It’s been three years since the cash-strapped Atlanta Thrashers touched down in Winnipeg, which marked the official return of our beloved Jets.
A franchise that was dubbed “young and developing” at the time of owner Mark Chipman and True North Entertainment’s takeover has now descended into mediocrity after falling short of the post-season for three consecutive seasons.
Paul Maurice, who replaced Claude Noel in the coaching position midway through last season, marked the first major change in general manager Kevin Cheveldayoff’s plans of building a playoff-savvy team.
Cheveldayoff’s ideology of building through the draft has appeared to be on the path to fruition with the rookie success stories of Mark Scheifele and Jacob Trouba – Winnipeg’s first-round picks in 2011 and 2012, respectively.
Both heading into their second full season after slight injury concerns as rookies, Scheifele and Trouba are expected to fill much loftier roles. Scheifele ended last season with 29 of his 34 points coming in his final 39 games, while Trouba starred as one of Winnipeg’s most reliable blue liners, displaying a well-balanced defensive edge to his game with incredible offensive upside.
Scheifele, 21, now faces a battle with both Evander Kane and Bryan Little for the Jets’ top-line centre position, with the departure of Olli Jokinen as a free agent to Nashville. During the 2014/15 training camp, Kane was seen skating alongside Andrew Ladd and Blake Wheeler during various possession drills, suggesting the 23-year-old could fill a more central role this upcoming season.
With 30 games as a rookie Jet, and a point-per-game ratio with the AHL’s St. John’s Ice Caps last season, centre Eric O’Dell will likely fill a third- or fourth-line role next season. Adam Lowry, 21, is also likely to crack the Jets lineup after two years of conditioning with the Ice Caps. The six feet five inches tall St. Louis native possesses a defensive edge to his game, a component missing from the Jets’ fore-check.
Nikolaj Ehlers, the ninth overall pick in 2014, is likely to return to the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League. Despite his flashy display in the rookie tournament, the Jets will not rush the 18-year-old to filling a second-line wing role.
Like Trouba, Josh Morrissey is a budding young defenceman coming off a standout year that included a 28-goal, 73-point campaign with the WHL’s Prince Albert Raiders. In addition, the Jets’ first round pick in 2013 participated in the 2014 World Junior Championship with Canada and ended the year with the AHL’s St. John’s Ice Caps in their fine Calder Cup run.
Despite being an undersized six feet tall blue-liner, the 19-year-old is a gifted puck-mover and is likely to stride into the Ice Caps’ team this season, after a comfortable performance at training camp.
In addition to a young defensive core with includes Trouba, Morrissey, Ben Chiarot, and Julian Melchiori becoming more prevalent figures on the blue line, the lackluster display of veteran defenceman Tobias Enstrom has eventually cost the Swede his alternate captaincy.
Known for his demanding presence as a speedy offensive defenceman, the 29-year-old twice produced 50-point seasons with the now-defunct Thrashers. In three seasons as a Jet, he’s yet to reach a figure past 33 points. The pressure will be on Enstrom to elevate his performance level to match his yearly $5.75 million salary, which kicked in last season.
On the goaltending front, Ondrej Pavelec will surely enter the campaign as the Jets’ number one stopper. Nipping at his heels is 24-year-old backup Michael Hutchinson, signed as a free agent from the Boston Bruins in 2013. The Jets concluded last season with Hutchinson, who looked stellar in all three games, the only NHL games to his credit.
Surely, the former Barrie Colt will give Pavelec a run for his position. The last line of defence in the St. John’s Calder Cup run, which ended in the championship series, will likely be the backup in Winnipeg this season, leaving the Ice Cap duties to 24-year-old Jussi Olkinoura, 21-year-old NCAA star Connor Hellebuyck, and the recently signed Danny Taylor. Budding WHL standout Eric Comrie, 19, will likely be sent down to Tri-City.
As preparation begins for the fourth season back in Winnipeg, the fans will be optimistic on whether Winnipeg will see the NHL post-season for the first time since 1996. A side gifted with youthful essence, it is no question that the likes of Scheifele, Trouba, and company will develop into NHL All-Stars. It’s now a matter of time, and whether a talented young core pick up the responsibilities of bringing playoff hockey back to the prairies.
One thing for the upcoming season is clear for the Winnipeg Jets: their emphasis on young blood has never been greater.