Don’t call it a funeral.
This is more like one of those “Celebrations of Life” where everyone gets shit-faced and eats a lot of finger foods and laughs and tells stories of triumph and joy in light of a horrible tragedy.
The Winnipeg Jets’ 2017-18 season may be dead, but the team’s hopes as a legitimate Cup contender going forward are very alive and more than well. As many as 25-26 teams across the NHL, hell, maybe more, would take Winnipeg’s situation over theirs in a heartbeat. A young, lethal core of forwards, including Patrik Laine and Mark Scheifele, good salary structure and contracts across the board, strong management, a well-constructed blue line, and a stud in net make the Jets the envy of the Central Division and set the club up to be a force in the West for seasons to come.
They were a meeting with an unexplainable, miraculous expansion team away from reaching its first Stanley Cup final — a bitter pill to swallow for a team that looked to be ready to win it all as soon as this year.
Despite the heartbreaking five-game loss to Vegas in the Western Conference final, however, there’s plenty for Jets fans to lick their lips over as Winnipeg moves forward with one of the best top-to-bottom organizational situations in the NHL.
Patrik Laine could score 700 goals next year. Seriously, though. No one aside from Alex Ovechkin has entered the NHL in the last two decades who can absolutely rip the biscuit like Laine does. He may already be the second-best pure scorer in the NHL, and his absurd ability to fire one-timers from his off-wing combined with an absolutely lethal wrist shot off the rush will only get better as the just-turned 20-year-old matures. Oh, and 80 (EIGHTY) goals through his first two NHL campaigns is a pretty decent start, I think?
Mark Scheifele’s contract might be the best in hockey. The off-the-board, first-round steal in 2011 has developed into Winnipeg’s best player and also, maybe, the most under-paid forward in the NHL — and the Jets will happily take it. The 25-year-old developed into a perennial point-per-game regular-season player before really taking a step forward in the postseason, where he recorded a whopping 14 goals, including 10 at even strength, during Winnipeg’s 17 playoff contests. The best news for the Jets? He is locked up at just $6.1 million per season through 2024.
Kevin Cheveldayoff is at the helm. So, who to credit for the Scheifele pick and subsequent bargain of a contract? Look no farther than GM Cheveldayoff, who has been the central figure in not only assembling this elite roster through mostly drafting and development, but also ensuring the team’s salary structure has not hinder the team’s ability to acquire key pieces at the right time (see Paul Stastny). Chevy was named a finalist for the GM Of The Year award, and would be the hands-down winner if not for George McPhee’s wizardry in Vegas.
That sweet, sweet blue line. Dustin Byfuglien, Tyler Myers, Josh Morrissey, Jacob Trouba, Dmitry Kulikov, and Ben Chiarot. Hook and inject that top-six directly into my veins, please.
Goaltending issues have been solved. There’s no doubt about it, now, Connor Hellebuyck is among the elite. Despite question marks coming into his third season after a substantial dip in save percentage from Year 1 to Year 2, Hellebuyck revamped his training and a lot of his fundamentals before putting up a 44-win, Vezina-nominated season. Just barely 25-years-old and just hitting his stride as a starting NHL goaltender, it looks like the Jets have finally found their permanent answer in the crease.
More young guys ready to step up. With Laine already emerging as an elite player as a barely 20-year-old, the Jets have several others under the age of 23 poised to break out. Nikolaj Ehlers has posted two straight 60-point campaigns, and with the 22-year-old likely to be playing alongside Laine for the foreseeable future, his ceiling is certainly very high. Kyle Connor had an outstanding rookie season with 33 goals, and a highly-touted former first-rounder like Jack Roslovic will no doubt see an increased role starting next season.
Oh, and Hellebuyck, Scheifele, Trouba, Morrissey, Andrew Copp, Adam Lowry and Joel Armia, are all 25 years old or younger, too.