As crucial as it was to make the playoffs for the first time since returning to Winnipeg, the 2015-16 season is even bigger for the Jets.
After years of frustration, management’s slow-and-steady approach showed serious returns, but the franchise is heading toward multiple forks in the road.
Let’s consider some of the big factors ahead.
Contract years for key players – Hockey fans can debate whether Dustin Byfuglien’s the biggest name on the Jets or not, but he’s the earth-shaking wild card. Andrew Ladd is the gritty, stable winger who might just be the polar opposite. They’ve been immensely important players in Winnipeg, but what does the future hold?
Aging core – It’s easy to look at 21-year-old Jacob Trouba and 22-year-old Mark Scheifele and picture a bright future, especially with a generally well-regarded farm system.
For all the future talk, it’s a make-or-break season for the current crop of key players. Byfuglien is 30, Ladd is 29, Blake Wheeler is 28 and Bryan Little is 27.
Those core players aren’t ancient, but management probably needs to see them win some playoff games (or even series) to justify keeping the band together.
Goalie question – To especially weary Winnipegers, Ondrej Pavelec’s contract probably feels endless, and it does still have two years remaining. Management is sticking with Pavelec and Michael Hutchinson, which is a short-term gamble. Are they any closer to making a decision that reaches a little further?
The Jets have some big questions to answer next season, yet let’s not forget: Winnipeg hasn’t been home to an NHL team with this sort of potential for a long, long time.
Jets bring ’14 first-rounder Ehlers to Winnipeg, won’t play Game 4
Nikolaj Ehlers, taken ninth overall at the 2014 NHL Entry Draft by the Jets, is reportedly on his way to Winnipeg, where he’ll join the big club — but won’t be in the lineup for tonight’s elimination Game 4 against the Ducks.
The 19-year-old Dane just finished his year with QMJHL Halifax, getting bounced in the second round of the playoffs. It ended what was an otherwise stellar second season in the Q; Ehlers scored 101 points in just 51 regular season games and continued to light it up in the postseason, scoring 31 points in 14 games.
There are some clamoring for Ehlers to go straight into the lineup, and it would make some sense as the Jets have scored just seven goals against Anaheim, four of those coming in Game 3. The club has also gotten little in the way of production from Andrew Ladd, Jiri Tlusty, Michael Frolik, Mathieu Perreault and Mark Scheifele, all of whom are without a goal this series.
That said, throwing Ehlers into the mix would be a pretty bold move. Aside from never having played in the NHL before, Ehlers is relatively small (5-foot-11, 176 pounds) and this has been a brutally physical series.
Tempers flared late in the first period between the Winnipeg Jets and Anaheim Ducks on Monday, courtesy two separate incidents just seconds apart.
The first was a knee-on-knee collision between the Ducks’ Rickard Rakell and the Jets’ Mark Scheifele, which didn’t result in a penalty call.
After a brief scrum and the ensuing faceoff, Dustin Byfuglien just missed popping Ryan Kesler with an open-ice hit. Another meeting of the minds took place, as the two lines tried to sort out their differences.