They know what you think of them: “The Winnipeg Jets? They’re a so-so team with some exceptional talent that can’t seem to take that next step and make the NHL playoffs.”
Jets captain Andrew Ladd has heard that, read that and is acutely aware of the opinions piling up outside the team’s dressing room.
In the two seasons since the NHL’s return to Manitoba, the Jets have played to adoring crowds. They’ve won games, but never enough to be a postseason entry. For season 3, they need to do much more and as the team gathers in Banff, Alta., this weekend for a three-day session before the start of the regular season, there will be much internal talk of what has to happen next.
“This is a league where our group isn’t one that people think of [when it comes to top-end teams]. They don’t give us enough credit and that’s motivation for us,” said Ladd, Winnipeg’s leading scorer last season, when it missed the Eastern Conference playoffs by four points. “Going to Banff before the season opener will be a good time to discuss team things. We’ll start to focus on our identity and goals.”
The Jets have been a tough group to read. They’re much like Dustin Byfuglien, the sometimes-brilliant, sometimes-bad defenceman/forward whose inconsistency can baffle or infuriate. Or maybe the Jets are like Evander Kane, the undeniably skilled forward who is still finding his way around the NHL. And for all the individual talent they can put on the ice at one time, how come the Jets had the NHL’s worst power play last season?
Those questions and concerns are what they must address.
“We’ve had the changeover from Atlanta [in 2011], a new coaching staff, new management. We’re trying to play the way that they envisioned,” Ladd said. “We still have to find our identity. We need to be a team that uses its speed and plays a checking game. We want to be in people’s faces. We want to be a hard group to play against.”
That was something Jets management worked on with its off-season moves, the most notable being the trades for scoring winger Devin Setoguchi and the ever-useful Michael Frolik. Setoguchi should give Winnipeg a stronger second line to take the pressure off the No. 1 trio of Ladd, Bryan Little and Blake Wheeler. Frolik, meanwhile, is everything the Jets need: A savvy forward who can assume a checking role, yet has some offensive jam.
Plus, coming from the Stanley Cup champion Chicago Blackhawks, Frolik understands what it takes to win. He scored 10 points in the Blackhawks’ 2013 title run.
The Jets are also looking for the emergence of Mark Scheifele, who, at 20, may now be poised enough to elevate his game and centre the second line, which he did through parts of the preseason. Asked what would best suit his skills, Scheifele told reporters: “I’m prepared to play any role. You have to adjust to playing with different players and playing against different lines. The quickest people that adjust are the people who make it.”
Jets head coach Claude Noel followed that by saying Scheifele was “an offensive player and he always will be, but he should look at the way he needs to play, because the roles change.”
Staying healthy on defence would benefit the Jets in the Western Conference this season, a switch-over that will reduce travel hardships. Operating some nights without Zach Bogosian, Tobias Enstrom and Byfuglien hurt at both ends of the ice. But if the defence can stay healthy and the forwards can make themselves tougher to skate against, then maybe the Jets can finally earn the praise that has eluded them.
It’s what the players will be talking about in Banff.
“That’s what everyone looks for – the respect that comes from making the playoffs,” said Ladd, who won a Stanley Cup with Chicago in 2010. “That’s why management values guys who come from winning organizations.
“For us, we have a lot of guys who have never had a chance to experience playoff hockey. And it’s different because it’s just pure fun.”