Columnists, Sports

Dropping the Gloves: Winnipeg might actually do something productive this season

It’s hard to believe that the Winnipeg Jets have only been a team in their current iteration since 2011. Ten years ago, they were based out of Atlanta.

Southern teams have had issues with fandom, but the Atlanta Thrashers seemed like they were in a league of their own, not an NHL franchise. When you’re getting a smaller crowd at regulation games than some college teams get for exhibition games, it’s time to make some changes.

The Thrashers made it to the Stanley Cup Playoffs once, in 2007, when they were swept in the first round.

While the Jets had the same fate in the 2015 playoffs, this year could be different. Winnipeg is sitting in second place in the Western division — a notoriously tough place to play in recent years.

Scandinavian invasion

The franchise crossed borders in 2011, but they should be most thankful for their Scandinavian players who crossed the border to play in Canada. Right wing Patrik Laine, left wing Nikolaj Ehlers, right wing Joel Armia and defenseman Toby Enstrom were all born in Scandinavia, but they’re making a significant impact on the growth of the Jets.

Ehlers and Laine were both first round picks for Winnipeg in 2014 and 2016, respectively — and young talent was exactly what this team needed. The Jets were stuck in the shadow of a failed Atlanta team, but they’re finally breaking through with the help of these new Scandinavian additions.

Head coach Paul Maurice has years of NHL coaching experience

Paul Maurice had a lot of work to do when he arrived in Winnipeg. Luckily, he had NHL experience. At 28 years old, Maurice was the head coach of the Hartford Whalers, the second-youngest coach in the league’s history.

When the Whalers moved to Raleigh and became the Carolina Hurricanes, Maurice remained the team’s head coach.

After being relieved of his duties in 2003, Maurice had a brief stint with the Toronto Maple Leafs and their AHL team before returning to Carolina. Then he went on to spend a year coaching the KHL before he was hired by the Jets in 2014.

Experience with Carolina was exactly what the Jets needed. After their move from Atlanta, they were pretty much a new team with a confusing fan base. The original Winnipeg Jets were sent down to Arizona in 1996. Over 15 years later, a new Jets team appeared almost out of nowhere.

Strong captain steering the ship

Blake Wheeler isn’t the best player in the league. He hasn’t won any big awards, and he’s never hoisted the Stanley Cup over his head. But the C on his jersey fits well.

Interestingly enough, Wheeler was originally drafted by Arizona in 2004, the team that was once based out of Winnipeg. After six years, he was traded to Atlanta and played for a year until the whole team moved up to Manitoba.

Winnipeg’s alternate captains have a lot to offer the team too. Center Mark Scheifele and defenseman Dustin Byfuglien are a great combination of young and veteran players to have as alternates. Scheifele knows nothing but the Winnipeg Jets, because he was drafted by them in 2011. He’s young, but he’s a powerful center with good adaptability.

Byfuglien, on the other hand, has other NHL team experience. He was drafted by the Chicago Blackhawks in 2003 and won a Stanley Cup with them in 2010 before being traded to Atlanta at the same time that Wheeler arrived.

What now for the Jets?

The season has just begun, so it’s hard to say who will be the Stanley Cup champion at this point. That being said, the Jets have a great shot at making it to the playoffs, and maybe even the second round. Adaptability is a key component to being a successful team in the NHL.

With other teams in the central division slacking more than usual, this is the season for Winnipeg to be a top-three team in the division, or even in the Western Conference.

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