What started as an obvious building year, with four rookies in the lineup, quickly evolved into something much more promising for Winnipeg Jets captain Blake Wheeler.
Perhaps that’s why missing the playoffs for the fifth time in six years was especially painful this time around.
“I think we came in not really knowing what to expect, we were so young, so there was a little bit of patience with everyone coming in,” Wheeler said as the Jets cleaned out their lockers on Sunday, one day after their NHL season ended.
“I think that changed a little bit after the first month or two of the season. Seeing some of our young guys step in and have success early on, for me at least, it made it feel like we weren’t maybe as far behind or rebuilding as much as we thought we were going to be.
“Now it feels like an opportunity wasted. I don’t see many teams more talented than we are right now.”
The Jets struggled with injuries, inexperience and a nasty schedule early in the season, got below average goaltending throughout and took a long time to find their identity.
The hole they dug with a poor first half was too deep. Even though the Jets finished the season with seven straight wins and went 12-5-1 in March and April, they missed the playoffs with a 40-35-7 record and 87 points.
“We ended on a high note so I think the guys are feeling positive about the direction we’re headed,” Wheeler said.
“The injuries hurt us. The schedule hurt us a little bit at the beginning of the season. When you play catch up it just makes it tough so that’s probably the disappointment this season. We definitely have our flaws and some holes we could fill in but on a night-in, night-out basis, with a young team like that, I never thought we were over-matched.”
The Jets were one of the best offensive teams in the league this season, with four players scoring at least 60 points. Wheeler had 26 goals and 74 points, while Mark Scheifele had 32 goals and 82 points, rookie Patrik Laine had 36 goals and 64 points and second-year winger Nikolaj Ehlers had 25 goals and 64 points.
If they can shore up their questionable goaltending and improve their overall team defence — essentially play the way they did over the last six weeks of the season for a full campaign — the Jets should be strong contenders for the playoffs for years to come.
“I think we don’t know what our team is going to look like next year, so you can’t put any labels on that yet,” Wheeler said, alluding to the upcoming expansion draft for the Vegas Golden Knights.
“Certainly with the youth we have and some of the talent we have and our top-six and the guys on our blue line, you’d like to think we should be a team that’s in the playoffs every year. But a hockey team is more than just putting talent on the ice so, like I said, there are some areas we can improve on and if we make improvements there’s no reason why we shouldn’t be competing for a playoff spot next year.”
There will no doubt be changes this off-season as the Jets try to add the pieces they need to become a playoff team.
None of those changes are expected to come behind the bench, where Paul Maurice has had three full seasons to turn things around.
Jets centre Bryan Little, for one, believes Maurice is the right man for the job with this team in the years to come.
“I think he’s done a great job developing the young players,” Little said. “He’s probably one of the best coaches I’ve ever had so I think the whole team is behind him and he has the attention of the room. He’s going to be a big part of the development of the team so we’re behind him fore sure.”
So the Jets will disperse for another summer. Some of them, like Scheifele, Ehlers and goalie Connor Hellebuyck, will play for their countries at the world championships, while others will relax for a bit before starting to get ready for another, hopefully improved, season.
“I definitely can’t wait to get back next year,” Little said.
“We have a bright future. It’s frustrating not playing for anything again and having that long summer that we’ve had before but I think everyone is looking at next year already and we’ve shown what we’re capable of, at times, this season, especially over the last seven games. I think we’ve got some real stuff ahead.”
Myers hopeful after ‘weird, emotional’ year
Tyler Myers was close to getting into a game down the stretch with the Winnipeg Jets but ultimately decided the best move was to stay out and continue to get better.
He feels the same way about playing in the world championship.
“I think the smartest choice for me right now is to stay home and continue to strengthen up my injury,” said Myers, who could play for Team Canada at the worlds in Germany and France next month.
“I won’t completely shut the door. I know it’s not completely up to me either, but a couple weeks from now, if I’m feeling really good, I might make a call to see if there’s a spot open.”
Myers missed all but 11 games this season. He was coming off hip surgery to start the year and later had groin surgery. That injury, he believes, developed as a result of the improved range he gained from having his bad hip repaired.
He also dealt with a personal matter, as his infant son was born prematurely and had to battle for life.
“It’s been tough,” Myers said. “It’s been a weird year. It’s been a very emotional year. But things are definitely heading in the right direction now. I’m feeling a lot better now.”