After relocating from Atlanta prior to the 2011-12 season the Winnipeg Jets’ existence has been the definition of mediocrity.
It’s also been painfully dull.
A snails pace rebuild (if you want to even call it that) with almost zero trades of consequence and no free agent signings of significance has meant that the results on the ice have been a continuation of the mediocre results they produced during their time in Atlanta. There are still Not quite good enough to be a playoff team. Not quite bad enough to be an embarrassment or land a top draft pick to net a franchise player (though, that changed when their number came up in the draft lottery to get Patrik Laine ... but more on that in a bit).
They have just sort of ... existed. This is an organization that is still, 18 seasons into its existence, searching for its first ever postseason win. Not postseason series win. Postseason win. Period.
Since moving to Winnipeg it has been a bizarre team to watch from the outside, especially in recent seasons.
There has been a lot of individual talent on the team. When you look at the roster on paper and see what some of the players have produced, especially in recent seasons, it’s baffling to see how little team success that has all translated to. They should have been better.
So far this season, the results are starting to show up.
After their 7-4 win over the Vegas Golden Knights on Friday night the Jets enter Saturday with the best record in the Western Conference and are off to one of the best starts in franchise history.
They are looking like they might be for real and that their time as a legit contender may have finally arrived.
How did it finally happen?
Let’s start with the big one: They are finally getting decent goaltending.
One of the biggest factors in the Jets’ mediocrity over the past eight years has been a constant void in net. They committed to Ondrej Pavelec for too long, never really tried to find a better solution, and were consistently sunk by sub-par goaltending on a nightly basis.
They signed Steve Mason this summer, but the job has been taken over to this point by Connor Hellebuyck with a .923 save percentage entering play on Saturday.
Just to give you an idea as to how much of an issue goaltending has been, and how much of a difference it is making this season, consider where the Jets have ranked in team save percentage since the start of the 2011-12 season.
2014-15: 12th (only playoff year)
When you get goaltending like that you’re not even giving yourself a chance to compete.
The thing about this Jets roster is that with the way it is currently constructed and the talent that it has up front they don’t need elite goaltending to have a chance. Even if Hellebuyck sees a slight regression in his performance as long as he is able to avoid being one of the bottom-10 goalies in the league they should still have a chance.
Which brings us to the other big factor in the Jets’ improvement: They are finally being rewarded for their patience.
Since being named general manager of the team Kevin Cheveldayoff has taken a “build from within” approach. Wanting to build through the draft isn’t exactly a unique thing. Every team wants to do that. But the Jets have taken it to the extreme, so much so that in the seven years he has been in charge of the team he has only made two trades that involved NHL players going in each direction.
Combined with a lack of significant free agent moves and it has been an astonishing level of inactivity for an NHL team.
But the drafts are finally starting to pay off and the Jets actually have a core of young, talented players that can be organizational building blocks for a long, long time.
Four of the team’s top-five scorers right this season are age 24 or younger, including three (Patrik Laine, Nikolaj Ehlers and Kyle Connor) that are age 21 or younger.
Since the start of the 2015-16 season Mark Scheifele (currently the team’s leading scorer) and the criminally underrated Blake Wheeler have been two of the top-eight point producers in the NHL.
Only six players have scored more goals than Laine since the start of last season (Laine’s first in the NHL), while Ehlers is on pace for his second 60-plus point season before his age 22 season.
These are all top-line players and currently some of the most productive in the entire NHL. And other than Wheeler, they are all still young enough that their best days might still be in front of them.
Put all of that together and you have a team that has been one of the best offensive teams in the league for two years now and one that probably still has a chance to get better.
Winnipeg fans waited a long to get an NHL team back, and for six years the team they were given was just a rebranded version of the Atlanta Thrashers that just happened to be playing in a different city.
It’s taken a long time, and a lot of patience, but they finally have a team that is worth getting excited about and a team that might actually be worthy of being labeled as a contender.