Winnipeg Jets: Canada’s 2018 Playoff Team

The Winnipeg Jets clinched a berth in the Stanley Cup playoffs with a 5-4 shootout win over the Nashville Predators this week. The Jets will play beyond the regular season for the first time since 2015.

With just two Canadian teams in the playoffs, the Jets are now Canada’s team in 2018. While some in the Greater Toronto Area may cheer for the Maple Leafs, most Canadians will look to support a team not located in the center of the universe.

Hey Canadian hockey fans, let’s get to know your Winnipeg Jets.

A Franchise Resurrected

Hockey is in Winnipeg’s blood. In the late 1800s and early 1900s, amateur teams from Winnipeg made the city proud on the national stage. The Winnipeg Victorias won the Stanley Cup in 1896, 1901 and 1902. Being a non-pro team, the Victorias were no longer eligible to play for the cup after 1908, but they continued to dominate Manitoba hockey, winning the provincial Allan Cup in 1911 and 1912. Between 1920 and 1935, teams from Winnipeg represented Canada in international meetings including the Olympics. At the 1920 Olympic Winter Games in Antwerp, Belgium, the Falcons won big and captured Canada’s first-ever Olympic gold medal in hockey.

In 1972, the Winnipeg Jets became the city’s first professional hockey team as part of the NHL’s rival league, the World Hockey Association. The Jets brought instant credibility to the league by signing NHL superstar Bobby Hull. At the time, Hull’s multi-million-dollar deal was the most lucrative contract ever given to a North American professional athlete.

Bobby Hull #9 of the Winnipeg Jets and Gordie Howe #9 of the Houston Aeros
HOUSTON, TX – 1976: Bobby Hull #9 of the Winnipeg Jets and Gordie Howe #9 of the Houston Aeros (Photo by Melchior DiGiacomo/Getty Images)

In the NHL

Following the collapse of the WHA, the Winnipeg Jets entered the NHL’s Smythe Division in 1979. The team suffered as a result of the onerous conditions required for the Jets to enter the NHL. This included them to give up a number of their top scorers as part of the reclamation draft. The Jets won only 29 games in their first two NHL campaigns, including an abysmal season in 1980–81 that saw them finish with only 32 points.

Related: The NHL/WHL Merger

The Jets struggled throughout the 1980s. Despite drafting Dale Hawerchuk in 1981, he was not enough to bring the Jets success. Their best season was 1984–85 when they finished fourth overall in the league with 96 points. This happened to be the finest offensive season of Hawerchuk’s career, with 53 goals and 130 points.

Dale Hawerchuk
MONTREAL, CANADA- 1981: Dale Hawerchuk #10 of the Winnipeg Jets (Photo by Denis Brodeur/NHLI via Getty Images)

The Jets’ 1987 playoff victory against the Flames was the scene of the first “Winnipeg White-Out,” where fans dressed in white for playoff games to counter Calgary’s “C of Red.” The White-Out has remained a Winnipeg Jets playoff tradition ever since.

The Jets have long struggled in the postseason. In the 1990s, the playoff drought continued. In 1991, the team found new local ownership, including a sizable investment by the province that promised to keep the team in Winnipeg. However, the Jets continued to struggle.

In 1992–93, Jets rookie Teemu Selanne (the “Finnish Flash”) shattered NHL rookie records by scoring 76 goals and 132 points. Along with Hawerchuk, Selanne is one of two Jets to win the Calder Memorial Trophy as the best rookie in the league. He is just one of many important franchise players.

Teemu Selanne, Winnipeg Jets, Alumni Game, Heritage Classic
Teemu Selanne (Credit: Glenn Cratty/ALLSPORT)

Relocation and Return

Despite Selanne’s contributions, the Jets were again unable to advance in the playoffs. In the 1992-93 season, they lost in the first round to the Vancouver Canucks. While the team hung around for a few more years, this was the beginning of the end for the original Winnipeg Jets. In the 1993–94 and 1994–95 seasons, the Jets failed to qualify for the playoffs. Although they made the playoffs in the 1995–96 season, they were defeated in the first round by the Detroit Red Wings.

