When the Winnipeg Jets take on the Calgary Flames beginning Aug. 1 in their best-of-five play-in series, they’ll be icing a squad without a ton of postseason experience.
The 33 players on their Phase 3 Training Camp roster have a combined 498 games of playoff experience. 11 of them have never played in a postseason game, where the pressure is on, the intensity is high, and every play’s importance is magnified tenfold.
Jets’ Playoff Experience Not Massive, But Meaningful
Although most Jets players have not participated in multiple lengthy playoff runs —and none of them are Stanley Cup champions now that Dustin Byfuglien is gone — much of the team’s core will draw from the lessons they learned during their 2018 run to the Western Conference Final.
The experience gleaned from that 17-contest stretch — and the ultra-exciting, hard-fought, seven-game series between them and the fellow Central Division juggernaut Nashville Predators, especially — will serve them well.
Jets Need Most Experienced Playoff Performers to Lead the Way
Although no one’s playoff resume is too lengthy, there are a few who have decent CVs nonetheless. They’re the guys the Jets will lean on to provide leadership and to rise to the occasion.
Their most experienced playoff performer is Blake Wheeler, who has played 48 games over five postseasons — two with the Boston Bruins and three with the Jets.
The captain has recorded six goals and 27 assists for 33 games in those contests, with 21 of those points coming in the Jets’ 2018 run. In 931 regular season games over 12 seasons, the Minnesota product has notched 264 goals and 497 assists for 761 points.
Wheeler’s steady presence and leadership ability has been key to the Jets’ rise to competitiveness, and they’ll be looking for the veteran — who registered 65 points in 2019-20 and showed his versatility by seamlessly sliding to centre after Bryan Little suffered a serious head and ear injury in November — to do big things this postseason.
Wheeler became the franchise’s all-time leader in points in December, passing Kovalchuk in one of the Jets most exciting games of the season.
Wheeler’s long-time bosom buddy Mark Scheifele, meanwhile, will be another player the Jets will depend on.
While Scheifele’s only played 27 playoff games, he’s turned heads in them. The 27-year-old centre was a scoring machine in the 2018 postseason, recording 14 goals in 17 games and setting a new record for the most road goals in a single series when he fired in seven at Bridgestone Arena in the second round. He ultimately fell just five tallies short of Reggie Leach’s all-time record.
Scheifele had another strong season in 2019-20, recording 29 goals and 44 assists and 73 points, good for a first-place tie with Kyle Connor.
The Jets’ second-most experienced playoff performer is not Mark Scheifele, but Cody Eakin.
The 29-year-old has suited up for 46 career playoff games, but Aug. 1’s matchup will be his first in a Jets’ jersey, as he was acquired from the Vegas Golden Knights ahead of February’s trade deadline.
20 of his 46 games came in 2018, when he was part of the Golden Knights squad that conquered the Jets in five games but fell in five to the Washington Capitals in the Cup Final. He also participated in a pair of postseasons as a member of the Dallas Stars.
This time, the Winnipeg native will be suiting up for his hometown team, not against them. He’ll shoulder an important role — second line centre — and play between Patrik Laine and Nikolaj Ehlers. The trio will have the ability to make or break the series.
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Eakin was beginning to find chemistry with the Dane and Finn before COVID-19 put the season on pause in mid-March. In eight games, he 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.)Cody Eakin on Nikolaj Ehlers and Patrik Laine
Jets Also Have Some Experienced Role Players
Other players with 30-plus postseason games played and would be considered role players include:
The 32-year-old has played 39 games over six playoffs — two with the Washington Capitals, one with the Anaheim Ducks, and three with the Jets — recording 4 goals and 10 assists for 14 points.
The 35-year-old has played 36 playoff games in his 11-season career, recording six goals and 9 assists for 15 points for the Pittsburgh Penguins, Columbus Blue Jackets, and Edmonton Oilers.
Letestu was limited to seven games this season as he was sidelined with a heart virus for six months, but was medically cleared to play in March. The Jets sent him to the Manitoba Moose on March 10 on a conditioning assignment, but he didn’t get to play any games as the AHL was shut down just a few days later. He’ll only see postseason ice if there are a number of injuries.
The left winger has played 33 playoff games in four postseasons — two with the Predators and two with the Colorado Avalanche — and has recorded six goals and two assists for eight points.
Like Letestu, the 29-year-old — who registered two goals and four assists for six points in 52 games in his first Jets’ season — probably won’t be in the Game 1 lineup unless some injuries occur before then.
The veteran of 548 NHL games — who suited up for 44 with the Jets this season after being acquired from the Anaheim Ducks off waivers in October — has played 32 games in six playoffs — one with the Philadelphia Flyers, two with the Ducks, one with the Vancouver Canucks, and one alongside Eakin during the Golden Knights’ run to the Cup Final.
In those 32 games, he’s scored one goal and added seven assists.
Jets More Experienced Overall Than Flames, But Flames Have Most Experienced Performer
The Jets’ opponent isn’t long on playoff experience either. The players on the Flames’ Phase 3 roster have a total of 312 playoff games under their collective belts, 186 games fewer than the Jets.
One thing the Flames have that the Jets’ do not, however, is a Stanley Cup champion. Milan Lucic has suited up for 114 playoff contests in his career — including 96 for the Boston Bruins over multiple lengthy runs — and hoisted hockey’s holy grail in 2010-11 when the Bruins conquered the Vancouver Canucks. He also played in the Final in 2012-13, when the Bruins lost to the Chicago Blackhawks in six games.
In those 114 games spread over nine postseasons, the 32-year-old left winger has recorded 28 goals and 42 assists for 70 points.
“He’s on us every day that we have to get ready and there’s no messing around for the playoffs — he’s vocal about that,” Flames’ defenseman Rasmus Andersson, who has five games of playoff experience, said recently. “He’s obviously a leader on and off the ice, and once it starts we’re going to see how much of a leader he is.”Rasmus Andersson on Milan Lucic
Playoffs Will Be Different, But End Goal Will Be The Same
As the Jets enter the pressure cooker of the playoffs again, they’ll do so under extremely different circumstances.
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There will be no raucous, chanting fans. No Whiteout Street Parties. No home ice advantage. No distractions. Just be a puck, a sheet of ice, and their Albertan opponents.
The only thing that’ll be the same is that a Stanley Cup will be on the line.
The fire-forged Jets were playing some of their best hockey of the season and were riding a four-game winning streak when everything screeched to a halt.