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Jets feeling pressure to step up this season

Captain Wheeler, GM Cheveldayoff reiterate time is now to make playoffs

by Tim Campbell @TimNHL / Staff Writer

PENTICTON, British Columbia -- With one appearance in the Stanley Cup Playoffs since arriving in Winnipeg in 2011, the Jets not only understand the need to step up and return to the postseason, but they appear to be embracing the assignment.

"It's got to be this year, it just has to be," Jets captain Blake Wheeler said recently. "We have enough talent."

Jets general manager Kevin Cheveldayoff, attending the 2017 Young Stars Classic prospect tournament that runs through Monday, welcomed the comments.

"I'm excited when the veteran players … in all our exit meetings last season those were the conversations we had," Cheveldayoff said. "So that's not news to me.

"I think [Wheeler] really does feel that there's no reason we can't do this."


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Winnipeg was fifth in the Central Division with 87 points last season, seven points behind the Calgary Flames for the second wild card into the playoffs from the Western Conference.

The Jets last qualified for the playoffs in 2015 but after losing in four games to the Anaheim Ducks in the Western Conference First Round, they chose a commitment to young, skilled players.

"We did some things to make sure we got in the playoffs that year, traded a few draft picks, played some veteran guys," Cheveldayoff said. "That group was only going to get older. We knew that we'd need to transition some young guys.

"Maybe we could have brought in some 30-something player with experience but it comes at a price. We've paid an opportunity cost and I think we'll benefit from it moving forward."

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The cost -- learning to live with young players and their development -- was a matter raised when multiyear contract extensions were announced for Cheveldayoff and coach Paul Maurice on Thursday.

"When you're giving a coach an incredible amount of young talent, you can't necessarily judge on wins and losses all of the time," Wheeler said. "I don't think that's what has been asked of Paul here in the past couple of years. It's been developing the guys to get to the point where we're going to have a season like we're hopefully going to have this year. The proof is there. He's done a hell of a job.

"He took a group of guys that, you know, maybe we didn't belong in the playoffs a few years ago, a group that scratched and clawed our way into the playoffs. You have to give him as much credit as the players for the job he did. Then we hit the reset button for a couple years. We got young, trying to re-tool on the fly."

Cheveldayoff endorsed Maurice's work with the contract extension and by voicing his confidence in how the coach has fit the organization's blueprint.

"There are managers that have to make decisions because they need to save their jobs," Cheveldayoff said. "There are coaches that make decisions because they have to save their jobs. And a lot of those decisions end up right and some lead to great things but in a lot of cases, you see some crippling effects it can have."

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Exposing young players to difficult competition in the League has its risks. Make it too easy on them and they don't develop the necessary foundation for tough times. Make it too hard and "what you can end up doing is crushing a young player and taking away his natural ability, what makes them them," Cheveldayoff said.

He said he and Maurice agree some risk and some pain is the way to go.

Their investment has led to the blossoming of several young players, including center Mark Scheifele, 24, who finished seventh in the scoring race last season with 82 points (32 goals, 50 assists) in 79 games; defenseman Jacob Trouba, 23, who had his best season with 33 points (eight goals, 25 points) in 60 games while playing an average of 24:58 per game, most in his career; left wing Nikolaj Ehlers, 21, who had 64 points (25 goals, 39 assists) in 82 games in his second NHL season; and right wing Patrik Laine, 19, who had 36 goals as a rookie last season.

"It's the way teams are built now," Cheveldayoff said. "Certainly there are times when maybe he should have gone to the whip a little more, sit a guy for turning the puck over. But I think you're going to see it happen less and less with young players.

"Paul and I, we talk about that quite a bit, the nature of players. There's a lot of teaching that goes on behind the scenes with young players. It's not all fire and brimstone, the whip all the time. At some point you have to hold players accountable, but sometimes you have to wrap your arm around them and make sure they all have confidence. Even the veteran guys.

"Look at how Blake Wheeler's career has blossomed under Paul. Those things just don't happen on [their own]. It's not all video, X's and O's and yelling and screaming. It's nurturing as well."

-- correspondent Scott Billeck contributed

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