– The Winnipeg Jets haven’t fully digested it yet.
Forty-eight hours ago they were playing in a fanatical, snow-covered cathedral. The return of the storm, properly adorned the #WPGWhiteout, took hold of the National Hockey League.
Then it was over.
Recently crowned as one of the loudest indoor stadiums on earth, MTS Centre looked anything but a facility hosting competitive theatre Friday afternoon. The ice, boards and glass – gone, along with
the dream of a Stanley Cup in 2015.
From one season to the next, the transformation begins now.
The Jets met with the media one last time today to reflect on the year and to talk about the progression of a team on the rise.
“It was a year of a lot of growth in a lot of different areas,” Blake Wheeler said. “There were a lot of moments where we could have folded and we battled hard all year. Where we stand today, it’s an exciting place to be considering where we’ve been at this time in the past. … This time the last few years, I was mentally and physically drained from the experience. We were a team that was pulling in a million different directions and it was a frustrating thing to be a part of. Now, the resolve we had to get to where we got to… We were in the toughest division in hockey and we thrived. There’s a lot of optimism in this organization now and going forward, we’ve set the benchmark of what it is to
be a Winnipeg Jet. There are high expectations for everyone that’s going to be on this team.”
Wheeler finished the regular season with 26 goals and 61 points before adding a goal in the playoffs. The 28-year-old credits his success this season to maturity and investing himself into the system at both ends of the ice.
“I learned that you don’t have to create a scoring chance or score a goal every shift,” he said, adding that Paul Maurice was an integral part of that. “Playing 200 feet is maybe more important than creating offensive chances every time you’re out there. That goes along with what we’re trying to do as a whole and Paul has had a big part in that, showing what winning hockey looks like. We had
a lot of guys buying into that. I’m no different than anyone else.”
Wheeler will not participate in the upcoming IIHF World Hockey Championship.
“It’s time for me to be a dad again. My real season starts now,” he said with a smile.
Many of the Jets have chosen to rest up instead, especially those with expiring contracts to mitigate the risk factor.
Meanwhile, it was announced earlier in the day that Connor Hellebuyck will represent Team USA at the tournament beginning May 1 in the Czech Republic.
The Jets finished the 2014-15 season with a franchise record 99 points after stringing together a 43-26-13 record in the incredibly difficult Central Division.
The Jets won 16 games and lost only eight in regulation to their division counterparts this season – an impressive stat in and of itself, which has the team brimming with confidence heading into the gauntlet again next year.
“Everyone’s pretty disappointed with how it ended, but at the same time, everyone’s really excited to come back and see what we can do again next year,” said Bryan Little, who led in the team in both regular-season and playoff scoring “It was definitely a battle to get into the playoffs but I think
this team is growing every year and I’m excited to see what it can do for the future.”
Head Coach Paul Maurice reaffirmed that there are no guarantees and that the team will certainly have to “earn it” to get back in the playoffs, but he likes the foundation that’s in place.
“It’s so important that we made the playoffs this year,” he said of establishing the system and, perhaps more importantly, a winning culture. “In general, the players have a far better understanding of where they are supposed to be most of the time, and how they are supposed to skate together. It’s of primary importance that that foundation gets re-established and built
The Jets were tight-lipped about injuries all season, but several players revealed their ailments after conducting their exit interviews with team personnel.
Andrew Ladd, who didn’t take part in a morning skate for several months, played over half the season with a sports hernia. Jacob Trouba played Games 3 and 4 with a broken bone in his left hand. Bryan Little, who missed 11 games with an “upper-body” injury near the end of the year, was revealed to have suffered from dislocated ribs.
Ditto Dustin Byfuglien.
Mathieu Perreault’s lower-body injury was a high-ankle sprain that never truly healed.
“He could play with it, but he felt it,” Maurice said.
Several players will soon be scheduled for off-season surgery.
“I’m astounded at what they are willing to play with and play through,” Maurice said, acknowledging that a “few” players will have their shoulders examined.
FREE AGENT FRENZY
The Jets have 10 players heading to unrestricted free agency on Jul. 1. Among them: Drew Stafford, Michael Frolik and Lee Stempniak, up front.
Stafford, acquired back Feb. 11 as part of the Evander Kane trade, is eager to stay. Asked whether or not Winnipeg and the Jets were a fit for him and his family, Stafford replied: “I’d say so.”
The 29-year-old had nine goals and 19 points in 26 games with the Jets.
“They’re all great guys here and it starts all the way at the top,” Stafford said. “The situation in Buffalo was extremely hard. To be a part of this, it was extremely exciting and I was grateful for the opportunity.”
Wheeler grinned when asked if he’s been campaigning for his linemate to stay.
“I already have,” he said. “Those things are out of our control. As important as he was to our team on the ice, he was equally important in that dressing room. He was a big part of what we did.”
Frolik termed UFA status a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, while Stempniak – who’s already been down that path – firmly expressed his desire to stay.
“I’d like to be back. I like the city and love playing here,” Stempniak said. “It was the most fun I’ve had playing hockey in a few years now. Every game was pressure packed and it meant so much.
To see the way the city got behind us was awesome and Games 3 and 4 here with the fans are certainly ones I certainly won’t forget for a long time.”
Neither will we.
— Ryan Dittrick, WinnipegJets.com