WINNIPEG — Flipping the calendar will be a welcome respite for the Winnipeg Jets.
Simply put, the Jets didn’t experience a whole lot of joy in 2020.
Whether it was the departure of long-time defenceman Dustin Byfuglien becoming official with the mutual termination of the final two years of his contract in April or an early exit from the qualifying round series against the Calgary Flames, the Jets endured ample disappointment.
If bowing out in four games to the Flames wasn’t frustrating enough, the Jets had Mark Scheifele at their disposal for only three shifts, while Patrik Laine and Mason Appleton also suffered injuries that knocked them out of the post-season.
A new season brings with it a fresh perspective and a sense of optimism for the Jets, who believe they’ve bolstered their defence corps after dealing with massive turnover in 2019-20, and addressed the second-line centre spot by bringing back Paul Stastny.
Will the off-season moves translate into success as the Jets move into the All-Canadian Division for this compressed, one-off sprint to the finish?
That remains to be seen, but a new campaign on the horizon also provides a platform for predictions, and here are three bold ones for 2021:
1. Connor Hellebuyck will repeat as the Vezina Trophy winner
Some may view this as me staying on the safe side of the predictions pool, but here’s the counter argument to that: Nobody has won the trophy for top goalie in the NHL in consecutive seasons since Martin Brodeur accomplished the feat in 2006-07 and 2007-08.
That was in the midst of a remarkable run that saw Brodeur capture the Vezina four times in five seasons and repeat twice — with Miikka Kiprusoff interrupting the cycle in 2005–06.
The only other goalies to repeat since 1979–80 are Dominik Hasek (1993–94 and 1994–95, and 1996–97, 1997–98 and 1998–99) and Patrick Roy (1988–89 and 1989–90).
Hellebuyck has been nominated for the Vezina twice during the past three seasons, winning it for the first time in 2019–20. There was a good reason Hellebuyck found himself on ballots for the Most Valuable Player award.
In a season where the Jets gave up too many high-danger scoring chances, Hellebuyck displayed a level of excellence that allowed his team to compete almost every night. Since he turned pro, Hellebuyck has not only embraced but flourished in the role of a workhorse.
At a time when many teams are adopting more of a 1A and 1B mentality when it comes to the goalie position, Hellebuyck prefers to start a higher volume of games — and that should serve him well in what is going to be a compressed schedule.
Of course the Jets are going to need some strong play from backup Laurent Brossoit, but Hellebuyck is determined to build off last season and be even better — especially after consecutive early exits from the Stanley Cup playoffs.
That’s part of the reason he should enter as the front-runner to capture the Vezina again.
2. Patrik Laine will adopt the Jacob Trouba mentality
The speculation surrounding the future of the Finnish forward has created much consternation among the fan base, and that doesn’t figure to be going away anytime soon.
If Laine is looking for some historical perspective, he should look no further than former teammate Jacob Trouba.
Trouba is one of the few Jets to take his trade request public, but one thing he did incredibly well in those next three seasons after the contract stalemate was settled was compartmentalize.
He was easily able to separate the business side of the game from the performance side. Instead of dreaming about where he might eventually end up, Trouba worked hard at his craft and pushed to make himself a better player.
By the time the Jets decided a long-term extension was not in the cards (with one season left before Trouba was scheduled to become an unrestricted free agent), the ninth-overall pick in the 2009 NHL Draft had just completed his best year as a pro.
Sure, his point totals benefitted from time on the top power-play unit (thanks in part to an injury to Dustin Byfuglien), but Trouba kept his focus on the ice.
Trouba was ultimately traded to the New York Rangers in the summer of 2019, and instead of going to arbitration, he agreed to the seven-year, $56-million deal he coveted.
It’s been written in this space many times, but the first order of business for the Jets is to find a way to salvage the relationship with Laine.
But if that’s not possible, the onus is on Laine to put together another impressive season that will convince potential suitors he’s worth the acquisition cost and the lucrative, long-term pact he will likely be looking for in the summer of 2021.
Taking another step in his development is essential, and it wouldn’t come as a shock for Laine to inject himself back into the Rocket Richard Trophy discussion this season either.
3. The Jets will qualify for the playoffs
If the pandemic has taught us one thing, it’s to predict the unpredictable.
With so many unknowns going into the new season, it’s hard to get a handle on which teams are going to handle the unusual circumstances best when play resumes.
The creation of this all-Canadian division, even if it’s only for one season, is being welcomed by most with open arms.
It’s also being viewed as a nice change of pace for many.
Much like the Jets are probably happy to get away from the meat grinder that is the Central Division, the Toronto Maple Leafs are likely thrilled to know they won’t be facing the Boston Bruins or Tampa Bay Lightning in the first round of the playoffs this year.
The Pacific Division hasn’t been a walk in the park the past several seasons for the Calgary Flames, Edmonton Oilers or Vancouver Canucks, but each of those clubs believe there is an opportunity ahead to take the next step when it matters most — even if some flaws with their respective rosters remain.
The Montreal Canadiens are being viewed by numerous observers as the winners of the off-season, making a number of significant moves to bolster the roster.
About the only constant when it comes to predictions is that the Ottawa Senators are expected to finish in the basement, even though brighter days are expected not that far down the road.
The crystal ball remains a bit cloudy when it comes to the rest of the division, though.
The truth of the matter is that the Jets could probably finish anywhere from third to sixth and it wouldn’t surprise that many people.
But with a Vezina-calibre goalie, a skilled forward group and an unheralded defence corps that could bounce between adequate and average depending on the level of internal growth, it says here that the Jets will find a way to grab one of the four playoff spots available in the all-Canadian division.
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