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Winnipeg Jets have finally arrived

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After relocating from Atlanta prior to the 2011-12 season the Winnipeg Jets’ existence has been the definition of mediocrity.

It’s also been painfully dull.

A snails pace rebuild (if you want to even call it that) with almost zero trades of consequence and no free agent signings of significance has meant that the results on the ice have been a continuation of the mediocre results they produced during their time in Atlanta. There are still Not quite good enough to be a playoff team. Not quite bad enough to be an embarrassment or land a top draft pick to net a franchise player (though, that changed when their number came up in the draft lottery to get Patrik Laine … but more on that in a bit).

They have just sort of … existed. This is an organization that is still, 18 seasons into its existence, searching for its first ever postseason win. Not postseason series win. Postseason win. Period.

Since moving to Winnipeg it has been a bizarre team to watch from the outside, especially in recent seasons.

There has been a lot of individual talent on the team. When you look at the roster on paper and see what some of the players have produced, especially in recent seasons, it’s baffling to see how little team success that has all translated to. They should have been better.

So far this season, the results are starting to show up.

After their 7-4 win over the Vegas Golden Knights on Friday night the Jets enter Saturday with the best record in the Western Conference and are off to one of the best starts in franchise history.

They are looking like they might be for real and that their time as a legit contender may have finally arrived.

How did it finally happen?

Let’s start with the big one: They are finally getting decent goaltending.

One of the biggest factors in the Jets’ mediocrity over the past eight years has been a constant void in net. They committed to Ondrej Pavelec for too long, never really tried to find a better solution, and were consistently sunk by sub-par goaltending on a nightly basis.

They signed Steve Mason this summer, but the job has been taken over to this point by Connor Hellebuyck with a .923 save percentage entering play on Saturday.

Just to give you an idea as to how much of an issue goaltending has been, and how much of a difference it is making this season, consider where the Jets have ranked in team save percentage since the start of the 2011-12 season.

2011-12: 25th

2012-13: 21st

2013-14: 24th

2014-15: 12th (only playoff year)

2015-16: 27th

2016-17: 28th

When you get goaltending like that you’re not even giving yourself a chance to compete.

The thing about this Jets roster is that with the way it is currently constructed and the talent that it has up front they don’t need elite goaltending to have a chance. Even if Hellebuyck sees a slight regression in his performance as long as he is able to avoid being one of the bottom-10 goalies in the league they should still have a chance.

Which brings us to the other big factor in the Jets’ improvement: They are finally being rewarded for their patience.

Since being named general manager of the team Kevin Cheveldayoff has taken a “build from within” approach. Wanting to build through the draft isn’t exactly a unique thing. Every team wants to do that. But the Jets have taken it to the extreme, so much so that in the seven years he has been in charge of the team he has only made two trades that involved NHL players going in each direction.

Combined with a lack of significant free agent moves and it has been an astonishing level of inactivity for an NHL team.

But the drafts are finally starting to pay off and the Jets actually have a core of young, talented players that can be organizational building blocks for a long, long time.

Four of the team’s top-five scorers right this season are age 24 or younger, including three (Patrik Laine, Nikolaj Ehlers and Kyle Connor) that are age 21 or younger.

Since the start of the 2015-16 season Mark Scheifele (currently the team’s leading scorer) and the criminally underrated Blake Wheeler have been two of the top-eight point producers in the NHL.

Only six players have scored more goals than Laine since the start of last season (Laine’s first in the NHL), while Ehlers is on pace for his second 60-plus point season before his age 22 season.

These are all top-line players and currently some of the most productive in the entire NHL. And other than Wheeler, they are all still young enough that their best days might still be in front of them.

Put all of that together and you have a team that has been one of the best offensive teams in the league for two years now and one that probably still has a chance to get better.

Winnipeg fans waited a long to get an NHL team back, and for six years the team they were given was just a rebranded version of the Atlanta Thrashers that just happened to be playing in a different city.

It’s taken a long time, and a lot of patience, but they finally have a team that is worth getting excited about and a team that might actually be worthy of being labeled as a contender.

