Getty Images

Despite their ascendance, Jets know nothing will come easy this season

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.

* * *

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.

[Can Patrik Laine score 50?]

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.

* * *

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.”

[Jets Day: Under PressureBreakthrough | Three Questions]

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.”

Scott Billeck is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @scottbilleck

PHT Morning Skate: Stars make a wish come true; price for Nyquist, Howard

Flyers / Twitter
Leave a comment

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

Mike McKenna has made Gritty a part of his new mask with the Philadelphia Flyers.

• The Tampa Bay Lightning are on course for a deep playoff run if they can stay out of their own way. [The Score]

• Want to trade for Gustav Nyquist or Jimmy Howard? You better be willing to fork over at least a first-round pick to the Detroit Red Wings. [MLive]

• Columbus Blue Jackets fans will have to soon come to the realization that life without Artemi Panarin and Sergei Bobrovsky is coming. [Columbus Dispatch]

• The St. Louis Blues have underachieved all season long, yet they’re still in the Western Conference playoff picture. [St. Louis Dispatch]

• Life as an Edmonton Oilers fan: “Every day, fans live in fear Chiarelli might trade away another Taylor Hall, Jordan Eberle, etc. for a lesser talent. Ever day, Edmonton fears he might trade away a developing talent or high draft picks, as was the case involving Griffin Reinhardt.” [Edmonton Sun]

• There’s still plenty of season left, but the Montreal Canadiens are showing growth. [Habs Eyes on the Prize]

• This is definitely the low point of Phil Housley’s tenure with the Buffalo Sabres. [Die by the Blade]

• How David Rittich has helped save the Calgary Flames’ season. [ESPN]

• A look at the Flames’ salary cap situation as the trade deadline approaches. [Flames Nation]

• Examining these New York Islanders through 45 games. [Lighthouse Hockey]

• The Islanders penalty kill looks to be turning a corner. [Islanders Insight]

• Finally, the Dallas Stars and the Make-A-Wish Foundation teamed up to make 10-year-old Anderson McDuffie’s dream come true. Anderson, who was diagnosed with a congenital heart disease after being born and has undergone two open-heart surgeries, was part of a team that played against Stars players. [Stars]

————

Sean Leahy is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @Sean_Leahy.

The Buzzer: Couturier’s first hatty; Duchene sticks it to Avalanche

Getty Images
2 Comments

Three stars

1. Sean Couturier, Philadelphia Flyers

Couts, as some call him, notched his first career hat trick in a 4-3 win against the Boston Bruins on Wednesday Night Hockey. Obviously, that’s a great feat for him, but he also helped the Flyers win consecutive games for the first time since Dec. 20, so it was also good for the team that has been mostly in nose-dive mode this year.

Couturier has 19 goals now on the season. A special mention here goes to Carter Hart, the Flyers netminder, who stood tall, stopping 39-of-42 sent his way in a game where the Flyers were outshot 42-19.

Priority No. 1 in Philly is making sure Hart gets some help going forward.

2. Matt Duchene, Ottawa Senators

Duchene stuck it to his old team in a 5-2 win against the Colorado Avalanche.

The 28-year-old, who the Senators badly need to re-sign, scored twice in the game put it out of reach and added an assist on the game-winner.

Duchene has 20 goals on the year now, the seventh time he’s done that in his 10-year NHL career.

3. Jack Eichel, Buffalo Sabres

The Sabres needed this one.

Stuck in a three-game slide, the Sabres were quickly falling down the Eastern Conference standings. And having to play the Calgary Flames, with five straight victories heading into Wednesday — and on the road to boot — wasn’t an easy task.

But Eichel scored with 1:10 into overtime to give the Sabres a much-needed win. The Sabres captain has 16 goals on the year now and 51 points after adding a third-period assist on rookie Rasmus Dahlin‘s fifth.

Highlights of the night

Couturier made the hats fly in Philly:

No panic in Panik:

Get over here!

Ullmark’d:

Chabot threads that needle:

Factoids

Scores

Senators 5, Avalanche 2
Flyers 4, Bruins 3
Sabres 4, Flames 3 (OT)
Oilers 3, Canucks 2 (SO)
Coyotes 6, Sharks 3


Scott Billeck is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @scottbilleck

Ducks make a hat trick of deals Wednesday as re-tooling continues

Getty Images
2 Comments

When you’ve lost as many games in a row as the Anaheim Ducks have recently — and you’ve publicly backed your head coach — the only thing left to do is throw a stick of dynamite into the locker room to shake things up.

