Banking on youth no sure thing
Despite plethora of talent, Jets waiting to take next step since return to Winnipeg
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.