BY: ADAM FLOUJEH
We here at The Intermission set a New Year's resolution for ourselves to start paying respect to the Jets.
That is, a franchise that at the beginning of the season had questions surrounding its team's culture, the commitment of star players, attendance issues and its place in a top-heavy central division.
After winning one of the most depressing wildcard races in NHL history last season, making the playoffs as the second wildcard team in the west and losing to the eventual Stanley Cup champion Vegas Golden Knights in five games in the first round, the vibes were at an all-time low.
Mark Scheifele’s famous "I just have to know where this team is going” quote felt like a sign the 40-goal scorer was on his way out. The same can be said of Connor Hellebuyck echoing his teammate saying "I don't know what the future of this team's going to look like”.
Fast forward to Oct. 9, 2023, when both Hellebuyck and Scheifele signed seven-year extensions with Winnipeg. Something changed in the atmosphere around the Jets. And the immediate results have been spectacular.
Before losing to the Boston Bruins on Jan. 22, they had a 34-game streak of allowing three goals or fewer in regulation. They also held first place at one point.
Today, the Jets sit third in the Central division with an eleven-point cushion over the St Louis Blues, sixth overall in the NHL (third in points percentage) and third in regulation wins.
Let’s take a closer look into everything that’s gone right for Winnipeg this season.
The play of Connor Hellebuyck
This shouldn’t be a surprise to anyone, but Hellebuyck has continued to be one of the league’s best goaltenders. This season, however, has been a special one even by his standards.
He currently holds a record of 23-9-3 with a .924 SV%, which ties a career-high According to moneypuck.com, the 2019-20 Vezina Trophy winner also currently leads the NHL in Wins Above Replacement, Goals Saved Above Average and Goals Saved Above Expected Per 60.
Hellebuyck has simply been a game-breaker
The -Dubois- Vilardi Trade
I am going to try really hard not to joke about Pierre-Luc Dubois here.
After Dubois informed Winnipeg that he wouldn’t be resigning with the team long-term, he was traded to the LA Kings in June for Gabriel Vilardi, Alex Iafallo, Rasmus Kupari, and a 2024 second-round pick.
Vilardi is an interesting story. He’s dealt with injuries his entire pro career but had a breakout season in 2022-23, scoring 23 goals and 41 points for the Kings. He has missed time again this season for Winnipeg but seems close to returning, which will surely please the Jets.
Adjusting Vilardi’s numbers this season to a full 82-game pace has him projected to score 40 goals and 60 points, a similar point-per-game mark to Cole Caufield who’s projected to score 28 goals and 65 points in 82 games. Iafallo is on pace to score 12 goals and 31 points.
The two have a combined cap hit of $4,437,500 for this season and next. Rasmus Kupari also has a single assist in 21 games at a $1 million cap hit.
Dubois is projected to score 17 goals and 34 points for LA after signing an eight-year, $86 million deal over the offseason.
Winnipeg essentially took a damaged asset in Dubois and used him to bolster the depth of a forward core that already had elite talent like Scheifele, Nikolaj Ehlers and Kyle Connor.
Change in Leadership
Culture and Leadership are overused terms in hockey but Winnipeg were in dire need of a locker room reset.
It was a messy divorce between the Jets and former captain Blake Wheeler. Wheeler was named captain in August 2016, an honour he held until the team stripped him of the captaincy in September 2022. He was bought out in the final season of a five-year $41,250,000 million contract this past summer.
Winnipeg then named lifetime Jet Adam Lowry captain. From the outside, it was a strange decision to hand the C over to a player who has a career-high of 36 points but Jets fans and teammates alike praised the decision.
As an outsider, a moment that shows Lowry's character is this post-game moment when he gave Jets head coach Rick Bowness the game puck after Bowness’ return to the team following a medical emergency involving his wife.
Players who want to be Winnipeg Jets
Winnipeg has had problems recruiting players in the past. This year, instead of sulking about it, they’ve built around players who want to be in Winnipeg.
Their captain is a lifer, they retained one of the best goalies in hockey and their first-line centre and they brought back Laurent Brossoit – who played for the Jets from 2018-2021 – fresh off a Stanley Cup win to lighten Hellebuyck’s load. Brossoit and Hellebuyck have made up one of the league’s best tandems, posting a combined .925 SV% and allowing a league-low 108 goals against.
In addition, Josh Morrissey, their anchor on defence, is signed long-term, Nino Niederreiter also extended for three more seasons. The players are ready to be Jets and win as Jets.
The Sean Monahan Trade
Two days after the Pacific Division-leading Vancouver Canucks acquired centreman Elias Lindholm from the Calgary Flames, Winnipeg responded by making a major trade of their own. They sent their 2024 first-round pick along with a conditional 2027 third-round pick to the Montreal Canadiens for centre Sean Monahan.
His 13 goals and 35 points in 49 games for the Habs along with his two-way play and effectiveness playing the bumper position on Montreal’s first powerplay unit have all factored into the 29-year-old showing he still has gas in the tank after a couple of tough seasons in Calgary.
Adding a left-handed centre who has a 55 percent on faceoffs and can mix scoring with tackling key matchups sends a message to Winnipeg’s locker room and fans that Winnipeg management are rewarding their team and think this year could be something special.
A team that seemingly had no identity coming into this season has reestablished itself as one of the heavyweights of the Western Conference and in a season where the Stanley Cup is wide open, the Jets could make magic.