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Plenty of Fuel for These Jets

January 29, 2019, 9:07 AM ET [2 Comments]
Jay Greenberg
Blogger •NHL Hall of Fame writer • RSSArchiveCONTACT
The Jets have gone 10-6 since December 18 with both hands tied behind their backs.

“You shouldn’t be affected by the loss of any one player but you cannot replace Dustin Byfuglien,” said Coach Paul Maurice. “He is unique; impacts both ends of the ice.

“You lose him, all the other pieces have to [pick it up].”

This is no big bluff that Winnipeg is running without Big Buff. Or without Nik Ehlers, who has been out for 13 games or Paul Stastny, who keyed a conference final run last spring but was lost to Vegas because under the cap you can’t pay ‘em all. Despite all this, Winnipeg, following a come-from-behind win in Boston Tuesday night, is a third-best-in-the-NHL 32-16-2.

It’s been a long time and another league since Winnipeg has been this good. The Jets aren’t just beating the Stingers, Racers and Cougars this time either, but NHL teams and they are doing it not only minus Byfuglien and Ehlers but without Ulfie, Anders and Bobby, too. If the fans in Winnipeg could feel their fingers this time of year, they would be pinching themselves.

No loyalists ever have suffered more. A WHA team that was better than a lot of NHL teams was scattered to the four winds by Ranger raids and then a punitive merger draft. After being picked clean, practically the best player left was Tim Trimper. Holy Kris Manery, the NHL Jets won just nine games in Year Two! The Queen, hanging above the end seats at the Winnipeg Arena practically had to be blindfolded from the mess below.

Dale Hawerchuk came but it was he and Randy Carlyle against Gretzky. Messier, Kurri, Anderson and Fuhr. Good Jets teams–you can take the word of No. 99 himself–never got past the second round of divisional playoffs until, in its infinite wisdom the city wouldn’t build an arena and the team left for Phoenix to infinite stupidity in the desert.

Winnipeg finally built MTS Place when it didn’t have a team and, turnabout being fair play, stole Atlanta’s club. The franchise made the playoffs once in its first six years in Manitoba, but with 99 points in 2014-15 only got swept. Last year was only the third time a hockey team named the Jets ever won a round–unless you count the Johnstown Jets.

These have been some serious dues, man, paid in Manitoba by fans who have fully earned every goal that Patrick Laine scores, although he hasn’t scored many lately and still the Jets are winning. That’s okay, in Winnipeg they can handle a dry spell. Fourteen years, they even were out of existence, doesn’t get any drier than that. This has been a wait even longer than waiting outside for a cab in January can seem.

Of course only Byfuglien, Blake Wheeler and Bryan Little go back even to the beginning of this Jets incarnation and have any clue as to the suffering. According to Wheeler, the pain did not include last spring’s 5-game Western Conference final upset defeat by Vegas. Not so bad. These Jets didn’t look at a loss to an expansion team as an end or even as a delay, more like a beginning.

“We’re young,” said Wheeler. “It gets a lot more difficult the more times you go through it.

“When you have a bunch of deep runs and fall short, the regular season can seem a little monotonous. But it was our first kick at it; we made a good run and that brought a lot of excitement to our team.

“We have a lot of fresh guys who haven’t been through those battles. It really sparked some excitement with us to try to do it all over again.”

It has showed. The Jets started 2018-19 a hungry 11-5-1 and, in all humility, haven’t lost more than consecutive games since, “If you are Pittsburgh or Chicago and won a bunch of Stanley Cups you can relax your way through a regular season,” said Maurice. “We haven’t earned the right to be arrogant.

“We had a good year but it’s only one. That doesn’t make you good.”

Neither does just the one line of Mark Scheifele, Kyle Connor and Wheeler, even if it is one of the NHL’s very best. Maurice reminds all that Connor Hellebuyck has made all things possible but goaltending doesn’t cover all contingencies. The Jets are proving even deeper than the snow they fight to get to work. Man, they’ve got three right-handed defensemen, plus plenty of lefties who always know that the other hand is doing.

“We have had guys step up,” said Adam Lowry, one of the guy who has, sliding from the wing into the third center spot after Stastny was lost to free agency. “Look at what Josh Morrissey and Jacob Trouba have been able to do (on defense) without Buff, They have taken on a ton of minutes.

“We have had different guys fit into where Ehlers has been playing; moving up and down the lineup. The strength of our team has been able to roll four lines. Our top six, if you will, is as good as any team’s in the league and the bottom two lines, especially lately, have been really chipping in. Even if the first line is shut out–and they are not shut out too often–it seems like a different line has a goal or two and picks up the slack. “

Some of these guys picking up the slack are destined to be cap casualties, a challenge to GM Kevin Cheveldayoff to make the correct choices after Laine and Connor, both upcoming restricted free agents, get their long and hefty deals. The Jets are not going to be able to retain them all.

Then again, neither could Washington keep Justin Williams, Karl Alzner, Brooks Orpik, and Nate Schmidt and still won it, finally, the year after losing them, plus rental Kevin Shattenkirk. Besides, as long as the Jets have all these guys, here’s an idea: How about winning it this year?

The route to a final probably will go through Nashville, Pekka Rinne and that four-card stud defense. But Calgary is looking more and more ready to seriously contend. Vegas is still flying, just under the radar this time and San Jose never goes away. It finally happened for Washington didn’t it?

Another center, a rental to replace the rented Stastny, is probably first on Cheveldayoff’s wish list to finish off maybe the best one-through-12 group of forwards in the NHL Despite the cobwebs evident in Monday night’s 3-1 post-break loss in Philadelphia—the big line went quietly, and Trouba bounced an outlet pass off Morrissey’s skate to set up the Flyers’ putaway goal–you have to be impressed with what Winnipeg has done on six cylinders. Byfuglien and Ehlers soon are going to give the Jets eight, a turbo engine in these 31-team times.

It’s hard to find a GM who has made a long-term approach pay bigger dividends: Scheifele, Laine, Trouba, Morrissey, and Connor all were first-round picks. A little luck-Hellebuyck was a fifth-rounder always is involved, as is experience and belief.

“I think last year we wanted to get back in the playoffs and be an elite team,” said Lowry. “It was important to take the next step and I think we did that.

“Coming into this year, it was important not to be satisfied. We have great leaders who prepared us. We have a goal in mind and are not going to be satisfied until we reach it.”

Whatever it takes. Time hung heavy on Winnipeg’s hands, waiting 14 years to get its team back. The Jets are a lesson in resolve.
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