WINNIPEG — They set a franchise record in wins, won their first playoff game in the team’s existence and stamped a ticket to the Western Conference Final for good measure.
But if you ask the Winnipeg Jets captain Blake Wheeler, a man coming off a career-year with 91 points and a shiny, new five-year, big-money contract extension to show for it, it all means very little.
“We didn’t accomplish anything last year,” Wheeler said as he stood in front of his locker room stall at Winnipeg’s practice facility earlier this month. “Making the playoffs was certainly a hurdle for this group. It was something that we desperately needed to accomplish for some of that verification of what I was talking about before. When the puck drops this season, it’s not going to be Game 1 of the Western finals again. There’s a long road to get back to where we got last year and it doesn’t happen just because we want it to happen or we think we’re better than everyone else or because we had a good year last year.”
There’s a lot to unpack, particularly in that first sentence alone.
In one sense, Wheeler is right.
Ultimately, in the National Hockey League, if you’re not first, you’re last.
Banners aren’t raised for second place.
In that vein, the Jets accomplished nigh last season. They made waves but ultimately fell short of the goal, like every team that made the Stanley Cup Playoffs minus one, the Washington Capitals.
For the Vegas Golden Knights, their second-place showing will only be remembered because of its rarity (you know, the best expansion team ever stuff). Otherwise, second place gets forgotten in the annals of hockey history. No one remembers, nor cares, about who finished second.
But you can’t just brush aside what the Jets did last season — 52 wins is a lot of wins (only Nashville and Tampa had more); 114 points is a lot of points (only Nashville had more).
There’s more, too: A young goalie who re-invented himself over the summer before going on to win 44 games and finish second in Vezina voting. A captain who turned in an elite career year. A second-year sniper that had 44 goals and would have likely had more if he his stick didn’t catch a cold as the regular season drew to a close.
Winnipeg didn’t take the ultimate step but they certainly began their ascent on Lord Stanley’s mountain. They are, simply, a bona fide Cup contender in what’s often regarded as the toughest division in hockey and arguably the strongest conference in the NHL.
Wheeler is both right and wrong at the same time.
One thing is certain though: repeating success is hard.
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As big as last season was in Winnipeg, and by the same token, as important as it was for the organization, the coming 2018-19 season has even more riding on it.
Expectations are undeniably higher.
The Jets showed a lot of good things last season.
When Mark Scheifele missed 16 games with an upper-body injury, instead of crumbling, Winnipeg responded with an 11-2-3 record with their No. 1 center out of the lineup. Wheeler stepped in to play Scheifele’s role and the rest of the team fell in behind him as the team thrived amid the adversity.
A young Jets team took much of what came their way last season in stride. Blemishes were few, and they have to be to win 52 games. The Jets didn’t lose three straight in regulation until the Conference Final.
But resting on their laurels would be a massive mistake.
“In our minds, we can’t rest on what we did last year,” Scheifele said. “Obviously, we had a good year, there’s going to be expectations, but at the end of the day it takes a whole lot of hard work, it takes a lot of things to go right, and we have to start here. It’s Day 1… we have to be ready for a lot of hard work, to play fast, to play our game and get ramped up for the season.”
Now, Winnipeg doesn’t have the excuse this season of being that inexperienced playoff team. They went pretty deep last season, playing (and winning) a Game 7, and also feeling the heartbreak of defeat. They know what it is to lose now and, more importantly, they caught a glimpse of what it takes to win.
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The Jets set the bar last season.
And for that bar to get to where it did last season (and beyond), a lot of things needed to go in Winnipeg’s favor.
Wheeler’s monster season. Laine’s ascendance to the NHL’s goal-scoring pantheon, Kyle Connor’s emergence after leading all rookies in goal scoring. Hellebuyck’s evolution. Winnipeg’s resilience.
All important to last year, surely. But the coming season?
“All the things that went into last year are built yearly,” Jets head coach Paul Maurice said on Friday. “We have some talented players, we lost some talented players, so we start to build a season again. Even if you win the Stanley Cup, and we’ve seen it in the past, if you don’t start a training camp and build again from ground zero, you’re going to miss the playoffs in this league when you’re in our division and in our conference. All the things that went into the final two months of the season, all the good was built over the course of the year and it’s going to have to happen again.”
Maurice knows this all too well.
In 2002, he guided the Carolina Hurricanes to the Stanley Cup Final, eventually losing to the Detroit Red Wings in five games. The next year, the Hurricanes went from first in their division to fifth, missing the postseason.
In 2008, and back behind the bench in Raleigh, Maurice led the Hurricanes deep again, this time to the Eastern Conference Final where they were swept by the Pittsburgh Penguins. The next season, the Hurricanes missed the playoffs again with another sub .500 season.
“It changes,” Maurice said. “Every year your circumstances are different than the year prior, so for this year, specifically, [we] did not change training camp. All the things that we needed to improve on have to be [improved on] and it goes with that message. It’s not so much that we’re starting at ground zero. I know said that, I’m not sure that’s 100 percent accurate. We believe in our team, we’ve got some good players here.
“But the grind that you have to go, the price that you have to pay has to be paid every year regardless of your talent. And that’s the message.”