The NHL regular season does not begin until October, but hockey season begins for some on Sept. 17, as the World Cup of Hockey gets underway in Toronto.
For seven Winnipeg Jets players – and head coach Paul Maurice, who will be an assistant coach for team Europe – hockey season will start early. Making the trip to Toronto with the coach are forwards Mark Scheifele, Blake Wheeler, and rookie Patrik Laine, along with defensemen Jacob Trouba and Dustin Byfuglien. Also starting their hockey seasons early are goaltender Ondrej Pavelec and sophomore goalie Connor Hellebuyck.
Byfuglien and Wheeler have the honour of wearing red, white, and blue when the puck drops on Sept. 17.
Byfuglien is coming off a good statistical year, posting 19 goals and 53 points for the Jets over 81 games last season, Being the force he is on the ice, he unsurprisingly tallied 119 penalty minutes in the 2015-16 season as well. Another good season from Big Buff, which landed him in another All-Star game this season. Byfuglien has never represented his country before, so this will be an important first for him.
Wheeler just posted the best numbers of his career in 2015-16, scoring 26 goals and a total of 78 points through 82 games. He became a leader for the Jets this year, and was rewarded by being named the new captain of the team on Aug. 31, succeeding Andrew Ladd. The last time the 30-year-old veteran represented his country was at the 2014 Sochi Olympics, and he should be equally as excited for this opportunity. Wheeler did not have a major role at the 2014 Games, but he will hope to continue his hot streak into the World Cup and into the 2016-17 NHL season.
Team Czech Republic
The lone Jet playing for the Czech Republic is veteran goaltender Ondrej Pavelec, who has represented his country on numerous occasions in international play.
The goalie played 33 games and started in 31 of them this past season, putting up a 13-13-4 record as well as a .904 save percentage. Pavelec struggled this past season with consistency and staying healthy and it showed in his statistics for the season. A collision in late November with Arizona Coyotes forward Shane Doan sidelined him for quite some time. Ideally, Pavelec will get a chance to show some consistency and bring it with him to the 2016-17 NHL season.
The Jets had things go their way at the 2016 NHL draft lottery, as they moved up to pick two and grabbed Finnish sensation Patrik Laine.
Laine is a star in Finland and was their go-to man at the last World Junior Hockey Championship (WJHC) as well as at the World Championships this past year. Along with fellow Finish teammate Jesse Puljujarvi, he led his team to a gold medal at the WJHC in front of their home fans in Helsinki. At the Worlds in Russia, he steered his team to a silver medal and was named the tournament’s most valuable player with 12 points in ten games.
Laine hopes to continue his international play success in Toronto, and the Jets fans are hoping he brings that success to Winnipeg. Do we have a Finnish flash 2.0 in the making?
Team North America
Team North America is made up of under 23-year olds from Canada and the United States. The Jets are most represented within this team with centre Scheifele, defenseman Trouba, and goalie Hellebuyck. If you are going to cheer for any team besides Canada, this is the one team you can reasonably pick, with the three Jets and the other young Canadians on the team like Connor McDavid.
Mark Scheifele has represented Canada in international play, so it will be different for him being on the opposing team when he sees the red and white on the ice. He ended last season on a 10-game point streak and had his best season in Winnipeg yet, posting 61 points in 71 games. Scheifele will look to ride that hot streak into Toronto and help his team give Canada a run for that gold medal.
American Jacob Trouba will be playing with teammate Scheifele in international play instead of against him for once. Trouba struggled in the Jets’ 2015-16 campaign, as he only tallied 21 points in 81 games, a drop off from his 22 points in 65 games in the 2014-15 season.
There is a lot of drama surrounding Trouba entering this tournament as he is still without a new deal with the Winnipeg Jets, and his agent and the Jets management do not seem very close to inking one. Trouba will still participate at the World Cup of Hockey regardless of his contract negotiations with the Jets management. Trouba needs to play well to show GM Kevin Cheveldayoff what he is worth, as he will be paying close attention to how Trouba performs in Toronto.
Also cracking the team North America roster is young goaltender Connor Hellebuyck. He played for team USA at the 2015 World Championships, leading his team to a bronze medal. It is unlikely he will see that playing time this year with the crowded goalie crease of Stanley Cup Champion Matt Murray and Anaheim goalie John Gibson.
Hellebuyck had his first chance to play at the NHL level this past season when Pavelec got injured, and he took advantage. He posted a 13-11-1 record, along with two shutouts and a .918 save percentage. He led the goalie carousel of himself, Pavelec, and Michael Hutchinson in record, save percentage, goals against average, and shutouts.
Hellebuyck may not get the chance to show off at the World Cup of Hockey, but the fans in Winnipeg should not have to wait long to see him in the crease again.
There is a lot for Jets fans to be excited about while watching the World Cup of Hockey this year. From the new captain Wheeler to other players like Big Buff, Trouba, and a flashy Finnish rookie, there are plenty of storylines to watch.