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Central Division notebook

Jets hope to find success in future; Eric Staal returns to Carolina with Wild

by Dan Rosen @drosennhl / Senior Writer

The Winnipeg Jets have lost four straight games, putting them 10 points out of a Stanley Cup Playoff spot with 12 games remaining, closer to yet another disappointing finish to another disappointing season.

The Jets have made the playoffs once in six seasons since returning to Winnipeg. They still haven't won a playoff game. They were swept by the Anaheim Ducks in the 2014 Western Conference First Round.

Except this season, arguably more than any other since the franchise relocated from Atlanta, expectations were high and the talent level in Winnipeg is on par with what a playoff team should look like.

And still the Jets have been stuck in neutral.

"You can't win in this league on paper," Jets general manager Kevin Cheveldayoff said.

They haven't won enough on the ice, but don't expect sweeping changes, especially behind the bench.

"All I can say is Paul Maurice is a great coach and a big part of the Jets future," Cheveldayoff said. "He's in it for the long haul. We're in it for the long haul as an organization."

Cheveldayoff has no choice unless ownership wants to make a change, but there are no indications of that, perhaps because of the many reasons to believe the Jets might finally be able to put it all together next season to become a playoff team.

"If this year is not our year, I think we are going to be a very good team in a couple of years," rookie forward Patrik Laine said. "We have so many young guys and so much talent, it seems. I think if it is not next year, I think after that, we are going to make it to the playoffs for many years."

Video: WPG@NSH: Laine rings a wicked wrister in off the post

That might seem like optimism from a biased source, but it's hard to debate Laine on this one.

Center Mark Scheifele, an alternate captain, and defenseman Jacob Trouba each has taken the next step in his development to become a reliable veteran player, even though Scheifele turned 24 on Wednesday and Trouba turned 23 on Feb. 26.

Scheifele has 69 points (28 goals, 41 assists) in 67 games. The only centers in the League with more points are Connor McDavid of the Edmonton Oilers and Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin of the Pittsburgh Penguins. Scheifele is a big part of the Jets' leadership core with captain Blake Wheeler and fellow alternate Dustin Byfuglien.

Video: SJS@WPG: Scheifele snipes top shelf for late PPG

Trouba, after a contract dispute pushed back the start of his season one month, has proven he is the legitimate top-four defenseman he felt he was when he initially demanded a trade out of Winnipeg in September. He is second among Jets defensemen behind Byfuglien in points (27) and time on ice per game (24:49).

In addition, Nikolaj Ehlers, in his second NHL season, has taken his game to the next level. He has 56 points (22 goals, 34 assists) in 70 games. He had 38 points (15 goals, 23 assists) in 72 games as a rookie last season.

Ehlers is actually an example of Winnipeg's patience paying off.

"It's easy to sit here and say Ehlers is having a great year," Cheveldayoff said, "but two years ago we had to sit here and say, 'We're leaving a spot open, we're not going to go out and sign a potential veteran player because Nikolaj Ehlers is going to be in that role.' From that standpoint there's an opportunity that cost that comes with it, but you have to make those decisions."

Video: PIT@WPG: Ehlers goes bar-down with scorching wrister

It was easy to make the decision to play Laine, who has delivered on his promise as the No. 2 pick in the 2016 NHL Draft. He has 60 points, including a Winnipeg-high 33 goals, with 27 assists. He could win the Calder Trophy this season.

Defenseman Josh Morrissey's development is another reason for hope.

Morrissey got extended ice time because Tyler Myers has missed all but 11 games with a lower-body injury. Morrissey has 18 points (four goals, 14 assists) and is averaging 19:07 of ice time, fourth among Winnipeg's healthy defensemen.

"We anticipate Tyler Myers to be back next year so now you're looking at a defense corps of Trouba, Morrissey, [Toby] Enstrom, Byfuglien and Myers," Cheveldayoff said. "That's in a perfect world, but everybody has to try to build in those fashions, and top-four defensemen are extremely difficult to find."

So are No. 1 goalies, and here's where the rubber meets the road for the Jets. They haven't figured out if they have one in Connor Hellebuyck, who is 22-18-4 with a .907 save percentage and 2.88 goals-against average in 50 appearances, including 47 starts.

Hellebuyck is 22nd in save percentage and 23rd in GAA among the 26 goalies with 40 or more appearances this season. He is the fourth youngest goalie in that group behind Andrei Vasilevskiy (Tampa Bay Lightning), Matt Murray (Penguins) and John Gibson (Anaheim Ducks), but they've each outperformed him.

Video: WPG@NSH: Hellebuyck blockers away Arvidsson's wrister

"Our goaltending is still a work in progress," Cheveldayoff said.

But he still likes Hellebuyck.

"We like his progression," Cheveldayoff said. "If you look at the history of young goaltenders, the skill side of it is one thing, the mental side is another to truly become a bona fide No. 1. We like the path that he's on."

The Jets also have some prospects coming, including goalie Eric Comrie and forwards Kyle Connor, Jack Roslovic and Brendan Lemieux.