That’s precisely what Bob Murray has done over the last several hours (and the past couple of days). In fact, at the time of writing this, the top three posts on the Ducks’ website are three media releases involving trades. Scroll a little further down, and another trade appears.

That’s four trades in the span of three days. You can’t say Murray isn’t trying (although the debate will rage on whether these trades really move the needle at all).

The Ducks acquired center Justin Kloos from the Minnesota Wild for winger Pontus Aberg late Wednesday afternoon. Kloos, who has only played in one NHL game this season (and the rest in the American Hockey League for Iowa) led the Wild’s farm team in points and was tied for the most goals.

Aberg, meanwhile, has been a healthy scratch recently after initially showing well to start the season. Alas, his 11 goals and eight assists were cutting it, even if he was near the top of the Ducks’ scoring leaders.

[RELATED: Ducks get younger, ship Cogliano to Stars for Shore]

Michael Del Zotto was watching the Vancouver Canucks lose 3-2 in a shootout to the Edmonton Oilers when he was beckoned by Murray in exchange for fellow defenseman Luke Schenn and a seventh-round draft pick in 2020.

Del Zotto was a healthy scratch on Wednesday, something he’s been quite a bit this season. Schenn, meanwhile, has spent most of the season playing for the San Diego Gulls in the AHL.

And the last trade of the day brought a familiar face back to the west coast.

Forward Derek Grant returns to Anaheim after signing with the Pittsburgh Penguins as a free agent in the offseason. Grant played in 66 games last season with the Ducks, scoring 12 goals and adding 12 assists.

In 25 games with the Pens, he found the back of the net just twice, adding three helpers.

The Ducks sent center Joseph Blandisi the other way. Blandisi was a sweetener in the Adam Henrique-for-Sami Vatanen trade between Anaheim and the New Jersey Devils last season. He only played six games with the Ducks since arriving last winter, an has no goals and no points in those games.

Murray made his biggest splash on the first deal he made on Monday, sending Andrew Cogliano to Dallas for Devin Shore.

MORE: Who has the inside track in the Western Conference wildcard race?


Scott Billeck is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @scottbilleck

Coyotes end Sharks unbeaten run to start 2019

Leave a comment

And then there were none.

The last team to avoid losing in 2019 has now lost. The Arizona Coyotes took advantage of San Jose Sharks team playing the second half of a back to back in a 6-3 win on Wednesday Night Hockey on NBCSN, snapping the Sharks seven-game unbeaten run to begin the new year.

The Coyotes looked solid in the game, unlike a team in their lowly position in the Western Conference. The Sharks looked tired at times, despite a late-game push that briefly put them within a goal of tying the game.

Lawson Crouse and Richard Panik gave Arizona a 2-0 lead inside the first five minutes of the game. Panik’s goal proved to be of added significance for the Coyotes, as it was their 12th shorthanded goal of the season to establish a new franchise record.

The scoring frenzy continued, with Kevin Labanc pulling the Sharks within one at 6:53 of the opening frame. But Arizona emerged from the break and fired two more past Aaron Dell, who got the start after Martin Jones engineered a 22-save performance in a 5-2 win against the Pittsburgh Penguins on Tuesday.

Dell saw 38 shots in the game, ending with 34 saves.

Darcy Kuemper got the start for Arizona, stopping 26-of-29 and has now won four consecutive starts.

Evander Kane Logan Couture brought the Sharks to 4-2 with less than five minutes left in the third, but an unwarranted penalty from Timo Meier (and a horrible giveaway from Erik Karlsson) allowed Alex Galchenyuk to seal it. Josh Archibald flung in an empty netter with less than a minute to go and that was that.

Arizona has been on a bit of a role, despite getting thrashed 7-1 by the Calgary Flames on Sunday. They had won three straight before that and now have wins in four of their past five to keep them within four points of the final wild card in the West.

The Sharks remain two points back of those Flames for tops in the Pacific Division. Calgary has a game in hand and lost to Buffalo in overtime on Wednesday.


Scott Billeck is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @scottbilleck