Adam Gretz is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @AGretz.

NHL, NHLPA agree on protocols to resume season

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The NHL and NHL Players’ Association agreed Sunday on protocols to resume the season, a major step toward the return of hockey this summer.

Deputy Commissioner Bill Daly told The Associated Press there was an agreement on protocols for training camps and games and the sides are still negotiating an extension of the collective bargaining agreement, which is crucial to the process.

A person with knowledge of the situation said the return-to-play protocols would only go into effect if each side votes to approve the full package of the CBA extension and return-to-play agreement. The person spoke on condition of anonymity because CBA talks are still ongoing.

To complete a return, two-thirds of the league’s board of governors and majorities of the players’ executive committee and full membership must vote in favor.

If everything is ratified, it will end a pandemic-forced shutdown that began in mid-March. Games would resume in late July or early August with 24 teams taking part in an expanded playoffs, finishing with the Stanley Cup being awarded in October.

The agreement was first reported by TSN.

The 47 pages of protocols outline the health and safety measures the league and players agreed to after several weeks of negotiations. Any player has until 5 p.m. EDT on Tuesday to notify his team if he’s choosing to opt out of participating in training camp and games.

For those playing, each team is limited to 30 skaters and an unlimited amount of goaltenders for camp and total roster of up to 31 players for games. Each team is limited to 52 personnel in its game city, a group that must include two trainers, a doctor and compliance officer in addition players, coaches and management.

They are expected to be quarantined from the general public during play at least for the qualifying and first two traditional playoff rounds. Family members will be permitted to join when play is moved to one city for the conference finals and Stanley Cup Final.

All team and league employees plus hotel, restaurant and arena staff coming in contact with players will be tested daily in the two ”hub” cities.

One player’s positive coronavirus test result is not expected to shut down play entirely. The league has said it would isolate any player or staff member who tests positive, acknowledging an outbreak would threaten the remainder of the season.

”The players will be pretty well-protected from being exposed,” Montreal Canadiens owner Geoff Molson said during a conference call in June. ”It’s going to be a completely different way for you all and us watching hockey and being around a team because players will be really well protected throughout the process.”

The protocols include a provision for Commissioner Gary Bettman in consultation with NHLPA executive director Don Fehr to postpone, delay or cancel games in the event of a COVID-19 outbreak.

Assuming the protocols are approved, teams are expected to open training camps July 13 before traveling to the two hub cities for games. Players have been able to skate and train off-ice in voluntary, small-group workouts since June 8 – nearly three months after hockey was halted March 12 with 189 regular-season games remaining.

Returning for the playoffs is seen as a stirring victory for the NHL, which like other top leagues faced the prospect of losing millions more without the television revenue tied to the postseason. There were deep concerns about canceling the rest of the season and word of positive tests didn’t help: 26 players since June 8, in addition to almost a dozen before that.

Boston defenseman Matt Grzelcyk called the positive test results ”eye-opening” but expected. A few players expressed concerns in recent weeks about the uncertainty surrounding a return.

”We have obviously a unique situation right now,” Montreal goaltender Carey Price said. ”The NHL and the NHLPA are trying to make the best of a very difficult situation. Moving forward I’d like to play, but we have a lot of questions that need to be answered and a lot of scenarios that need to be covered.”

If the protocols and an CBA extension cover those scenarios for enough owners and players, there will be a path forward to hand out the Stanley Cup. Only twice since 1893 has the Cup not been awarded: in 1919, when the final couldn’t be completed because of the Spanish flu pandemic, and 2005 when the season was wiped out by a lockout.

Seven hockey players suspended in Belarus match-fixing case

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ZURICH — Seven ice hockey players have been suspended during an investigation into match-fixing in the Belarus league.

The players — five from Belarus and two from Russia — told a domestic investigation they were paid to help arrange the outcome of a game in November, the International Ice Hockey Federation said on Friday.

“During the investigation, each of the players also admitted that they had agreed to exert an unlawful influence on the outcome of the game in exchange for illegal remuneration,” the governing body said in a statement.

The IIHF said its disciplinary board had taken over the case “for further review and sanctioning.”

