Why the Winnipeg Jets should be the envy of the NHL

After years of patient development, the Jets look like one of the NHL's top teams this season. Here's the blueprint on how they got here, and what comes next. Terrence Lee/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Kevin Cheveldayoff has heard the jokes about Winnipeg.

There was the time Ilya Bryzgalov painted a picture of Winnipeg as a frozen hellscape with "no parks, no entertaining for the families." There was that time, recently, when players from the San Jose Sharks called the city "cold and dark" and openly questioned whether Winnipeg was modern enough to have gotten Wi-Fi yet.

Winnipeg is dreary. Winnipeg is small. Winnipeg is country. Cheveldayoff has rolled his eyes at them all.

"If you're coming for palm trees, this isn't the place," said Cheveldayoff, Winnipeg's general manager since 2011, when the Atlanta Thrashers were reborn as Jets 2.0. "But if you want a rabid fan base, whose most important thing in life after family is the Jets, then you're coming to the right place."

For years, the Jets' fans might have been the most memorable thing about the resurrected team, from the legendary "white out" at playoff games to the incredibly inventive taunts they'd unleash at opposing players -- who among us still isn't in awe of the "SIL-VER MED-AL!" chants that greeted Ryan Miller in Winnipeg after the U.S. defeat to Canada at the 2010 Vancouver Olympics?

"It's kind of like the Green Bay Packers, you know?" said captain Blake Wheeler, 31, in his seventh year with the Jets. "It's a small community. The people are incredibly passionate about what we do. So we take a lot of pride in knowing that what we do means something to them. They really care, you know? And there's a responsibility to play a certain way, bring a certain amount of work to the rink every night."

Just like dogs can resemble their owners, sports team can take on the personality of their home bases. "It could be that we're a product of our environment," defenseman Ben Chiarot said.

Work ethic is the obvious link between the Jets and Winnipeg -- your classic blue-collar team playing in a blue-collar, small market Canadian city. But they share more salient traits.

Consider this: The Jets left for Arizona in 1996. Winnipeg was without an NHL team for the next 15 years, until the Atlanta Thrashers became Jets 2.0 in 2011. "Back in 1996, Winnipeg was a city that was struggling to find itself and forge its path into the 21st century," said Drew Mindell, the host of "The Illegal Curve Hockey Show." "The city is significantly more confident now, and certainly some of that can be tied to the Jets returning. But it is more than that -- Winnipeggers began to appreciate the city more."

In other words: The Jets, like Winnipeg, are a study in patience and, ultimately, in finding their confidence and identity.

Even if that meant making a metric ton of painful mistakes along the way.

The Plan

Entering Thursday night, the Jets are 41-19-10 for 92 points, all but locked into the No. 2 seed in the Central Division. For the second time in their revival, they'll probably be a playoff team.

In 2015, the Jets brought the Stanley Cup playoffs back to Winnipeg. It was 19 years in the making, but it was all too brief: The Anaheim Ducks swept the Jets out of the first round.

After that series, Cheveldayoff sat down with owner Mark Chipman and laid out what he felt needed to be done for the Jets to contend for the Cup. They needed to get younger, and allow those players to make a multitude of mistakes. The growing pains needed to be palpable, with the knowledge that the franchise would eventually be better for it.

"It wasn't a hard sell for ownership," Cheveldayoff said.

Then came the tougher sell: to the players.

Over time, there was buy-in for the Jets' plans. Blake Wheeler and Bryan Little signed long-term deals. Getting Dustin Byfuglien, who was coveted as a potential UFA, to commit to five years was a coup, as he told the team, "I think we're on the cusp of something here." The Jets identified the players they wanted to build around, and jettisoned the rest. (Happy trails, Evander Kane. May all your track suits remain dry.)

"It's important. Being together. Being comfortable with the guys in the room. Getting chemistry. Playing with the same guys year after year, it's important," Chiarot said.

Their core in place and surrounded by newbies, the Jets tumbled down the standings in their next season, from a .604 points percentage down to .476 in 2015-16. Mark Scheifele, Jacob Trouba, Nikolaj Ehlers and Connor Hellebuyck all saw significant time, and took their lumps. Then in 2016-17, 18-year-old Patrik Laine, the second overall pick in the 2016 NHL draft, and 21-year-old Josh Morrissey joined the fray and took their lumps.

All of this was by design.

"We put an awfully lot of young players into our lineup for the last two years. They made mistakes, but we played them. We had some depth issues last season -- pounded by injuries early, and we got behind the eight-ball. But I thought the quality of our play last year was quite a bit higher than our record indicated last year, but that's too hard to argue in a Canadian market, so I didn't," coach Paul Maurice told ESPN.

"The ups and downs of young players have leveled off a little bit. A first-year guy gives you one in four really good games. As they spend another year, it goes to two-to-four. Then to three-to-four. And then you're a pretty good team."