In 1996, the team was sold and moved to Arizona, becoming the Phoenix Coyotes (now the Arizona Coyotes). In 2011, True North Sports & Entertainment Limited bought the struggling Atlanta Thrashers franchise and relocated it from Georgia to Winnipeg. The team was renamed the team the Winnipeg Jets in honor of the Jets legacy and the proud history of hockey in Manitoba.

Winnipeg Fans Rally
Winnipeg Fans Rally (Greg Gallinger/Flickr)

In 2011, the Winnipeg Jets returned to Manitoba and fans bought 13,000 season tickets in a mere 17 minutes. True North did not purchase the Thrashers name and decided to resurrect the Jets name instead. The decision to bring back the Jets name was announced just before their first pick in the 2011 NHL draft, future star Mark Scheifle. Since 2011, the Jets have struggled. The last playoff appearance was in 2014-15 when they were swept in the first round to the Anaheim Ducks, 4-0. This year may be different.

Playoff Bound

After a stellar year, the resurrected Winnipeg Jets are heading to the playoffs. With 46 wins and 7 games remaining, the Jets clinched a berth in the Stanley Cup playoffs with a 5-4 shootout win over the Nashville Predators. Winnipeg improved to 46-19-10, good for 102 points, pulling to within five points back of the Predators, 48-16-11. According to Blake Wheeler:

“Really proud of our group…(There was) a lot of uncertainty coming into the year, where we were going to be. I don’t think many people thought we were going to be where we are at, a playoff team. Every single guy in here has had a huge part in that. It’s a big moment for our team and for our organization. We’re pretty excited.”

Blake Wheeler - Winnipeg Jets
Blake Wheeler – Winnipeg Jets, Mar. 10, 2018 (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

Winnipeg wraps up a six-game homestand on Tuesday this week against the Boston Bruins pay a visit. The Jets depart Wednesday for their final road trip of the regular season, beginning with a stop in Chicago on Thursday against the sagging Blackhawks. The Jets then return to the Great White North for contests in Toronto and Ottawa over the Easter weekend and then finish up in Montreal against the hapless Habs.

The Jets are likely to face either the Minnesota Wild or Colorado Avalanche in the first round of the 2018 playoffs. Whoever they face, they will have home ice in the first round. New fans should get ready for the “Winnipeg White-Out.”

Players to Watch

The Jets are led by captain Blake Wheeler. The right winger leads the team with 85 points. Patrik Laine is next on the team with 68 points. Other key players with 50 points or more include Nikolaj Ehlers, Mark Scheifle and rookie Kyle Connor. The acquisition of Paul Stastny at the trade deadline added key depth at center.

On defense, Dustin Byfuglien and Tyler Myers lead blueline scorers. Josh Morrissey and Ben Chiarot are contributing as well. The Jets hope Jacob Trouba, Toby Enstrom and Dmitry Kulikov injury status allows them to return in time to prepare for the playoffs in a few weeks.

Related: Hellebuyck Deserves Vezina Consideration

The constant for the Winnipeg Jets this season has been Connor Hellebuyck.  Hellebuyck has been one of the NHL’s elite goaltenders in 2017-18; he’s near the top of the leaderboard in most statistical categories. With a GAA of 2.36 and .924 SV%,  Connor Hellebuyck is a key reason the Jets are poised to make a deep playoff run.

Adopt the Jets

Are you a Habs fan disgusted with your team? Are you an Oilers fan who can’t believe this season’s result? Are you a Canucks fan who can’t wait for the rebuild? Are you a Flames fan still holding out hope? Ottawa? Are there any Senator’s fans left?

Join me. Let’s get excited about Canada’s 2018 playoff team: The Winnipeg Jets.