The case involves Dynamo Molodechno’ losing to Mogilyov 6-5 in a Belarus Extraliga game.

The players have been suspended from taking part in any competition organized by the IIHF or its member federations.

PHT Morning Skate: NHL vs. viruses; Flat salary cap pain = Avs’ gain?

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Welcome to the PHT Morning Skate, a collection of links from the NHL and around the hockey world. Have a link you want to submit for the PHT Morning Skate? Email us at phtblog@nbcsports.com.

Lafreniere, COVID-19 hockey concerns, and how Avs may benefit from a flat salary cap

• Rank Maple Leafs goalie Frederik Andersen among those expressing some misgivings about playing amid the COVID-19 pandemic. [TSN]

• Breaking: Alexis Lafreniere is not a defenseman. In all seriousness, a look at some Maple Leafs possibilities … which might be complicated at No. 1 because of that positional point. Maybe? [Pension Plan Puppets]

• Speaking of those Maple Leafs, Buds fans are not pleased about the idea of a possible flat, $81.5M salary cap. There are teams who might take advantage of this situation, though. Here’s why the Avalanche could be one of those teams. [Mile High Hockey]

• A look back at the NHL’s “rivalries” with viruses. Does the history of the NHL’s dealing with such issues — even the Mumps — be a cause for concern amid COVID-19 outbreaks? [Arctic Ice Hockey]

• Earlier this week, PHT selected the best landing spots for Alexis Lafreniere. What about getting even more specific? Andrew Berkshire shared his picks for some of the lines that would benefit most from adding the consensus No. 1 pick to their left side. [Sportsnet]

Other hockey links

• Sean Gentille put together an oral history for the Jean Claude Van Damme masterpiece “Sudden Death.” If you haven’t heard of the candidate for “so-bad-it’s-good” designation, how about the elevator pitch: “Die Hard at a hockey game.” [The Athletic (sub required)]

• On face value, this article focuses most on Rudy Gobert and Novak Djokovic and athletes feeling invulnerable to COVID-19. But it’s a really good read for hockey fans, players, and executives as cautionary tales with a return-to-play picking up steam. [The Score]

• Joe Pelletier of Greatest Hockey Legends wonders why the bar is set so high for goalies to get into the Hockey Hall of Fame. Not an awful point when you consider that they play the most important position in the sport, and all. I wouldn’t mind Ron Hextall making a future cut, to name just one worthy goalie. [Greatest Hockey Legends]

• Five crossovers between hockey and Todd McFarlane. Yes, the “Spawn” guy. [PuckJunk]

• Taking a run at putting together the Sabres’ roster during the upcoming offseason. It gets elaborate, including potential trades. Yes, this scenario includes trading away Rasmus Ristolainen. Don’t they all? [Die by the Blade]

James O’Brien is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.

Our Line Starts podcast: NHL, NHLPA nearing agreement; hub cities, Olympics, CBA

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Liam McHugh, Keith Jones, and Patrick Sharp react to the reports that the NHL and NHLPA are nearing the completion of a massive agreement that would not only cover this year’s Return to Play protocols, but also serve as an extension to the Collective Bargaining Agreement. The guys discuss Edmonton and Toronto emerging as hub city favorites, as well as what it would mean for the NHL to return to the Olympics. Plus, a breakdown of the Qualifying Round series in both conferences.

Start-4:45 Edmonton, Toronto new hub city frontrunners
4:45-8:45 NHL, NHLPA nearing CBA extension, including Olympic participation
8:45-13:00 Other return to play details
14:00-23:00 Eastern Conference Qualifying Round preview
23:50-End Western Conference Qualifying Round preview

Where else you can listen:

Apple: https://itunes.apple.com/us/podcast/id1482681517

Stitcher: https://www.stitcher.com/podcast/nbc-sports/our-line-starts

Spotify: https://open.spotify.com/show/7cDMHBg6NJkQDGe4KHu4iO?si=9BmcLtutTFmhRrNNcMqfgQ

NBC Sports on YouTube: https://www.youtube.com/nbcsports