The Winnipeg Jets were not just good, but they were historically good. Since the original team joined the NHL in 1979, Winnipeg had never reached the century mark in points, but they rolled past that mark last season and fell three points short of winning the Presidents Trophy (behind Nashville). They still got the better of the Predators in the playoffs and reached the Western Conference Finals for the first time since relocating from Atlanta.
Now that the Jets have made their mark as a strong Stanley Cup contender, now is the time for them to strike. Here is a look at what to expect this season.
One can argue that Winnipeg has one of the best first lines in the NHL. Overall, the team finished second in goals per game, and a lot of that had to do with Mark Scheifele, Blake Wheeler, and Patrik Laine. While Laine finished second in the NHL in goals scored, Wheeler was the one who carried the offense. The captain finished with a career-high 91 points and 68 assists, tying him with Claude Giroux for the NHL lead in helpers, and 40 points on the power play.
Scheifele continues to score at a consistent rate, but he also missed 22 games between December and February because of an upper body injury. Had it not been for the injury, Winnipeg’s first draft pick could have had as many points as Wheeler.
Those three should continue to produce at an alarming rate as long as they stay healthy, regardless of the combinations that coach Paul Maurice utilizes. There were other breakouts, however, that completed the offensive juggernaut. Nikolaj Ehlers and Kyle Conner each had big years to compliment the top line.
Ehlers has been productive since making his NHL debut in 2015, but he came extremely close to reaching the 30-goal plateau for the first time after picking up goal 29 in game 80. At just 22, Ehlers should be in for another big season, and another career-high in goals could put him at 100 NHL goals in just four seasons.
Conner, another first-rounder who has been valuable for the Jets, reached 30 goals in his first full season. He was the only rookie to reach 30 goals last year, and he beat six rookies who played 82 games despite only playing 76 of his own.
Assuming Wheeler continues to pile up assists and does not reach the 30-goal marker, there are four established players, three of which are 22 or younger, who can score 30 goals this season. Add on established depth players like Mathieu Perrault, Adam Lowry, Andrew Copp, Bryan Little, and Jack Roslovic (Joel Armia and Paul Stastny were the only significant losses for the offense during the offseason), and it would be a surprise if the scoring were to stumble.
There should be even more help in the AHL, as 2017 first-round pick Kristian Vesalainen, Brendan Lemieux, and Jansen Harkins should see some action later into 2019.
The blue line has their fair share of solid players, but Connor Hellebuyck was the top story for perhaps the entire team. Two years ago, the sixth-round pick was a high prospect for a team that had two mediocre goaltenders for a struggling team, one that would wind up with Laine in the subsequent draft.
The tides turned last season, when Hellebuyck finished with an NHL-high 44 wins and a GAA of just 2.36. Even with similar success in 17 postseason starts, he still fell short of winning the Vezina Trophy, but he did seal up a position that the franchise has struggled to fill. Not bad for someone who did not even start the first two games of the regular season.
While Hellebuyck was a big reason why the defense soared up to fifth in the league in goals against, the rest of the defense did not change much either. Tobias Enstrom was the only loss from last season, and Josh Morrissey has sealed his spot in the starting lineup after two strong seasons. Morrissey figures to share time in the top two lines with Dustin Byfuglien, Tyler Myers, and Jacob Trouba.
Dimitry Kulikov, Ben Chiarot, and Joe Morrow round out the defensive unit for the start of the season, and all three should to be shut down options. Tucker Poolman, Sami Niku, and 2016 first round pick Logan Stanley will likely be the first options to come up from the AHL in the event of injuries.
Prediction: 104 points
After having the best season in franchise history by a mile, the Jets are bound to let up a little bit. Still, the offense is expected to fire on all cylinders, especially on the first line, and Hellebuyck will not have much competition for the starting spot (It will be interesting to see if Eric Comrie can overtake Laurent Brossoit at some point).
Barring a severe injury bug, the Jets have their sights set on the Stanley Cup. The expectations have finally caught up to Winnipeg, and now is the time to prove they belong in the team’s elite.