After a four-and-a-half month hiatus caused by the COVID-19 pandemic, the Winnipeg Jets will return to the ice on Aug. 1 to participate in a summer hockey extravaganza the likes of which no one has ever seen or will ever see again.
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The five-game play-in series between the Jets and Calgary Flames — the winner of which gets to advance to the traditional 16-team, best-of-seven playoff format — should be must-see TV. Here are three Jets’ players in particular to keep an eye on when the puck drops again for the first time in a long time.
The 27-year-old DeMelo hasn’t played a huge number of games for the Jets, but will have a huge role in the playoffs. The team’s newest defenceman will patrol the blue line on the top pairing alongside Josh Morrissey and the duo will be tasked with keeping the Flames’ best at bay.
DeMelo showed excellently in 10 contests after being acquired from the Ottawa Senators ahead of the Trade Deadline for the low price of a 2020 third-round selection. The intelligent defenceman’s presence went a long way to stabilizing a shaky defence as he quickly jumped up to the top pairing alongside alternate captain Morrissey.
DeMelo is a cerebral player who plays a simple game described by head coach Paul Maurice as “coach’s porn;” someone who makes good reads and puts up solid possession numbers. He’ll be clocking 20-plus minutes per game as long as the Jets are in it.
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On Thursday, DeMelo called Morrissey an “elite hockey player” and “and even a better person off the ice” who is easy to play with.
The feeling is mutual, as Morrissey described DeMelo as a player who “makes it look easy” and was able to transition from team to team without missing a beat.
DeMelo, an unrestricted free agent at the end of the season, said recently that while there’s been no talks of an extension, he likes and is open to re-signing with the organization. How far the Jets go may influence whether he decides to stay or go.
For the third straight season, the Jets will be looking to a rental middleman to get the best out of Nikolaj Ehlers and Patrik Laine.
In 2018, it was Paul Stastny, who gelled immediately with the two youngsters, recording four goals and nine assists in 19 regular season games, six goals and nine assists for 15 points in 17 playoff games, and was a key contributor in the Jets’ run to the Western Conference Final. In 2019, it was Kevin Hayes, who wasn’t nearly as successful and was bumped down the lineup on a Jets’ squad that made a disappointing first-round exit.
In 2020, under the most unusual circumstances, the job of second line centre between the Jets’ dynamic Dane and Finnish phenom will fall to Cody Eakin.
The big question here is whether the 29-year-old will be a Stastny or a Hayes.
Eakin — acquired by the Jets from the Vegas Golden Knights ahead of February’s Trade Deadline for a 2021 conditional fourth-round pick (the Golden Knights were clearing cap space) — was beginning to find chemistry with Ehlers and Laine before the COVID-19 pandemic put the league on pause in mid-March. In eight games, the Winnipeg native recorded one goal and four assists and was riding a three-game point streak.
“These guys create so much space on the ice from the defensive zone moving forward, just backing guys off and beating guys wide and shooting the puck. It’s fun to be a part of. It took one or two games to kind of get my legs under me,” Eakin recently said of Ehlers and Laine. “You’ve got two guys on your wings that can really fly and they’re really creating offence, creating areas and pockets and speed and just generating room all around the ice, and both lethal with the puck on their sticks. A couple games in we started to find a bit of a rhythm.” (from ‘Eakin itchin’ to get back at it,’ Winnipeg Free Press, July 14, 2020.)
“Things were kinda progressing, the wins were coming, we were chipping in and we were having fun,” Eakin said of the team that was riding a four-game winning streak when the season abruptly stopped. “So it’s good to get back out with those guys and get back on the ice and try to pick up where we left off.”
Eakin, who has scored as many as 22 goals in a season, had a disappointing campaign with the Golden Knights prior to coming to the Jets, recording just four goals and six assists for 10 points in 41 games.
However, he will play a key role come August as the Jets will need production from more than just their top line of Kyle Connor, Mark Scheifele, and Blake Wheeler to succeed. This is a huge chance for the pending UFA to make good for his hometown team; look for him to be locked and loaded.
Will Connor Hellebuyck continue to be king of the crease?
The Jets’ number-one goaltender was one of the only reasons his team even qualified for the 24-team playoff format, as he bailed them out with simply outstanding play night after night.
His numbers were eye-popping— 31 wins, a 2.57 GAA, a .922 SV%, six shutouts, and a 12.5 Goalie Points Share — and even more impressive given the sorry state of the Jets’ blue line for much of the season. He was first in saves with 1656, tied for first in games played with 58, and first in Quality Starts with 36. He should be a shoo-in for the Vezina Trophy, for which he was named a finalist Friday.
Hellebuyck is more concerned with the big prize than any individual accolades, though.
“It (winning the Vezina) would be a great milestone and it would definitely be one of my goals achieved, but at the end of the day, what I truthfully want is the Stanley Cup and a chance to win it,” Hellebuyck said back in April.
While the Jets aren’t Cup favourites by any means, with a healthier and deeper defence in front of him in the playoffs than at any time in the regular season, a locked in Hellebuyck on his A-Game will make the Jets a very tough team to dispatch.
Return to Play Will be Surreal, Satisfying
We’re now less than a Fortnight (not a Fortnite, Laine) away from enjoying hockey again. It may seem surreal at first, for both players on the ice and fans watching from home, but teams will soon get down to business. The Stanley Cup is at stake, after all.
The Jets and Flames only faced once this season — way back in October at the 2019 Heritage Classic in Regina — and it was tough to glean anything significant from a strategic perspective from an outdoor game played in a snowstorm. The teams’ relative unfamiliarity with each other will make their series even more exciting.