WINNIPEG – It’s hard to finish a season any hotter than the Winnipeg Jets just did.
Blake Wheeler scored shorthanded with just 44.6 seconds left to lift the Jets to a 2-1 win over Nashville, the first time in franchise history that the club has won seven straight games.
Kyle Connor also scored in his first game since November 29 while Connor Hellebuyck made 33 saves for the win.
The Jets finish with a 40-35-7 record, good enough for 87 points which puts them seven out of a playoff spot.
But how much stock can you put in this win streak? Can you trust that it means anything when it comes to the future of the team? Head coach Paul Maurice recently said that he doesn’t consider these games to be much more than exhibition matches with teams that have mentally already moved on to the postseason.
“You look at the amount of talent we have on the ice now, you just have to think that our group is knocking on the door,” Wheeler said. “I think the city of Winnipeg should take a lot of pride in the fact that their team didn’t quit. That means more than the wins. Being in the fight with that group of guys, that’s what you start building the right things with.”
It’s no secret that the Jets have not been the poster child for consistency. The Jets had only six one-game losing streaks all year, meaning that losses would almost always come in bunches. The team didn’t truly put things together until they knew they were missing the playoffs, and the cynical view will always be to take such results with a hefty grain of salt.
But while the results in the standings haven’t necessarily been much different the past few months, the team has been playing a stronger brand of hockey, more defensively sound. Credit the forwards for stepping up their two-way games at a time when the defence corps was ravaged by injury. Sure, there have been some eggs laid along the way, but that is bound to happen with a young team.
Most rational fans didn’t expect a playoff berth this year anyway. Coming in, if someone told you the Jets would finish 9th in the West, you would have agreed that was a likely and acceptable conclusion. Not making the playoffs always sucks, and over the course of a year you can trick yourself into thinking it’s possible, but the reality is this team is about where they should be.
“Over the course of the year, the young guys all played a big role on this team,” said Chris Thorburn, whose future in Winnipeg is very murky. “We were close, but at the same time, if you could take any positives, it’s that the young guys got a year under their belt and at times they were our best players. The future is bright for the organization.”
So what happens now? The team will have microscopic odds in the draft lottery and has to think about how they want to prepare for the expansion draft. But their top six up front looks set. Goals are not an issue.
Most fingers will point at goaltending as a weakness this season: goalies not named Connor Hellebuyck went 14-16-3 this year, which is greatly skewed by Michael Hutchinson’s recent 5-1 stretch. When the games actually mattered, the Jets had no capable backup behind Hellebuyck, which has to be an area the club addresses in the summer.
“He’s got some good things that he’s done this year,” Maurice said about Hellebuyck, who will now play with team USA at the world championship. “He doesn’t get the room that the other kids got because it’s in the back of the net. He got an opportunity, played more games than anyone his age in the league. I’m glad that he gets to take a win home with him and we’re going to look for a whole lot more.”
Other questions to answer: does Jacob Trouba want to be here? Is it time to cut bait on Toby Enstrom? Have Michael Hutchinson and Ondrej Pavelec played their last games in Jets jerseys (and possibly in the NHL)?
Most Jets fans hope the answer to all of the above is yes, which makes their offseason priorities clear: shore up the D, even if it takes dealing some front-end talent, and sign a veteran goalie that you can count on for 30 games. This could also include some tweaks to the coaching staff.
With all this pondering, it would be great to hear what GM Kevin Cheveldayoff has to say. He is not one to speak to the media with any frequency, but he will talk Monday afternoon.
That won’t stop fans from debating all options over the next five months, but one thing is clear: come next October, the Winnipeg Jets will be poised to be more than a wild card team. Expectations will be high, but there is plenty of optimism to go around. The Jets better not squander it.