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

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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

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    Golden Knights captain Mark Stone undergoes back surgery

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    LAS VEGAS — Vegas Golden Knights captain Mark Stone is out indefinitely after undergoing back surgery in Denver, the club announced.

    The Knights termed the procedure as successful and that Stone “is expected to make a full recovery.”

    This is the second time in less than a year that Stone has had back surgery. He also had a procedure May 19, 2022, and Stone said in December this was the best he had felt in some time.

    But he was injured Jan. 12 against the Florida Panthers, and his absence has had a noticeable effect on the Knights. They have gone 1-5-2 without Stone, dropping out of first place in the Pacific Division into third.

    Stone is second on the team in goals with 17 and in points with 38.

    Devils associate coach Andrew Brunette charged with DUI

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    DEERFIELD BEACH, Fla. — New Jersey Devils associate coach and former Florida Panthers head coach Andrew Brunette was arrested in South Florida while driving home from a bar in his golf cart, authorities said.

    Brunette, 49, was pulled over just blocks from the ocean in the Deerfield Beach area, north of Fort Lauderdale, according to a Broward Sheriff’s Office arrest report. He was charged with one count of driving under the influence and two counts of disobeying a stop or yield sign. Brunette was released on $500 bond.

    The Devils said in a statement that the team was aware of Brunette’s arrest and gathering additional information.

    According to the arrest report, a deputy was in the process of giving Brunette’s illegally parked golf cart a ticket around midnight when Brunette walked out of a nearby bar and told the deputy he was about to leave. The deputy said Brunette seemed unsteady on his feet and slurred his speech, and when he was joined by his wife, the deputy said he overheard the wife tell Brunette not to drive while the deputy was there.

    The deputy remained in the area and reported watching the couple drive away about 17 minutes later, according to the report. The deputy said he watched the golf cart run two stop signs before pulling Brunette over on a residential street about a mile away from his home. According to the report, Brunette had difficulty following instructions during a field sobriety test before eventually quitting and asking for an attorney. He also declined to take a breathe test to measure his blood-alcohol level, officials said.

    Online jail and court records didn’t list an attorney for Brunette.

    Brunette is in his first season as associate coach of the Devils. He was interim coach of the Florida Panthers last season after taking over when Joel Quenneville resigned for his connection to a 2010 Chicago Blackhawks sexual abuse scandal.

    The Panthers fired Brunette after they lost in the second round of the playoffs last spring despite him leading them to the Presidents’ Trophy as the league’s top team during the regular season.

    The Sudbury, Ontario, native played 1,159 NHL games for Washington, Nashville, Atlanta, Minnesota, Colorado and Chicago from 1995-2012. He was a Wild assistant in 2015-16 and worked on Florida’s staff from 2019-2022.

    Stars aligned with new coach DeBoer, Nill-constructed roster

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    DALLAS — General manager Jim Nill sensed things were coming together for the Dallas Stars even before the season started with new coach Pete DeBoer and a roster mixed with proven veterans, up-and-coming young players, and even a teenaged center.

    At the NHL’s All-Star break, after 51 games together, these Stars are leading the Western Conference.

    “Every year you start, you put a team together, and there’s always going to be question marks,” said Nill, in his 10th season as the Stars GM. “You have ideas how you think you’re going to come together, but there’s always the unknown. . This year has been one of those years where right from the start, you could just see everything was kind of jelling.”

    The Stars (28-13-10, 66 points) have their trio of 2017 draft picks that just keep getting better: All-Star winger Jason Robertson, goaltender Jake Oettinger and defenseman Miro Heiskanen. The seemingly ageless Joe Pavelski, at 38 and already re-signed for next season, is on the high-scoring top line with Robertson and point-a-game winger Roope Hintz. Wyatt Johnston, their first-round pick in 2021 and half Pavelski’s age, has 13 goals.

    There is also the resurgence of six-time All-Star forward Tyler Seguin two years after hip surgery and 33-year-old captain Jamie Benn, who already has more goals (19) than he did playing all 82 games last season.

    The Stars have a plus-40 goal differential, which is second-best in the NHL. They are averaging 3.37 goals per game, more than a half-goal better than last season when they were the only team to make the playoffs after being outscored in the regular season. They are also allowing fewer goals, and have improved on power plays and penalty kills.

    “Where we sit at this break, I think guys are happy with that,” Seguin said, before being asked the keys to the Stars leading the West and on pace for a 100-point season with their new coach.

    “Our style, our team speed, our puck speed, being predictable. All the clichés, knowing where the puck’s going. Really how we play the five-man unit,” he said. “Our pace this year, it’s been a lot quicker. There’s been some solid depth scoring this year while we’ve got one of the best lines in hockey.”

    The Stars went into the break on their only three-game losing streak of the season, all 3-2 overtime losses at home.

    “Those aren’t real losses,” said DeBoer, who twice has gone to the Stanley Cup Final in his first season with a new team. “I’m happy where we’re at. I like how we’re playing.”

    Plus, Dallas won’t have to worry in the playoffs about 3-on-3 hockey, which has been the only real stain on their season so far. Only one team has more than its 10 losses after regulation.

    “We’ve played a lot of good hockey. We’ve made a lot of good strides in our game,” DeBoer said. “We still have another level we have to get to when we get back, but there are a lot of good things that have happened. They’ve worked to have us where we are right now in the standings. Good spot to be in.”

    The Stars have 31 games left in the regular season. The first four after the break at home, like the last four before their week-long hiatus.

    Robertson’s 33 goals rank sixth in the NHL, and the 23-year-old has the same number of assists while averaging 1.29 points a game even after he missed most of training camp before signing a four-year, $31 million contract. Pavelski has 48 points (14 goals, 34 assists) while playing every game, and Hintz 46 points (20 goals, 26 assists) in only 43 games.

    Oettinger, who is 21-7 in regulation, has a .923 save percentage and 2.26 goals against average since signing his three-year, $12 million contract. That deal came after 223 saves in a seven-game playoff series against Calgary last May, capped by 64 in the series finale that went to overtime.

    Nill said Robertson’s production has improved even with the league adjusting to the high-scoring forward, and that Oettinger is proving to be one of the league’s best goalies. But they are just part of what has been a tremendous team effort.

    “They kind of had that mojo right from the start, and it was kind of this team’s got the right mix,” Nill said. “It’s come together well, and it’s shown in the standings. It’s been good to watch.”

    Canucks’ Ilya Mikheyev to have season-ending knee surgery

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    VANCOUVER, British Columbia — Vancouver Canucks right wing Ilya Mikheyev is set to have season-ending surgery on his left knee.

    Canucks general manager Patrik Allvin said Friday night the 28-year-old Russian forward tore the anterior cruciate ligament in his left knee in the team’s first preseason game Sept. 25. Mikheyev will undergo surgery next week and is expected to be ready for training camp in the fall.

    Mikheyev was originally listed as week-to-week with the injury and played 45 regular-season games, finishing with 13 goals and 15 assists. He scored in his final appearance Friday night, a 5-2 home victory over Columbus.

    Mikheyev signed a four-year, $19 million contract as a free agent last summer.