Defenseman Tyler Myers said this maturity has made the Jets more prepared -- they led after the first period more through 70 games (24-2-2) than they have all last season -- and also resilient.

"We've had a really good mindset of creating a habit of playing the same way, no matter what the score is, no matter what the situation is. We get down a couple of goals, we're up a couple goals ... we're focused on playing at a level we expect from ourselves. I think we've done a good job of it this year, and but we've put a lot of work into it," he said.

Of course, it helps when you know that your offense, and one young star in particular, can keep you in any game.

The Sniper

The first time Cheveldayoff saw Patrik Laine was the night of the NHL draft lottery in 2016. He was FaceTiming with Sportsnet while laying down on what appeared to be a hotel room floor, the phone awkwardly too close to his face. His voice and delivery were laconic, but there was a spark of mischief in his words.

"He was what he was. We met him at the combine, went to dinner, and had a blast," the Jets' GM said.

With a goal on Monday, Laine has scored 77 as a teenager, passing Wayne Gretzky and Brian Bellows for third most in NHL history. That he scored it on a night when Alex Ovechkin notched his 600th career goal was no surprise, both because few players in the NHL have been as torrid offensively as Laine, and because you'd be hard-pressed to find another young star as honest about his desire to surpass an NHL rival as Laine is with Ovechkin.

"It's pretty amazing, in under 1,000 games. It's my job to try and beat that," Laine said. Can he one day top Ovechkin's goal totals? "I want to believe that. But lots of players have said that it was easier to score back then, 10 years ago, than now. I'll try. I'll try as best as I can. But it's not easy."

Like Ovechkin for the Capitals, Laine brings something beyond goal scoring to the Jets. He brings a competitive spirit and an oddball sensibility that immediately has endeared him, without overstepping any of those frustrating hockey culture boundaries for players with outsized personalities.

"He's an interesting case study in the Europeans and the nuances. He's a funny guy, I guess, in his native tongue. I've heard that he's an extremely charismatic person. When he comes over here and he talks hockey, he's honest. He's a guy that says what it is," Cheveldayoff said.

"I've always been like this," Laine said of his candor. "If you guys are asking me why my game is not good, I'm not going to lie. If I'm not playing well, I'm going to say it. I'm not afraid of saying it. You gotta be yourself. Say what you think. I love hockey. I love playing hockey. Everything about it. It's awesome to be here every day."

Especially when the Jets have someone who can stop the puck as efficiently as Laine can put one into the net.

The Goalie

Wheeler said the Jets knew they had an offensive spark this season. "We were confident we were going to score enough goals. We just had to figure out how to keep them out of our net a little more," he said.

It's not hyperbolic to say that goaltending has been the Jets' biggest failing in the last several seasons. Ondrej Pavelec played 379 combined games for the Thrashers and then the Jets. After arriving in Winnipeg, his save percentage for the season was above .906 only once in six seasons. The Jets' team save percentage was a putrid .900 last season and .903 in 2015-16.

Connor Hellebuyck, 24, who ascended to the starter's job this season? He has a .925 save percentage, including .927 at even strength. He has made the saves Pavelec didn't make, and then some.

"Bucky's been awesome this year," Myers said. "I spent some time with him this summer. I saw the work he put in to improve his game. He's really come into this year playing good hockey, making good saves for us. Very calm."

Like every other young player on the Jets, Hellebuyck took his lumps. He appeared in 59 games last season and posted a .907 save percentage. It was ugly, but it was necessary.

"One spin around the calendar can mean everything for a goalie," Cheveldayoff said. "We made the decision last year that we were going to go down this path. We believed in Connor. He checked off all the boxes on the way up. One thing we didn't want to have happen was us getting to this season -- obviously, we had Pavelec under contract last year -- and say this is Connor's first year, and let's see how he does. So we made the conscious decision to play Connor last season, at whatever cost."

Another goalie might have been despondent after a shellacking in his debut season. Instead, Hellebuyck has rebounded with a season that has him in the Vezina Trophy conversation. What's even more impressive is that he was expected to share the load with Steve Mason, who signed a two-year deal with the Jets and has been a bust for most of the season -- even if, as Cheveldayoff notes, his life advice to Hellebuyck as a young goalie thrust into the starter's role is invaluable.

As it stands, Hellebuyck will easily surpass last season's workload. The steadiness of his play is one reason the Jets are thriving. "That makes a world of difference to our team, the way he's played. And his confidence is so important to our team," Chiarot said. "You watch the playoffs every year, and the final four teams are usually the ones that had the four best performances from goalies."

Another thing those teams usually share? Strong leadership. Like the Jets have in Wheeler, for example.

"He's probably the most consistent player I've ever played with. He plays the same no matter what's going on, or how he's feeling. He drives this team," Myers said.

