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Photo Credit: James Carey Lauder-USA TODAY Sports

JGD 1.0: Three storylines heading into 2021-22 season opener

The time has finally come, after finishing last season on a sour note, hockey is back for the Winnipeg Jets and there’s no hiding the fact they have very high hopes in 2021-22.

While the Jets may not receive much attention from the national media, anyone who covers them regularly knows just how crucial this season is expected to be – so why not start strong out of the gate, right? Well, if this team is going to start 1-0, they’ll first need to surge past the rebuilding Anaheim Ducks, who finished last in the West Division in 2020-21.

On paper, this appears to be a pretty favourable matchup for Winnipeg, but as captain Blake Wheeler reminded us, hockey is played on ice – not a sheet of paper. With John Gibson in goal, Cam Fowler and Josh Manson on the backend, nothing should be taken for granted against these Ducks.

They’re not as mighty as they once were, but they could still steal a victory if provided the chance. In saying that, they’re nowhere near as talented as this Jets’ roster, particularly up the middle of the ice.

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So without further delay, here are three storylines to keep an eye on heading into the 2021-22 season opener:

Cole Perfetti Making His NHL Debut 

In a shocking development, especially because of who coaches this team, forward Cole Perfetti is set to make his highly-anticipated NHL debut during Winnipeg’s season opener in Anaheim.

Given coach Paul Maurice’s history with younger skaters, it seemed like Perfetti’s chances of breaking camp with the team were very slim, but with Mark Scheifele completing his four-game suspension from last season, that’s seemingly opened the door for the 19-year-old.

Though Scheifele’s absence from the lineup is probably one of the main reasons behind this outcome, there’s no denying the former first-round selection from the 2020 NHL Draft has rightfully earned this opportunity. While the 5’10” forward only registered one assist in exhibition action, his impressive creativity and hockey IQ were on full display throughout the pre-season, allowing him to stand out among the competition.

Providing the youngster with somewhat of a safety net, Perfetti is expected to be positioned on the wing alongside veteran Adam Lowry, who should serve as a strong mentor for the talented left-hander. Even though the Ducks likely won’t prove to be an overwhelming matchup, if for some reason they do, the 28-year-old will be able to help support his young winger whenever he requires it.

It remains to be seen if Perfetti will stay with the Jets beyond the season opener, regardless of what comes next, it’ll be crucial to savour this moment and prove why he should participate in more than just a handful of NHL games in 2021-22.

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New Test For Winnipeg’s Revamped Blueline 

After making a pair of improvements on defence over the off-season, including the acquisitions of Nate Schmidt and Brenden Dillon, Winnipeg’s newly-formed backend is slated to face its biggest test yet as this unit prepares to make its regular-season debut.

As currently constructed, the Jets’ blueline, at least to start the game, is expected to look as follows:

Josh Morrissey – Schmidt

Dillon – Neal Pionk

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Logan StanleyDylan DeMelo

Now, the Ducks are by no means an offensive juggernaut, as they averaged the fewest goals per game (2.21) in 2020-21, so this matchup could be exactly what the Jets’ defence needs to start strong on a positive note. In fact, it wouldn’t be surprising if goaltender Connor Hellebuyck enjoys a fairly quiet evening through all three periods.

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If the top two defensive pairings can continue building off the chemistry they each created during the pre-season, particularly the relationship Morrissey and Schmidt have formed, this top-four group could be in store for a very successful performance at the Honda Center.

Connor Hellebuyck Embarking on Fifth Straight Season as the Jets’ Starting Netminder 

Coming as no surprise to anyone – it’d be a major shock if there was a drastic change in goal – Hellebuyck is embarking on his fifth consecutive campaign as Winnipeg’s starting netminder. But with an improved defence in front of him, this season might finally be the one where he won’t be required to carry this team every night.

Considering the 28-year-old has by far faced the most shots against (3,130), high-danger shots against (907) and has recorded the highest expected goals against (271.2) among all goaltenders in the league since 2019-20, according to NaturalStatTrick.com, he could benefit from significantly less pressure in 2021-22.

Though nothing significant should be taken away from the pre-season, it was difficult to ignore the fact that Hellebuyck didn’t encounter a ton of action through three exhibition contests, as he faced fewer than 20 shots per game during 5-on-5 situations. Granted, all of this could change once the regular season opens, however, the additions of Schmidt and Dillon are already having a huge impact early on.

At this rate, Hellebuyck’s biggest concern all season might be finding a way to stay in rhythm if he endures long stretches without touching the puck, which is usually always a nice problem to have.

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