenseman again Dustin Byfuglien has helped the Jets overcome any funk they seem to get in. In fact, aside from that four-game losing streak at the beginning of the season, Winnipeg hasn’t lost more than two straight.
Looking back to the previous three seasons in Winnipeg, the team had lost three or more straight on 14 different occasions. Those stretches also included four streaks of five or more straight losses. It was typical for that team to fall into those ruts. Not this one. They’ve taken on the personality of their never-say-die coach, which has proven to be a major blessing for an organization that was desperately looking for an identity.
When it comes to the aforementioned goaltending questions, the Jets have fared pretty well in that department. Ondrej Pavelec has kept his team in contests, but it’s been the play of the young Michael Hucthinson that has been the bright spot in the net.
In 20 games this season, his first full NHL season, the former Boston Bruins draft pick has an impressive 13-4-2 record with a .932 save percentage and 2.00 goals against average. With a goalie playing that well at the halfway point, it’s no surprise that the Jets currently find themselves in the first Wild Card position and just two points back of Chicago and St. Louis in the Central Division as of January 17.
The two goaltender method that Maurice has implied this season has worked out well for the Jets, and it looks to only help them more as the final stretch gets ready to start with netminders that are relatively fresh.
With Kane returning to playing at a high level, Ladd continuing to be the team’s leading scorer and newcomer Mathieu Perreault on pace to surpass his career single-season high in goals, Winnipeg has the makings of a young team ready to make an impact in the regular season and beyond. And there really is no reason to believe that this team can’t make noise come April.
They have six players with double-digit goal totals, and are likely to have quite a few more in the form of Kane, Mark Scheifele and Michael Frolik. The spread out scoring is a sign of a team that not only knows how to move the puck around, but is more than willing to do so. That type of team play will go a long way towards a successful playoff run.
Sure, there is a long way to go until the end of the regular season. Heck, the league isn’t even at its All-Star break just yet. However, with the way this team has played to this point under the tutelage of Maurice, the sky’s the limit for a Jets team that has the makings of a team that is truly special.