WINNIPEG, Manitoba (AP) — Not many people, if any, expected the Winnipeg Jets to have one of the NHL’s best teams this season.
Vegas Golden Knights assistant general manager Kelly McCrimmon was one of the few.
The former owner, general manager and coach of the Western Hockey League’s Brandon Wheat Kings said he watched Winnipeg play 20 times last season, giving him a peek at what was to come.
”It was pretty easy to see that it was going to happen,” McCrimmon said. ”This year, certainly it has.”
The Jets earned 114 points during the regular season, trailing only Nashville.
Winnipeg advanced in the playoffs for the first time since moving from Atlanta in 2011. The Jets lost only once to Minnesota in the first round, and eliminated the top-seeded Predators on the road in Game 7 of the second round.
The Jets clearly looked like the better team in a 4-2 win Saturday night in Game 1 of the Western Conference finals against Vegas, the darling of the NHL in its expansion season.
Suddenly, Winnipeg might have the best chance of winning the Stanley Cup, especially if it wins Game 2 at home on Monday night (8 p.m. ET, NBCSN).
The Jets have a pair of fantastic lines up front along with two solid ones and a strong group of defenseman led by Dustin Byfuglien , and 24-year-old Connor Hellebuyck has been one of the best goaltenders this postseason.
How has a franchise, which has largely been an afterthought in the league, gone from finishing fifth or worse in its division the previous three seasons to having one of the world’s best hockey teams?
”They put on a clinic in drafting and developing,” McCrimmon said. ”Along with that, great patience and leadership from Mark Chipman as an owner.
”What they did takes time.”
Unlike other NHL teams, which fire general managers and coaches if they don’t quickly have success, the Jets have allowed general manager Kevin Cheveldayoff to build a championship contender since hiring him in 2011 when they left Atlanta. He was just 20 games above .500 in his first five seasons as Winnipeg’s GM, and its only previous postseason appearance in 2015 lasted just four games against Anaheim.
Coach Paul Maurice, likewise, was afforded the opportunity to lead the team for fourth-plus season this year. He made the most of it by helping the Jets go 52-20-10 during the regular season.
But ultimately, it comes down to having talented, unselfish players, and the Jets have plenty.
When Winnipeg had high draft picks, as it often did as a struggling team, it didn’t miss.
Patrik Laine, a 20-year-old winger, was drafted second overall two years ago and is one of the league’s best young players. He had 70 points in the regular season and scored his fourth goal of the playoffs in Game 1.
Mark Scheifele, selected No. 7 overall in 2011, leads all postseason scorers with 12 goals and has averaged more than a point per game the past two seasons. On the back end, defenseman Jacob Trouba has been exceptional in the playoffs as the franchise hoped he would be eventually after taking him No. 9 overall in 2012.
The Jets have also hit on some late-round picks, including Hellebuyck, whom they took No. 130 overall six years ago.
”Hit home run after home run in the draft,” captain Blake Wheeler said . ”A lot of our marquee players are guys we drafted and have taken huge steps in the last year or two to be impact players.”
Winnipeg didn’t draft its best player, Wheeler, but the franchise acquired him from Boston in a trade while it was in Atlanta in 2011 and has built around him. That same year, the Thrashers took advantage of Chicago’s need to get rid of salaries by dealing for Byfuglien.
And like the front office and coaching staff, it seems the players were patient about the process of slowly building a winner when the team moved to Canada.
”We weren’t coming here expecting to blow the doors off right away,” Byfuglien said. ”We knew it was going to be a process of building and finding the right group of guys.”
But when it looked like the Jets had a shot to contend this season, they were willing to give up a first-round pick to St. Louis just before the trade deadline to add veteran center Paul Stastny to chase the Stanley Cup. And now, they might just be the team to beat.
”The story of Winnipeg and the Jets, for far too long, has been about being underdogs and underrated,” Winnipeg Mayor Brian Bowman said. ”But not anymore.”
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