The Captain

It might go down as the worst mistake of Laine's career.

It was Dec. 11, 2016. The Jets were playing against the Oilers in Edmonton. A slap shot by Mark Letestu bounced off the Winnipeg goalie's pads, right to Laine on the backcheck. He attempted to push the puck out of harm's way. He managed, instead, to push it straight into his own net for an Edmonton goal.

Laine's body language was all you needed to see to understand how emotionally devastated he was. On the bench, his mouthpiece dangling from his lips, Laine sat with his head down. Suddenly, Blake Wheeler sat next to him and applied a bear hug, telling Laine to laugh it off.

"He can say, 'Look, kid, I've been through this. It's going to be OK.' For our team, with the youth that we have, that's so very, very important," Cheveldayoff said.

It's also important to lead by example.

About a year later, on Dec. 27, 2017, the Jets' fortunes looked as if they were going to dramatically shift. Scheifele, with 38 points in 38 games, crashed awkwardly into the boards in a game against the Oilers. He suffered a shoulder injury that would put him on the shelf until February. Wheeler, however, wasn't going to allow the Jets to fly off course.

"Without missing a step, Blake walks into Paul's office and says 'I'll do whatever it takes. You want me to play center? I'll play center,' " Cheveldayoff recalled. "He's a winger. It's his natural position, and he's averaged a point per game there. To do that, to do whatever needed to be done, speaks volumes. When you're a young player or a veteran player, and your captain does that, how do you not follow?"

Wheeler was drafted fifth overall by the Phoenix Coyotes in 2004, and signed with the Bruins as a free agent in 2008. He was shipped to Atlanta in a trade for Rich Peverley in 2011, and has remained with the Jets franchise for 545 games. He's one of the NHL's greatest examples of "Would this guy be a star were he in another market?" as he ranks seventh in the past four seasons combined in points (289) and 13th in points per game (0.93), tied with Nicklas Backstrom of the Capitals.

But that's immaterial. Wheeler is a Winnipeg Jet. He wouldn't have it any other way.

"We've had a buy-in from everyone. In the past, things would go off the rails if things didn't go our way. Not this year," he said. "I think it was a unique situation coming in. They wanted to build the team a certain way, and they knew it was going to take a few years to do that. The plan has come to fruition. Of course, they hit some nice pieces in the draft. It's sometimes difficult to be patient during those years, but we could see the light at the end of the tunnel."

Wheeler is ninth in the NHL with 18 goals and 59 assists. He's 12 points clear of Laine for the team lead in scoring, with a 1.10 points-per-game average in 70 games.

Off the ice, Wheeler's maturation into a leader has been a cornerstone of what the Jets have built. He's an inspiration to the veteran players and the rookies alike.

"There isn't a guy in the room that doesn't relate to him. We've got first-round draft picks that are very talented. Blake was a high pick who took his time getting to the league, fighting his way into lineups," Cheveldayoff said. "He earned the right to be the go-to guy, not because it was given to him, but because he did it the right way."

As have, apparently, the Jets.

The Mission

There are 26 active players in the NHL who were born in Manitoba, ranging from Chicago Blackhawks stars Jonathan Toews and Duncan Keith to Philadelphia Flyers rookie Nolan Patrick. Even if they didn't grow up Jets fans, they'll tell you about someone in their family or a friend who lives and dies with the team. Although, typically, they have an affinity for the Jets themselves.

"I remember watching them when I was younger in the playoffs. The 'white outs' and all of it," center Travis Zajac of the New Jersey Devils said. "You have great memories about it. Even when they made the playoffs a couple of years ago. You're always happy to see a hometown team do well."

Doing well would be an understatement. The Jets are going to be a playoff team for the second time since their relocation and only the third time in the past 25 years. Seven of their key players are under the age of 25.

While the Nashville Predators are going to be an obstacle for years -- and with Connor McDavid in the conference -- there are no promises that the Jets are going to play for a Stanley Cup, let alone win one. But, for now, their patience has been rewarded: This coach and the general manager, each maligned for a lack of success, stuck to their plan with the backing of ownership. These players, whose core of veterans was questioned for their lack of success, is stronger for having stuck together.

This city, which had waited so patiently for the Jets to return, is now seeing that patience and passion rewarded. "I am sure that they can feel the energy that they add to the city. I don't think it is a mob scene for them every time they set foot in public, but I am sure that they know how popular they are and they are celebrities in the city," Mindell said.

They also know how much the Jets mean to the city. Like at the coffee shop Cheveldayoff frequents in Winnipeg, where a pack of gentlemen intercept him each visit to grill him about the Jets and the NHL. "I think they wait for me. To get a piece of me," he said.

Cheveldayoff graciously answers every question. He's nothing if not patient.

"When the Jets win," he said, "everyone's day in Winnipeg is brighter."