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Wheeler, Jets reflect on 2020-21 season on day of exit meetings

"You form a bond with the guys that will kind of meet you half-way and lay it on the line with you." -Wheeler

by Mitchell Clinton @MitchellClinton / WinnipegJets.com

WINNIPEG - Wednesday was the day the Winnipeg Jets were hoping would come much later in the summer.

It was the final day that the group would be together, as they gathered for exit meetings with head coach Paul Maurice, general manager Kevin Cheveldayoff, and said their goodbyes just two days after being eliminated from the Stanley Cup Playoffs by the Montreal Canadiens in the second round.

"That's the worst part of the job, the revolving door, the teammates you build a strong bond with and guys you really rely on, guys you really enjoyed being around and they're not around anymore," said Blake Wheeler. "You make a lot of life-long friends in this business, which is pretty unique. You lay it all on the line with guys, you form a bond with the guys that will kind of meet you half-way and lay it on the line with you, you form a lot of really good friendships."

The team didn't accomplish their ultimate goal this season. Wheeler won't lose sight of that, no matter how many days pass.

Video: YEAR END | Blake Wheeler

He acknowledges that even having the chance to play during a global pandemic is a privilege that he and his teammates didn't take lightly. The past 15 months have been tough for everyone, and the fact they were permitted to take to the ice every night was something they never took for granted.

"We felt kind of what got us out of that as a team, as players, was that we knew we could provide entertainment, provide a break for all that for our fanbase," Wheeler said. "We knew we couldn't play in front of our fans but that they were watching and at 7 p.m. every night it was something for them to do to kind of break the monotony of the world. That was the bright spot for our year."

As the team's captain, the 34-year-old Wheeler is a big part of the Jets core group. He - like Mark Scheifele, Josh Morrissey, Kyle Connor, Nikolaj Ehlers, Adam Lowry, Dylan DeMelo, and Connor Hellebuyck - is signed to a long-term deal and wants to help the team take the next step.

Video: YEAR END | Hellebuyck, Connor 

The way Hellebuyck sees it, that core group is only getting bigger.

"Every year it seems as though we add a new piece that is a difference maker," said Hellebuyck, citing the emergence of players like Connor, Logan Stanley, and Neal Pionk. "You see pieces coming in, they're making big moves and playing bigger than themselves. When that core starts to go like that, that's when you start to get a dominating team. We're close."

The two highest point producing seasons of Pionk's career have come in a Jets jersey.

He's a restricted free agent going into this off-season, but he made it clear on Wednesday how valuable his time in Winnipeg has been and why he wants it to continue.

"Coming over from New York, I got a ton of opportunity right away," said Pionk. "Having that trust from the coaching staff really gave me a lot of confidence to develop and grow as a player. It's amazing what a little boost of confidence will do for you.

"I like this core and there is no core I'd rather be a part of or rather play with."

Video: YEAR END | Stastny, Pionk 

Still, as much as there was a sense of optimism regarding what the team is capable of - including from forward Nate Thompson, an unrestricted free agent this off-season, who said "the window is still there to win. I think this team definitely has what it takes," - there was still a sense of frustration that the season ended so abruptly.

The Jets were on a high after sweeping the Edmonton Oilers in the first round. Then, after nine days away from game action, they lost defenceman Dylan DeMelo to a low grade groin strain on the first shift of Game 1 against Montreal.

Compound that with Mark Scheifele's suspension and Paul Stastny missing the first two games with an ailment of his own, and the Jets were in a tough spot.

"You lose Scheif and you start tinkering with the line-up, you're trying to find different things," said Stastny, adding that his injury was something minor that occurred prior to the Edmonton series.

"When you're playing a team like Montreal that has four good lines, and has good goaltending, three good pairings, you can't rely on one line," Stastny said. "You have to rely on four lines. That's a tough one to deal with."

The Jets were a physical club against the Canadiens, outhitting them 172-92 throughout the four games.

Video: YEAR END | Lewis, Thompson

However, every Jets player described Montreal as a tough team to play against.

"Being hard to play against, it doesn't necessarily mean being big, physical, and tough," said Thompson. "They were extremely hard to play against because there wasn't a lot of room on the ice. It wasn't like they were running us through the wall, but they were on top of us all the time."

So is there one tweak that could be made to the Jets to make this possible? Andrew Copp thinks it's tough to say. 

"Hockey is such a fluid game that there's no one quick fix. There's no one "We get this person, in this spot, that's gonna be the difference.' It doesn't really work that way," said Copp. "We did a pretty good job this year and we put ourselves in a position where that goal became in sight. Obviously we didn't get over the hump and we need to work on as a whole being harder to play against, more consistent, but there's no one quick fix."

One mindset that athletes tend to have is to control what they can control. Everyone on the Jets roster knows that next year's group may have some new faces depending on how the off-season goes. That's just the nature of the National Hockey League.

The players can only control what they can control, which is putting in the work in the off-season to come back even better.

Video: YEAR END | Morrissey, Stanley

Defenceman Josh Morrissey has seen his average ice time increase from 20:27 per-game in 2017-18 to 23:33 in 2020-21.

His focus this summer will be on making sure he's ready to pick up right where he left off.

"There's a lot of motivation going into the offseason to continue to work on my game and my fitness level," said Morrissey. "I'm proud of the improvement I made over the course of the season and, I think, the game that I got to late in the year and certainly into the playoffs was some of the best hockey I've played in my career."

That work will undoubtedly begin as soon as possible.

The disappointment of how this season ended will no doubt fuel every single workout until day one of training camp.

"You can't be satisfied with making the playoffs or winning a round," said Morrissey. "As I've gotten a little bit older and gone through a few more of these days, you want to win and you want to have the opportunity to do that. So I think that's really what the focus is."

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