WINNIPEG - It's everyone's least favourite day of the hockey season - the first one with no hockey at all.
The Winnipeg Jets had their annual exit meetings on Sunday, and it began bright and early at MTS Centre after closing out the 2016-17 campaign with an emotional victory only 10 hours earlier.
With the win, the Jets finished the year on a franchise record seven-game winning streak, and with a 40-35-7 overall record, giving them 87 points - a nine-point improvement over last year.
While the team won't be playing past the first week in April for the second straight spring, they feel they've taken the right steps to ensure that won't be the case at this time next year.
"It's always disappointing to end a season," said captain Blake Wheeler, who scored the winning goal Saturday.
"You always have high hopes coming in and these things seem to fly by, so it's never a good feeling when you're packing up your stuff. You think about another missed opportunity, but we ended on a high note so I think guys are thinking positive about the direction we're heading in."
Everyone, including the first-year captain, had a realistic outlook on things. But after seeing what they were capable of, and the kind of weapons they had at their disposal very early on in the season, it became clear this was not a 'rebuild.' In many ways, he says, that added to the disappointment of a lost year, because when the potential rose within the dressing room walls, so, too, did the heartache of being right there, but on the wrong side of many close games.
"We came in not knowing what to expect," Wheeler said. "We were so young and so there was a little patience with everyone coming in, not knowing what we were going to look like or what we were going to be as a team. That changed over the first month of the season, seeing some of our young guys step in and see success early on. For me, it made me feel like we weren't maybe as far behind or we weren't rebuilding as much as we thought we were going to be. That was exciting. The injuries hurt us, our schedule hurt us a little bit at the start of the season and when you play catch-up, it just makes it tough.
"That's the disappointing part of the season - it feels like an opportunity wasted because I don't see many teams more talented than we are now. We definitely have some flaws and some holes we need to fill in, but on a night-to-night basis, with a young team like that, I never thought we were overmatched."
Video: Condensed Game: Predators @ Jets
The improvements over the last half season, especially, were significant. In their final 32 games, the Jets were nine games over .500 at 19-10-3, thanks in large part to their envious offensive firepower, a simple, 60-minute game plan and a renewed commitment to team discipline.
By no means was it perfect. But after a crippling 25-29-4 start, it helped show what this team is capable of, and what it could be poised to accomplish next fall.
The Jets, who were one of the youngest teams in the NHL this year, needed time to mature.
Eight players - all but one in the 24-and-under age group - set new career highs offensively and have shown no signs of letting up as they enter their second, third and fourth NHL seasons.
ON THE MARK
The poster boy for Winnipeg's rapid offensive development is, who else, but the first pick in the 2.0 era, Mark Scheifele. The 24-year-old logged his first-career 30-goal season, and finished with more than a point per game with 82 (32G, 50A) in 79 appearances, and is now officially a Top 10 scorer in the NHL.
"The season went pretty well personally," Scheifele said. "I felt like I became a better player each and every game. It's going to be a good summer and I'm going to come back better and stronger."
Video: YEAR END | Mark Scheifele
His 82 points are 21 more than last year, and many figured that to be his breakout campaign.
Still, even today, he's far from satisfied.
"You've got to come back with a sour taste in your mouth. Not making the playoffs is something that we can't just accept. You've got to go home and say, 'Hey, what can I do to be better for not only myself, but for the team as well?' That's something that I reflect on is what I can do to make my teammates and my linemates better, and to make this team a playoff team. We all have to go back with that attitude."
Is 100 a possibility next year, or sometime soon down the road? It certainly looks that way.
Only time will well.
TIME TO HEAL
A staggering 349 total man games were lost to injury this season, and while they were commonly referred to as upper or lower-body ailments during the season, the severity of those injuries was out on the open on Sunday.
Video: YEAR END | Toby Enstrom
Toby Enstrom missed the end of the season due to knee surgery, Mathieu Perreault had a back issue that caused him to miss 14 games, and Tyler Myers described his season as "weird and emotional" after a groin injury resulting from his hip surgery kept him out of game action for a total of 66 games.
"What we think happened was I had been dealing with a bad hip for so long that when I got that done it created a lot more range for me and I ultimately ended up tweaking my groin," he said. "Things are definitely heading in the right direction. I'm feeling a lot better now."
Video: YEAR END | Tyler Myers
Shawn Matthias spoke about the labral tear in his shoulder that he's had for 11 years, dating back to the World Under-18 tournament in 2006. It had slowly been getting weaker, but the fight with Cody McLeod on Mar. 13 was the last straw.
"It's not fun fighting a guy like Cody McLeod with your dominant arm out of it's socket," said Matthias, who still has to wear a sling for a bit longer. "It could have been worse. He could have clipped my chin and maybe I would have had a concussion and a bad shoulder. I got away from it lucky."
Video: YEAR END | Shawn Matthias
On top of that, Matthias also tore his MCL and patella in his left knee on Nov 1, leaving him sidelined for two months. But the first injury he sustained came in the first preseason game, when he tore muscles off his ribs and "cracked" the end of his ribs off.
"It's a brutal way to start the season," he said. "I'm excited to get back next year, show the fans, my teammates, and the coaching staff what I can actually do."
It's not a stretch to call this season a 'youth movement.' The Jets had players 25-and-under play 910 total games this campaign, second only to the Carolina Hurricanes. That number is 100 clear of the third-highest team in that category, the Toronto Maple Leafs.
Video: YEAR END | Jacob Trouba
"These guys are growing up fast. They're becoming leaders on their own," said Bryan Little. "Some of the best players on our team are the youngest. I think they need to grow up fast and become leaders, and I think they're doing a good job of that."
Three of the team's top scorers fall into that 25-and-under category: Mark Scheifele (82 points), Nikolaj Ehlers (64), and Patrik Laine (64).
Video: YEAR END | Patrik Laine
Captain Blake Wheeler's 74 points made the Jets one of only two teams in the league to have four players over the 60-point mark. While Laine may have led the team in goals with 36, he said the captain was a big reason for it.
"Blake, as a captain, he was an amazing guy. He was helping me a lot," said Laine. "I learned a lot from the first day of training camp until the last day of the regular season. There is a lot of improvement in that timeline. I think there are a lot of things I still need to learn. There's a lot of time to learn."
Josh Morrissey had a similar experience on the blue line in his rookie NHL season with Dustin Byfuglien.
"Coming in at the start of the season, he kind of took me under his wing," said Morrissey. "If you make a mistake he really is able to 'water off a duck's back' with you. That gives you a lot of confidence and makes you feel really comfortable. When you feel that way, it's easier to play better."
Video: YEAR END | Josh Morrissey
Ehlers saw his offensive production jump 26 points over last season's 38. He says the mix of youth and veterans is key to next season's success.
"I think we have a lot of young, great players. It's going to be exciting to see what's in the future," he said. "We also have some veterans here who are going to come in with a lot of experience and hopefully help us secure that playoff spot next year."
- Ryan Dittrick & Mitchell Clinton, WinnipegJets.com