Roslovic and Connor, each a first-year pro after playing NCAA hockey, are the leading scorers with Manitoba, the Jets' American Hockey League affiliate, with 37 points (11 goals, 26 assists) and 36 points (19 goals, 17 assists), respectively.

Lemieux, also a first-year pro, has 19 points (12 goals, seven assists) in 60 games.

Comrie, in his second AHL season, has shown marginal improvement. He has a .909 save percentage and 2.88 GAA in 42 appearances after having a .907 save percentage and 3.12 GAA in 46 appearances last season.

"We're going to have to make some decisions on how we want to approach the summer with them," Cheveldayoff said. "But I like the process and progress."

Eventually it has to lead to consistency at the NHL level. To repeat what is becoming a mantra in Winnipeg, maybe next season.

Staal returns to Raleigh, again

Minnesota Wild center Eric Staal was on his way out of PNC Arena, en route to visiting his brother Jordan and his family when he was on the phone talking about returning to Raleigh, North Carolina, the place he called home playing for the Carolina Hurricanes for the better part of 13 years.

"It's different being in the visiting room and walking out to practice through the tunnel as a visitor," Staal said Wednesday shortly after practice.

This isn't the first time Staal has returned to Carolina as the opponent. He did with the New York Rangers last season, on March 31. He was held without a point in a 4-3 loss.

That game came 33 days after the Hurricanes traded Staal to the Rangers, ending his near 12-season run with Carolina in which he played 909 games and scored 775 points (322 goals, 453 assists), winning the Stanley Cup in 2006.

Staal is second behind Hurricanes general manager Ron Francis in franchise history in goals, assists, points, even-strength goals (205), power-play goals (105) and game-winning goals (47). He is first in shorthanded goals (16) and shots on goal (3,033).

Video: MIN@WSH: Staal trims the deficit with power-play goal

"Last time it was such a whirlwind with the deadline, with my family being back and forth [from Raleigh to New York] and there weren't very many games left," Staal said. "Everything was just like a blur. This time it's a new team right from the start of camp, being here for the whole year, but it's still going to feel weird. I've talked a lot of guys that went back to teams they played on for a long time, and they say no matter how many times you go back it still feels weird, and I'm sure it'll be the same for me once the game starts."

Staal, though, was grateful for the extra day in Raleigh because it allowed him to spend some more time with people around the arena that he grew close with and with Jordan and his family Wednesday night.

"I get to spend a few more minutes with some people that I care about," Staal said.

The one thing he didn't do Wednesday was look up at the 2006 championship banner.

"But that's a memory that I'll never forget and will have forever," Staal said. "You remember that when you just come here in general."

Stat pack

Staal is on schedule to play in his 1,000th NHL game Sunday, when the Wild play at the Jets. He will play his 998th game against Jordan and the Hurricanes on Thursday, and his 999th game against his brother Marc and the Rangers on Saturday. He has six goals in his past six games after scoring one goal in his previous 18 games. … The Chicago Blackhawks have scored the first goal in nine of their past 11 games and are 32-8-2 when scoring first this season. Only the Washington Capitals have more wins when scoring first (37) and only the Capitals (48) and Columbus Blue Jackets (44) have scored the first goal in more games this season. … Nashville Predators forward Filip Forsberg has 12 goals in his past 11 games and 25 goals in his past 39 games. He leads the NHL in goals and game-winning goals (eight) since Dec. 19. … The Wild have allowed four or more goals in seven of their past 10 games. They allowed four or more goals in 13 of their first 58 games.

Video: WPG@NSH: Forsberg buries Johansen's feed on break

Games to watch

Nashville Predators at Washington Capitals (March 16, 7 p.m. ET; NHLN, CSN-DC, FS-TN, NHL.TV) -- Great test for the Predators, who are coming off of a 5-4 overtime win against the Jets on Monday. Nashville defeated Washington 5-2 at Bridgestone Arena on Feb. 25.

Colorado Avalanche at Detroit Red Wings (March 18, 1 p.m. ET; NHLN, FS-D, ALT, NHL.TV) -- These proud franchises have fallen on hard times this season, but this is the last game in this once great rivalry that will be played at Joe Louis Arena. It should be an afternoon for memories and looking ahead to brighter days.

San Jose Sharks at Minnesota Wild (March 21, 8:30 p.m. ET; NBCSN, NHL.TV) -- The Wild hope to have broken out of their current slump and potentially back in first place in the Central Division by the time they play the first-place team in the Pacific Division next week. Minnesota is 2-0-0 against San Jose this season.

Washington Capitals at Minnesota Wild (March 28, 8 p.m. ET; NHLN, FS-N, CSN-DC, NHL.TV) -- Potential Stanley Cup Final preview? OK, we're getting way ahead of ourselves, but this is a matchup of two of the best teams in the NHL. It's also a rematch of the Capitals 4-2 win against the Wild on Tuesday.

Chicago Blackhawks at Pittsburgh Penguins (March 29, 8 p.m. ET; NBCSN, TVA Sports, NHL.TV) -- If the Capitals-Wild game the night before isn't a Stanley Cup Final preview, maybe this one is. The Blackhawks defeated the Penguins 4-1 at United Center on March 1. Chicago right wing Patrick Kane had a hat trick.

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