The Winnipeg Jets have twelve more regular season games before the seasons end. But the season is already over. Far away from playoff contention and Lords Stanley. The Jets essentially have twelve exhibition games coming up. Twelve games to evaluate the future and to see what they have out of some of their prospects - time to see who is apart of this teams future and who is not.
But if you think about, despite the playoff berth in the previous season, this year was always directed at the future. Lets go back to September. Coming in to the season, by the looks of training camp right off the bat people knew this was going to be a different hockey team. It was a younger team which brought lots of uncertainty. Last years trade deadline acquisitions Jiri Tlusty and Lee Stempniak were not retained and Michael Frolik walked in Free Agency. Later, Stempniak revealed e wasn't offered a spot due to the team wanting to "go in a younger direction". Stempniak got a PTO with the Devils and went on to have a great season while being paid close to the league minimum. That was a slip up and the idea of going younger wasn't received well early, but Lee Stempniak would not change the outcome of this season. The Jets wouldn't be a bubble team just because of Lee Stempniak. So lets through that narrative out of the window.
No time for "shoulda, woulda coulda" talk.
Going in a younger direction shot the Jets in the foot right off the bat. They brought Nic Petan and Andrew Copp in to the fold too early. Petan was sent down 14 games in to his NHL career. While Copp has stayed with the big club for the duration of the season, you could make the argument he could have benefited from a year in the AHL before making the leap to the show.
The Jets did not put out a competitive hockey team this season but that's in the past. The entire year served as an evaluation period. The Jets are in the basement of the NHL standings and this year they have been a painful hockey team to watch. But that doesn't mean there hasn't been bright spots that suggest a better future.
The Manitoba Moose might have been horrendous as well, but this all doesn't discard the fact this organization has some talented youngsters that are brewing. A handful of the Jets top prospects have been impressing with the Moose. Chase De Leo, Nic Petan and Josh Morrissey have had impressive seasons with the Moose. While Scott Kosmachuk and J.C Lipon have impressed enough to earn lengthly call ups with the team.
Looking on the big club, how can we not talk about Mark Scheifele? It might not seem like he's a young guy anymore, but at the age of 23 he still hasn't even hit his prime years. When number one centre Bryan Little went down for the year, Scheifele answered the call and took over the reigns as the lead guy down the middle. Scheifele's play has been so impressive, many have wondered; Is Scheifele this teams best centre?
How about Nikolaj Ehlers? The teenager's rookie year was pretty great if you think about it. Ehlers small and slender frame didn't stop him from making a profound impact as a rookie. While recording 13 goals and tallying 31 points in his rookie season, Ehlers provided that he is wise beyond his years. His vision and hockey IQ has been very impressive. In the 5 drafts this Jets brass has had, Ehlers presents a certain "wow" factor that will make fans mouths water when he has the puck on his stick. Do the Jets have a future star on their hands?
Goaltending has been an up and down roller coaster for Jets fans over the last 5 years. Sure, there have been spurts of stellar play from each of their net minders, Ondrej Pavelec and Michael Hutchinson. But neither has proved to be consistent enough to hold down the fort. Brewing in the system the Jets have Connor Hellebuyck and Eric Comrie. In the brief stint Hellebuyck spent with the club, he was the teams best goaltender. Posting a 13-11 record while playing behind a really lousy team, Hellebuyck bailed the Jets out and captured a W when the team didn't deserve to win. Hellebuyck was a star in the NCAA and despite the limited time he spent in the AHL early on, he was still given the nod for the AHL All-star game. Hellebuyck was also named to the u23 team for the World Cup. Signalling the notion he is one of the games best young goaltenders. His understudy for the Moose, Eric Comire boasts a promising future as well. He was given recognition as an AHL All-star just like his counterpart while filling in for Hellebuyck.
Could the Winnipeg Jets have a star goalie in either of the two?
How about the Jets best prospect not in the NHL? Kyle Connor. The Michigan freshman has really high odds of taking home the NCAA hockey's most prestigious individual award, the Hobey Baker. Connor led the nation in scoring with 61 points in 34 games while being named Big 10 Conference Player of the Year and Freshman of the Year. Could the speedy winger turn pro at the end of this season? Can he live up the high praise that he's been given?
The Jets are going to finish the season with high draft lottery odds. They will likely land a top 5 pick and if they do, that's another highly touted prospect that they can add to their fountain of youth. In a deep draft year like this years, any player that gets selected in the top 5 has the potential to change the team's fortune very quickly. Do the Jets land Auston Matthews? Do they land one of the Fins? Could this be the star that they need to take them over the hump?
What about the young guys they have brought in to the fold that the team didn't originally draft. Could Joel Armia or Marko Dano build off what they have already shown this year and unlock their potential? They both have the skill to be solid players, can they do so with the Jets?
There's lots of If's buts and maybes with this team. Any sight of glory with this team is stapled with the word " potential". Not every prospect pans out. But prospects are like buying a lottery ticket. The ticket can turn in to the grand prize just like the prospect can turn in to a super star or whatever their potential is. The more tickets you buy the higher chance you have at winning a lottery ticket. Not all of the Jets young guys will turn out, but chances are high a handful of them can turn in to the players they are supposed to be.
Jets fans should proceed with cautious optimism heading in to the offseason. The rebuild might not be as gruelling as advertised. One of those lottery tickets could minimize the pain and accelerate the rebuild.