Whether the fates of two star players align with the Winnipeg Jets’ future plans remains to be seen.
Starting goalie Connor Hellebuyck and top centre Mark Scheifele both spoke to the media about playing on expiring contracts after the team’s first on-ice session of training camp on Thursday.
Their focus is on the here and now.
“I have an open mind. I’m not closing the door to anywhere,” Hellebuyck said. “I’m going to look at anywhere that I think can win a [Stanley] Cup, and I know this locker room can win a Cup. That’s been my main goal and my main focus.”
Hellebuyck was drafted by Winnipeg in 2012 in the fifth round (130th overall). He started a league-high 64 games last season and posted a record of 37-25-2 with a 2.49 goals-against average and .920 save percentage with four shutouts.
The Michigan-born netminder won the Vezina Trophy as the NHL’s top goalie in 2020 and was also a finalist last season and in 2018. He signed a six-year, US$37-million contract in 2018.
Scheifele was the team’s first draft pick after the franchise relocated to Winnipeg in 2011 from Atlanta. He led the Jets in goals last season with a career-high 42 and added 26 assists in 81 games. The Kitchener, Ont., native inked an eight-year, $49-million deal in 2016.
“Honestly, it’s not really on my mind, not really,” Scheifele said of his contract status. “You know I have one year left on my deal and I’m here focusing on this team and helping this team succeed and really that’s my one focus.”
Predictions about whether the pair of 30-year-old stars would sign extensions or be traded swirled in the hockey world this summer.
Hellebuyck said the “rumours are crazy” and he’s in no hurry to decide his future.
“I’ve had the unique scenario of being able to have time on my side to really analyze everything and to make sure everything is falling into place the way I want it,” he said. “I’m going to be patient. That was my goal from the start.”
Scheifele also didn’t close any doors on continuing to be one of the faces of the franchise.
“I’ve told them I’m open to staying and I’m definitely open to staying here,” he said. “I’ve been a Winnipeg Jet for, this is my 13th camp, so it’s been a long time.
“Enjoyed every day of it and I’m definitely open to staying.”
The Jets had sat atop the Western Conference in mid-January last season before starting a slide. They only grabbed the second wild-card spot in Game 81 and finished 46-33-3. They were eliminated by the Vegas Golden Knights in five games in the first round of the playoffs.
Hellebuyck likes the roster he’s seeing at training camp.
“At the end of the day I’m just here to win a [Stanley] Cup and we have a good team and I do believe that,” Hellebuyck said. “I see a lot of guys and I see a lot of improvement and I see just a lot of eagerness in this room to improve as a group and really give our all, so I want to be part of that.”
Scheifele is starting camp with a new winger, and the loss of a longtime friend and mentor.
He was close with veteran forward Blake Wheeler, who was put on waivers June 30 so the Jets could buy out the final year of his contract. He then signed a one-year deal the next day with the New York Rangers.
“He was the heart and soul of this team,” Scheifele said of Wheeler. “The amount of broken bones he played with, the amount of amazing plays he made for the team and for us. He was a warrior through and through.
“Obviously it’s tough to not have him here, but like I said before it’s the nature of the beast. I hope he has an amazing year in New York. I wish him all the luck and talk to him here and there as well.”
The Jets traded second-line centre Pierre-Luc Dubois to the Los Angeles Kings for forwards Gabriel Vilardi, Alex Iafollo and Rasmus Kupari.
Vilardi, who had 23 goals and 41 points in 63 games with the Kings last season, is on the right side of Scheifele early in camp. Kyle Connor fills out the top line.
“He’s a great kid,” Scheifele said of the 24-year-old Vilardi. “Loves the game, loves to talk the game. He’s definitely got some jam to him. He’s got a knack for scoring.”