Playoffs or bust. That's the bare-minimum reality facing the Winnipeg Jets as they prepare to drop the puck Thursday night on a new NHL campaign.
The foundation remains intact, as Kevin Cheveldayoff resisted any urge to go all Mike Holmes this off-season and carry out an extreme makeover in his attempt to construct a Stanley Cup winner. Instead, the ever-patient general manager opted for more subtle changes — a fresh coat of paint here, some vintage drapes there and a bottle or two of WD-40 for good measure.
Now we're about to get a good look at a rather familiar finished product and find out whether a team that was supposed to be built for long-term success, only to come up painfully short the past two seasons, can keep a championship window that once seemed wide open from slamming shut in their faces.
Which is why the 10th year of Jets 2.0, which begins at Bell MTS Place with a juicy revenge game against the Calgary Flames, might just be the most fascinating one yet, with pundits around the hockey world picking Winnipeg to finish anywhere from first to sixth.
Pressure is mounting, eyes around the country will be on Cheveldayoff's club on a nightly basis as part of the all-Canadian division, and anything short of a top-four finish must be considered a failure. Such is life when you spent to the US$81.5-million salary cap ceiling, have one of the best top-six forward groups in the league, and are home to the NHL's reigning Vezina winning goaltender.
On paper, the Jets still have plenty of tools to make another lengthy run, like the one they did back in that magical spring of 2018. But the game is played on ice, and Winnipeg has been trending in the wrong direction ever since.
First came a one-and-done in 2019 against the eventual Stanley Cup champion St. Louis Blues, a series that punctuated a bizarre late-season collapse. That was followed by last summer's hasty elimination round exit against Calgary in the Edmonton bubble, which had many around here calling for wholesale changes.
It seemed like we might be going that way, too, especially with a public trade request from Patrik Laine's agent. But Cheveldayoff, as he is prone to do, stood pat. The Finnish sniper is still here, saying all the right things about being motivated for perhaps his biggest season yet, one he hopes will lead to a big payday when his contract is up after this season.
Paul Stastny is back, too, hoping to turn back the clock and re-capture the chemistry he had with Laine two years ago. Along with Mark Scheifele, Kyle Connor, Nikolaj Ehlers and Blake Wheeler, this team should be able to score goals in its sleep.
But keeping pucks out of their net, and not throwing Connor Hellebuyck to the wolves on a nightly basis, has to be the top priority.
Veteran depth forwards Nate Thompson and Trevor Lewis, and defenceman Derek Forbort, represent Cheveldayoff's bargain-basement attempts to address holes in his lineup through free agency while also getting more size and experience in his lineup, which head coach Paul Maurice told me Wednesday was "critically important" in his eyes.
The combined price tag for the trio was a paltry US$2.5 million. By comparison, the Vegas Golden Knights will pay their big free agent fish, defenceman Alex Pietrangelo, US$8.8 million this season.
Cheveldayoff didn't have that kind of money to spend, not without getting out the jackhammer and drilling into the core of his club. But going slow and steady in an attempt to win the race could come with a heavy cost if some of the same old issues quickly start reappearing. The hope is the new additions will help with some of the heavy defensive lifting that is done by players such as forwards Adam Lowry, Andrew Copp and Mathieu Perreault and defencemen Dylan DeMelo, Tucker Poolman and Nathan Beaulieu.
To me, it's not the few new faces, but rather the highest-paid returning ones, who will ultimately write Winnipeg's story.
If they are to compete with Toronto, Montreal, Edmonton, Vancouver and Calgary, they'll need continued development from their most important players, both up front and on the blue line, and a committed buy-in to better overall team play, which can be a tough sell on offensive-minded skaters who love padding their stats.
And so the likes of Laine, Ehlers, Connor and Scheifele, all a year older and more experienced, must raise their two-way games, along with Josh Morrissey and Neal Pionk on the back end. Hellebuyck needs to be Hellebuyck again. Wheeler and Stastny need to fight off Father Time. And emerging young skaters such as forwards Jansen Harkins, Mason Appleton and Kristian Vesalainen and defencemen Sami Niku, Ville Heinola and Dylan Samberg must make the most out of whatever opportunity comes their way.
There's also the issue of luck, something the Jets could use a little help with. Everything that could have gone wrong last season seemingly did, from Dustin Byfuglien's shock retirement and Bryan Little's career-ending injury to Scheifele and Laine getting injured in the first game of the playoffs.
If you believe in that sort of thing, perhaps the Hockey Gods have something a little kinder in store this season. Of course, Ehlers being a question mark for the opener tonight after missing Wednesday's practice due to COVID-19 Protocol Related Absence — get used to hearing the CPRA. term a lot this season — doesn't exactly inspire confidence, does it?
I've got the Jets finishing fourth and just sneaking into the post-season during what should be a fascinating sprint to the Stanley Cup finish line between now and early May. There are no perfect teams this year in Canada, which only adds to the intrigue. Other than rebuilding Ottawa sitting in the basement, this division really does feel like a crapshoot one through six. One bad week could be devastating.
The backyard might not be as neat and tidy as it was a couple years ago, but there's still lots to like about the Jets. As Cheveldayoff said on Wednesday, expectations are "very high." As they should be.
Fail to meet them, and we might just see something around here that is as rare as a blockbuster trade or splashy free-agent signing — a full-scale housecleaning.
Mike McIntyre grew up wanting to be a professional wrestler. But when that dream fizzled, he put all his brawn into becoming a professional writer.