Bank­ing on youth no sure thing

De­spite plethora of tal­ent, Jets wait­ing to take next step since re­turn to Win­nipeg

The Province - - SPORTS - Ed Willes SPORTS COM­MENT

When they first re­lo­cated to the frozen tun­dra from Atlanta, the Win­nipeg Jets were greeted by the un­con­di­tional love of an en­rap­tured fan base.

That was the good news and con­sid­er­ing the Jets had been gone for 15 years, it was un­der­stand­able. The prob­lem was af­ter years of mis­man­age­ment in Hot­lanta, the Jets didn’t have a lot to of­fer their wildly en­thu­si­as­tic sup­port­ers and very quickly those fans did what all fans do when things go sour. They clam­oured.

The ob­ject of their fas­ci­na­tion was Mark Scheifele, the Jets’ first draft pick who the team twice sent back to ju­nior while the team sucked. Why, rea­soned the Win­nipeg cognoscenti, should we be watch­ing Kyle Well­wood and Tim Sta­ple­ton when we could be watch­ing the fu­ture of the fran­chise to­day.

Their en­treaties were not lost on gen­eral man­ager Kevin Chevel­day­off, who had com­mit­ted to a longer-term vi­sion for his team. Two full sea­sons af­ter he was drafted, Scheifele would get his op­por­tu­nity with the Jets.

Now, at the ripe old age of 24, he’s con­sid­ered one of the 10 best play­ers in the NHL. And the les­son?

“Ev­ery player is dif­fer­ent,” Chevel­day­off said. Yes, we were afraid he’d say that. “You can’t say he was drafted there and that means he should be here in this amount of time,” Chevel­day­off said be­fore the Jets met the Van­cou­ver Canucks on Thurs­day night. “It doesn’t work that way.

“Not ev­ery­one’s path is the same. We were pa­tient for two years when peo­ple were say­ing, ‘Why aren’t they play­ing Mark Scheifele?’ As hard as it was to make those de­ci­sions, you still have to make them and it’s based on a lot of dif­fer­ent fac­tors.”

This much he knows. This much the Canucks are find­ing out.

The Jets, like the Canucks, have com­mit­ted to build­ing through youth and the draft, but un­like the lo­cals have started to reap the re­wards of their pa­tience.

Their lineup fea­tures the afore­men­tioned Scheifele, who has 121 points in his last 108 games and, but for Con­nor McDavid, would be an Art Ross can­di­date this sea­son; Pa­trik Laine, a 50-goal scorer in the mak­ing; the elec­tric Nik Eh­lers; and young blue-lin­ers Ja­cob Trouba and Josh Mor­ris­sey. All are 24 and un­der and rep­re­sent the kind of front-line tal­ent around which a Stan­ley Cup con­tender can be built.

But for the Jets and ev­ery team that starts down the draftists’ road, the process of tak­ing the next step is the tricky part. And you just have to look at the NHL stand­ings to un­der­stand build­ing a win­ner isn’t as easy as ac­cu­mu­lat­ing draft picks.

Of the league’s 31 teams, 16 can loosely be de­scribed as young and built through the draft. Granted, there’s room for in­ter­pre­ta­tion here, but just start tick­ing those teams off and you be­gin to un­der­stand this is the league’s pre­vail­ing zeit­geist.

You also be­gin to re­al­ize the Canucks are prob­a­bly a cou­ple of years be­hind the times.

The Jets, for ex­am­ple, boast as­sets of which the Or­cans can only dream. What would the faith­ful give to have a player like Laine in the lineup or Eh­lers? I mean, the Canucks are hav­ing a hard enough time get­ting Brock Boeser and Jake Vir­ta­nen into the lineup.

As men­tioned, this is a com­pli­cated process

But the Jets are also fac­ing a new set of prob­lems this year, prob­lems that un­der­score the dif­fi­culty of evolv­ing from in­trigu­ing in­genues to le­git­i­mate power. Their goal­tend­ing re­mains a ques­tion mark. Their bot­tom six is in need of an up­grade. There is the on­go­ing ques­tion over the suit­abil­ity of hav­ing Dustin Byfuglien as your team leader in min­utes played.

The Jets, we re­mind you, are also way ahead of the Canucks in their de­vel­op­ment. This year they hope they can make the play­offs by aug­ment­ing their ros­ter and shoring up their goal­tend­ing with Steve Ma­son and Con­nor Helle­buyck.

The Canucks’ hope is one of their young prospects turns into a Scheifele or an Eh­lers be­fore they can con­sider the next phase.

“We’ve tried to es­tab­lish that young core, lock it up and build around it,” said Chevel­day­off. “The mo­ment you start sign­ing play­ers to seven-, eight-year con­tracts, play­ers who’ve es­tab­lished what they are, that’s where things re­ally start.

“It’s not the one-year deals where you’re chang­ing this guy or that guy af­ter each sea­son. Your team starts to grow and that core has to ex­pand, but it doesn’t hap­pen un­less you give those guys the op­por­tu­nity to play.”

As to when that op­por­tu­nity should oc­cur, Chevel­day­off can’t of­fer any eter­nal truths. He just knows it takes time and pa­tience and even then, there are no guar­an­tees.


De­spite be­ing the fran­chise’s first pick in Win­nipeg, the Jets waited for Mark Scheifele to de­velop be­fore mak­ing him a full-time NHLer, a les­son that could come in handy for the re­build­ing Canucks.

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