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Why the Winnipeg Jets could go from the lottery to the playoffs next season

Tons of young talent up front and improved goaltending should push Winnipeg into the postseason mix.

Winnipeg Jets v Pittsburgh Penguins Photo by Justin Berl/Getty Images

It’s been a long time since the Winnipeg Jets made noise in an NHL postseason. The franchise has made just one appearance, a first-round sweep at the hands of the Ducks, since its arrival from Atlanta seven years ago. The original Jets last made the playoffs in 1993 before their relocation to Arizona.

So the fine fans of Winnipeg have been waiting a long time to see a great hockey team in their town. The days of Dale Hawerchuk racking up 100-point seasons are a distant memory of an organization that now operates in the American desert.

That’s where the new Jets come into the equation. For the first time in decades, Winnipeg is on the brink of icing one of the most exciting teams in the NHL. After hitting on several high draft picks over the past few years, the most recent being stud winger Patrik Laine, the team is now on the brink of bigger and better things.

Most of the attention in Canada these days goes to the other NHL teams, and for good reason. The Oilers have Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl. The Maple Leafs have Auston Matthews, Mitch Marner, and William Nylander. The Flames have Johnny Gaudreau, Sean Monahan, and an impressive defensive top four. The Senators just reached Game 7 of the conference finals. The Canucks ... well, OK maybe not them.

The Jets shouldn’t be dismissed as another player in what’s proving to be a renaissance for Canadian NHL teams. They may not be ready to make a run at the Stanley Cup Final like the Oilers, Leafs, or Flames, but they’ve quietly assembled a core of young talent that should make for a competitive team next season.

The road to the playoffs in the West is going to be brutal. The Central Division alone has the Predators, Stars, Blackhawks, Wild, and Blues to compete with. The Pacific isn’t as deep, but should be tough, too. Good teams will be stuck in the draft lottery next spring.

But for the first time in a couple years, it seems like the Jets have a very real shot at turning some heads. Here’s why this could be the year they return to the playoffs:

The top six is stacked with scorers

The Jets already had one of the highest-scoring top lines in the league last season with Nikolaj Ehlers, Mark Scheifele, and Laine together. It’s not certain that coach Paul Maurice will use that as his No. 1 line again in 2017-18 given he shuffled it at times the previous season, but no matter what, Winnipeg has the pieces for a fantastic top six.

Scheifele took his game to another level with 82 points in 79 games last season. Laine scored 36 goals in his age-18 season. Ehlers, somehow the third fiddle here, already has 102 points in 154 career NHL games at age 21.

They could be supplemented by a strong second line led by right winger Blake Wheeler. He’ll likely have Bryan Little at center and 2015 first-round pick Kyle Connor at left wing to fill out a top six that matches up well against most other teams.

The Jets finished sixth in goals per game last season, and their star forwards racking up goals was the driving reason behind that. Expect Winnipeg to continue being one of the highest-scoring teams in the league next season, even with an underwhelming bottom six.

An up-and-coming defensive duo

As other teams have learned over the years, assembling a group of great young forwards doesn’t matter as much if you don’t have quality defensemen to get the puck up to them. The Jets have had Dustin Byfuglien around for a while, but a bad defense has been one of the primary culprits behind the team’s lack of success.

Jacob Trouba and Josh Morrissey could be the players to finally change that. A pair of first-round picks by Winnipeg, they filled top-four roles with the team last season and should again in 2017-18. Trouba has higher upside than Morrissey, but both have the potential to take major steps forward defensively.

The Jets already had a better defense than you’d think last season. The team finished 12th in 5-on-5 shot attempts allowed per 60 minutes, per Natural Stat Trick, and was mostly undone by terrible goaltending.

If Trouba and Morrissey can keep progressing, the Jets should have a very solid top three next season with Byfuglien. The team could also get back a healthy Tyler Myers, and it still has veteran Toby Enstrom and new addition Dmitry Kulikov to fill out the depth chart. Kulikov is coming off a brutal season and his contract seems like an overpay, but the pieces are here for a defense that should be respectable next season.

Pavelec and Hutchinson are out, Mason is in

Goaltending is the biggest reason the Jets struggled last season, and that should change. Last year’s Jets finished 27th in 5-on-5 save percentage (.915) and 28th in overall save percentage (.900), which explains why they finished 27th in goals allowed despite middle-of-the-road possession numbers.

To address that issue, the Jets brought in free agent Steve Mason from the Flyers while letting longtime goalie Ondrej Pavelec sign with the Rangers. Now Mason will split time with Connor Hellebuyck, who was one of the team’s primary goalies last season along with Michael Hutchinson.

Mason may not have lived up to his potential after winning the 2009 Calder Trophy, and he’s coming off a down year, but there’s upside here for the Jets. Even including his numbers from last season, the 29-year-old has a .917 save percentage over the past five years.

Hellebuyck led the Jets with a .907 save percentage last season, so Mason’s disappointing .908 figure from 2016-17 actually would’ve been an improvement for the whole team. It’s telling that Mason, coming off a year that compelled the Flyers to let him go, was still markedly better than what the Jets could offer.

If you gave Hellebuyck’s 53 starts to Mason with a .917 save percentage and the same shot volume, the Jets save 16 goals right there. And then if you do the same with Hellebuyck replacing Pavelec/Hutchinson, the Jets save another seven goals there. That would push Winnipeg from 27th in goals allowed up to 17th, without any improvement in terms of shot prevention.

Obviously that’s a simplified version of the scenario, but it doesn’t seem overly optimistic to expect Mason to rebound and Hellebuyck to maintain slightly below-average performance. Heck, there’s a chance they outperform that level and the Jets get an even larger boost in goal prevention.

Even if the Jets don’t take major leaps elsewhere, a good 55-plus starts from Mason would make them a massively improved team next season.

A crowded conference will be the challenge

It seems clear the Jets should be an interesting, fun team to watch next season. They have all that scoring talent up front, plus a trio of good defensemen in Byfuglien, Trouba, and Morrissey who should be able to get the puck up to them. They also hopefully won’t be undone by poor goaltending in the same way we’ve seen in the past.

The problem is that the top-heavy Jets will have to leapfrog a lot of teams in order to actually make the playoffs. Even if you operate under the assumption that both wild card teams from the West will come from the Central Division (which is far from a lock), then the Jets would need to finish at least fifth. That’d mean beating at least one of Chicago, Nashville, Minnesota, Dallas, or St. Louis in the standings (plus Colorado, but it’ll have a tough time getting out of the cellar).

That’s possible — the Blackhawks, Wild, and Blues could all conceivably take steps back — but it shows how a confluence of events would likely need to occur for the Jets to make the playoffs. Unless the team takes a quantum leap forward, winning a few more games will merely put them in the mix, rather than ensure they have a spot.

But being in the mix is a clear upgrade from some past seasons in Winnipeg, and it’s a step toward the contender status that’s historically eluded the Jets. The base of high-upside talent, even if it can’t match Toronto’s or Edmonton’s, is there to pull it off if they can supplement it with enough talent. Making the playoffs next season would be a good start.