It didn’t take long for the reality to set in back in 2011. Winnipeg had been fighting to get the Jets back since the organization relocated to Arizona back in 1996. The Atlanta Thrashers were shuttered following the 2010-11 campaign, and the NHL had finally returned to Manitoba.
This wasn’t a gift wrapped contender like the one Quebec handed Colorado when the Nordiques were turned into the Avalanche though. The Thrashers were one of the most poorly ran clubs in all of professional sports, let alone the NHL. This was a team that managed to trade both Marian Hossa and Ilya Kovalchuk in their primes for a handful of prospects that never panned out and Johnny Oduya.
Those kinds of botches set franchises back years, if not decades. Players like Kovalchuk and Hossa are rare, and the Thrashers managed to secure virtually no valuable assets in return for these all-world forwards. As mismanaged as Atlanta was, there were still a handful of important pieces in place that would eventually push the Jets into the playoffs four seasons later.
That’s a long wait for postseason puck, and you can bet that the local fans are going to blow the roof off of the MTS Center when the Jets take the ice for their first home playoff game. That will be a spectacular moment for a hockey-loving community that has endured a lock of hardship since ’96. Fans never stopped hoping for a return of the Jets, and they didn’t start booing or throwing sweaters out on the ice following a few bad years either.
The Jets’ resurgence has been calculated and simple.
General manager Kevin Cheveldayoff has been at the helm of the team since 2011, but didn’t make an actual player-for-player trade until October of 2014. It’s not very often that a GM has the patience to sit on just about every asset for four years, but that’s what Cheveldayoff did. Moreover, that’s what Cheveldayoff was allowed to do. Everyone that is a part of the Jets’ front office knew plan: build through the draft, home-grow talent and add other pieces if it makes sense.
Take the Evander Kane trade, for instance. That entire situation had the potential to derail all the positive momentum the Jets had going this year. The 23-year-old had a series of episodes with the team, starting as early as October of 2011. Kane never seemed to enjoy playing in Winnipeg, and that finally boiled over in early February this year, culminating in a confrontation with teammates.
— Chris Nichols (@NicholsOnHockey) February 5, 2015
That kind of locker room instability is an awful distraction and makes taking a serious run at the playoffs difficult. We’ve seen teams like the San Jose Sharks implode due to festering personnel issues. Cheveldayoff didn’t let it get to that point, and he moved the disgruntled forward to the Buffalo Sabres by mid-February. He landed an outstanding bundle of assets for the forward too.
TSN calls the Evander Kane-Tyler Myers deal the biggest of the trade season.
— John Vogl (@BuffNewsVogl) March 2, 2015
Along the way Cheveldayoff could have traded futures like Mark Scheifele simply to make the postseason, but he doesn’t just want to make the dance. He wants to compete, and that’s the road the Jets are on. They might be able to win a round or two this year, but their Stanley Cup window is just now starting to creep open. There are still a few weaknesses on the roster, but this should be a consistent playoff team for the next half decade at least.
The Jets are one of the younger teams in the NHL, and none of their core players are older than 30. Dustin Byfuglien and Tobias Enstrom are both 30; the rest foundation are in their 20’s. That’s a good spot for a rebuilding franchise to be in, especially once the pieces start to come together in the form of a postseason run.
This is just the start for Winnipeg too. While players like Blake Wheeler, Andrew Ladd and Mathieu Perreault are getting it done at the NHL level now, there’s a ton of talent coming down the pipeline over the next few seasons. Jacob Trouba and Scheifele are already producing at the professional level, but they are just the tip of the prospect iceberg.
Joel Armia, Nikolaj Ehlers, Nicolas Petan and Josh Morrissey are all on the way and have the talent needed to make an impact with the Jets. Couple that pipeline with one of the best top lines in all of hockey and a defensive group that is only going to improve with experience, and the Jets are poised to contend for years to come.