When the Winnipeg Jets 2.0 made their debut in 2011, no one in their right mind believed the team was destined for the playoffs that season. Or even the next few seasons. General Manager Kevin Cheveldayoff, one year removed from a Chicago Blackhawks Stanley Cup win, had taken over the former Atlanta Thrashers and promised a slow, deliberate rebuild. It might not have been what fans wanted to hear, but they understood the reasoning.
Just seven years later, the Winnipeg Jets are one of the league’s elite teams, finishing second in the standings and taking the first two games of the playoffs against the Minnesota Wild in dominant fashion (we’ll just ignore Game 3). High-end talent, savvy veterans, and stellar goaltending have vaulted the team from playoff wild-card to Stanley Cup favourite.
And it appears they are only getting better.
Jets Finishing Strong
It would be hard to argue that Winnipeg wasn’t already an incredible team during the season’s first half. Forty-one games in, the Jets had a 23-11-7 record, good for fifth in the league.
That wasn’t good enough for the Jets. Over the final 41 games, the Jets went 29-9-3, including an unbelievable 18-4-1 in the comfy confines of Bell MTS Place. Patrik Laine, who scored 18 goals in the first half, exploded for 26 in the second half while rookie Kyle Connor put himself in a Calder Trophy race with 18 goals and 32 points over the final 41 games.
And just when you thought another level wasn’t possible, they finished the season with the best record in the league, going 11-1-0. The Jets haven’t lost a game at home since Feb. 27. Excluding their three playoff games (two of which were home wins), the Jets have outscored opponents 46-32 over that stretch, while holding a 57.89 percent shot attempt advantage, meaning they have absolutely dominated their opponents on and off the scoreboard.
Halfway through the season, Sportsnet said the Jets had become Canada’s best team. “They’re big, deep, and fast with goaltending, an excellent defence, and talent up front that for the most part is only going to mature and improve,” wrote Mark Spector. Now, the Jets might be the NHL’s best team.
Success From Group
The thing is, the Jets’ success isn’t coming from just one player. Yes, Blake Wheeler, Mark Scheifele, and Laine have contributed to the scoreboard more than any other player, but their dominance has been from top to bottom. So much so that Paul Maurice never has to worry about line matchups, allowing him to freely roll all four lines.
Since the start of their dominant 12 game stretch, no regular player has skated less than 11 minutes a night, with only two players under 13 minutes. Every forward on the team has at least four points since the middle of March, with the exception of Mathieu Perreault, who is in the midst of a very unusual lull in production.
Their defenders have also been at the top of their game, with Joe Morrow and Ben Chiarot stepping into big roles with injuries to Toby Enstrom and Jacob Trouba, the latter who is now back on the top line. Even Sami Niku, AHL Defenceman of the Year, was able to step in and play a solid game when asked.
It Starts in Net
But the single biggest difference this year is Connor Hellebuyck, who has elevated his game to a level never seen before in Winnipeg. His 44 wins this season were the highest of any American-born goaltender, besting Tom Barrasso and Mike Richter.
Aggressive Hellebuyck = perfect Hellebuyck.
— NHL (@NHL) January 22, 2018
After a disappointing 2016-17, the 24-year-old goaltender has bounced back, posting a .924 save percentage on the season. That includes only one regular-season game with a save percentage under .800, and only 23 of his 67 under .900, only allowing six goals in a game once, back in February.
No one expected this. Even management brought in Steve Mason to steady the goaltending position. Instead, Hellebuyck took it and ran. Much like other elite goaltenders in the league, it just took him a few seasons to find his bearings.
Though his numbers haven’t been quite as steady over the past 12 games, he’s continued to win, with his 11 straight wins snapped in Sunday’s loss to the Wild. His strong play and steady presence have turned this young team into true contenders.
Stanley Cup on the Way
Is it too soon to say the Jets are on their way to a Stanley Cup parade? Not if you’re a Winnipeg fan. But the rest of the league is certainly on notice. If it’s not this year, then it will be soon. Because this Jets team, which was playing at a high level throughout the season, is only getting better. That should put fear in every opposing team.