It is tough to be an afterthought for an NHL team in Canada, and yet that’s how it feels for the Winnipeg Jets. They don’t belong to any of the other blocks. They are not in the Atlantic Division near Toronto or Montreal, and even the Ottawa Senators enjoy more limelight caught between the two. They don’t fit with the three Pacific Division teams that either have Connor McDavid, are reflected by him, or constantly complain about teams like the Canucks (even though they are really good this year!). The Jets are just stuck in the middle in the flyover country of this nation.
And yet, the Jets are Canada’s best team. In fact, they are currently the best team in the NHL, with a top score of 56 points and the league’s best points percentage at 0.718. If one listens closely, one might hear some peculiar chants and dances happening in the NHL offices in New York, and especially in the office of Gary Bettman, who is already working to keep the Jets out of the Stanley Cup Finals for viewership reasons. But then that might be a pretext not to raise the salary cap as high. We shall see.
Part of the reason the Jets are here is thanks to Connor Hellebuyck, who might be having his best season in his already fairly successful career. He ranks sixth in the league in save percentage (0.921) and first in overall goals saved above expected (15.6, two more than the next player, according to MoneyPuck.com). Hellebuyck has been one of the league’s best goalies for years, and before the season, it was widely assumed the Jets would have to trade him, given his free agency after this season and prospects for the year were middling at best. But then Hellebuyck signed a seven-year extension at a rate of $8.5 million per year, a kind of deal for the Jets considering how much value Hellebuyck brings, and it seems to have made a difference that he didn’t have to think about it. He will be the number one for the USA in every tournament that finally gets the league going in the years ahead.
Perhaps the difference between just making the playoffs and sitting atop the league for the Jets is their backup player, Laurent Brossoit, who has been as strong as Hellebuyck in ten starts. Brossoit has a save percentage of 0.920. He showed in his first stint with the Jets six years ago that he is an outstanding backup, and had a brilliant cameo last year with the Knights before succumbing to injury in the playoffs. The Jets don’t give away points when they need to give Hellebuyck a rest.
But the Jets are not just about goalkeepers. They have one of the deeper groups of forwards. Mark Scheifele does his usual thing at the top, Nikolaj Ehlers does his usual thing, being one of the best unsung forwards in the league, and Kyle Connor does his usual thing, racking up a ton of goals (17 in 26 games before getting injured) that somehow fly under the radar (he scored 47 two seasons ago, and we bet you didn’t know that).
The depth of the Jets has been weakened by a rookie and a trade. The rookie is Cole Perfetti, who may get extremely sheltered shifts but is supposed to anchor the second line when he isn’t needlessly bashing heads with Ryan Hartman, an off-center science project. The trade gave Pierre-Luc Dubois the exit he desperately wanted, and shifted his still somewhat unknown potential to Gabe Vilardi and Alex Iafallo in LA. Vilardi missed some time due to injury, but has accumulated 17 points in 21 games while moving up and down the lineup. Iafallo was a solid forward doing the same and gave the Jets three lines that can damage opponents. Jets fans might also rejoice in the fact that the perennially grumbling Dubois has only 16 points for the Kings so far. Add long-time analytic darling Nino Niederreiter, forming a hellacious third line with Adam Lowry and Mason Appleton, getting the Jets out of their zone time and time again.
The depth continues on defense, where Josh Morrissey is one of the best puck movers in the league on the top pair (and you probably didn’t know that, but it’s true), and summer pickup Nate Schmidt does what he was hired to do, be one of the best puck movers in the league on the second pair. They make sure the Jets come out with possession of the puck most of the time from their own zone, and set them into the rushing mode that they love attacking from.
And everything seems real. There is actually no one getting overwhelmed at the Jets, and even if they withstand some injuries, they have the chance to save them on free nights. The Central suddenly looks open as the Avs have a pretty big hole behind their top line, and the Stars have a goalie and two forwards.
Sure, Scheifele has a habit of losing his way in the playoffs. Other than making the conference finals in 2018, this is a core of players who have made it a habit of spitting in the first round if they haven’t just missed out on the playoffs. But that was also a core of players who deeply detested then coach Paul Maurice, and maybe there is more comfort with Rick Bowness. This is not a team that cracks under the pressure of leadership, between Scheifele and now deeply rejuvenated Blake Wheeler, who gets to ride into the sunset with the Rangers. They are talented in goal and have depth in both attack and on the blue line. Perhaps Canada needs to pay attention in May after all.
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