As with any team that features a group of young, emerging players the Winnipeg Jets are bound to endure the ups and downs of a long, hard season that for many is essentially a learning curve.
The roster includes rookies such as freewheeling winger Nikolaj Ehlers and center Nic Petan, who is known for his heroics with Team Canada at the 2014 and ’15 World Junior Championships. With 22-year old Mark Scheifele, who is coming into his own as a dominant center in his third full NHL season, the Jets were the talk of a very tough Central Division early on. Their 7–4 record in October had many believing that, buoyed by young energy, Winnipeg would assert itself among the NHL’s elite teams this season.
But the Jets’ production ground to a halt as they became mired in a six-game losing skid that began with a 3–2 shootout loss to Ottawa on Nov. 5. After an October that saw Ehlers emerge as a Calder Trophy candidate, he’s put up just two points in November. Petan, once a question mark to make the team out of training camp, was in and out of the press box, playing in 14 of the team’s 20 games while averaging only 9:31 of ice time before being re-assigned to the AHL’s Manitoba Moose on Nov. 19. And Scheifele was pointless through the losing streak, which ended the previous night with a 4–1 win over the Canucks, though his physical presence is part of the relentless style of play for which the Jets are known. He was a key contributor in the skid-snapper against Vancouver, breaking his scoring slump with two goals.
Far be it for management to become discouraged with this young squad, however. The psychological bumps and bruises that accumulate during an 82-game grind are part of the curve, and losing streaks are to be expected—though they can be costly considering how competitive the Central Division is.
“It’s something you’re constantly monitoring,” Jets GM Kevin Cheveldayoff says of the team’s young core. “It’s a teaching process each and every day. You understand that there’s a tremendous amount of growth still in their game. You have to look at it and see how much you can give them at different points in time and how much they can take.”
Cheveldayoff says that one of the decisions he and coach Paul Maurice made during the off-season was to give young players a chance to crack the lineup. So the highs and lows of the season present valuable lessons for them. And the Jets have managed to come together as a squad. The resiliency they’re building will prove valuable during the run to the postseason.
“Everyone’s been really helpful on and off the ice,” Petan says of the team’s veterans. “[Scheifele] has been a huge help talking to me about coming into the league and things on the ice that I’m trying to get better at. [Chris Thorburn], my linemate, has also been a huge help. Veteran guys like that have been a huge help.”
Petan and Scheifele both note that there is no divide in the locker room between the two factions. It is interesting that Petan would quickly mention Scheifele as a guiding presence for him, given that Scheifele is only 22.
“Maybe a little bit,” Scheifele says when asked if he’s taken on a mentor-type role. “I’ve been talking to Ehlers and Petan a lot. We’re close in age and I went through a lot of the struggles they went through. I’m trying to help out as much as I can but they’re smart kids who’re learning at the same pace. I’m here to help whenever I can.”
As the Jets try to right the course of their season, they will continue to be a team in transition. More scoring slumps and losing streaks can be expected, but what will matter most is how the Jets recover from them.
“You’re going to make mistakes,” says Petan. “And I think it’s good to make mistakes if you learn from them.”