(Editor's note: As part of our NHL coverage leading up to the start of the 2015-16 season, we are running previews on all seven Canadian teams. You can read previous installments here.)
For the past few seasons, the Winnipeg Jets have quietly done everything right.
After owners True North Sports and Entertainment calmly and successfully pursued an NHL franchise, general manager Kevin Cheveldayoff has drafted wisely, including Nicolas Petan and Jacob Trouba. Cheveldayoff has managed to keep the team's core intact despite a limited budget.
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While he hasn't made many moves, those he has made were prudent, especially last season's blockbuster that shipped Evander Kane to Buffalo for a package of established young players and picks that solidify the team's immediate future. It had become apparent that Kane wasn't going to work in Winnipeg and new additions Tyler Myers and Drew Stafford immediately contributed to the team's playoff push.
The modern reincarnation of the Jets enjoyed their first playoff berth last season before it all quickly fell apart with a first-round sweep at the hands of the (ahem) mighty Anaheim Ducks. It was the first major bump in the road the team has faced. Despite the optics of a first-round sweep, Winnipeg is likely treating it as a learning experience that can bring the team together, and with good reason—the Jets may be the most exciting and promising Canadian team in the NHL.
This season should be the one that sees the Jets take the next step and become a legitimate Central Division threat.
Every effort must be made, from the coaching staff to the team's veteran leadership, to stabilize a club that gave up third-period leads in the first three games of its first-round series. Captain Andrew Ladd, himself a winner of two Stanley Cups, is one of the most versatile leaders in the game. You can bet Ladd won't let the team's young presence forget about those squandered leads.
Volatile as it might be, that young presence is so laden with high-end skill that it could be the key to the Jets moving up a few spots in the playoff rankings. It might even help them put a few more points on the board in the playoffs and create a much larger hill for opposing teams to climb.
Nicolas Petan, 20, the smallish playmaking centre, has been familiar to those who've followed the Canadian team at the last two World Junior Championships. His size is a concern and he'll have to fight for one of the final forward spots out of camp, but creativity like his doesn't come around often. It'd be surprising not to see him in this lineup.
Nik Ehlers' spot on the roster seems more secure and with good reason. The 19-year-old winger tore up the QMJHL last season, scoring an average of just under two points per game. He's got a much higher ceiling than Petan and the ability to dazzle with his scoring ability makes him a dark horse in an admittedly deep Calder Trophy race.
Finally, the re-emergence of 23-year-old Alex Burmistrov could pay big dividends. The eighth overall pick in the 2010 draft is physically mature and seems ready to buy into coach Paul Maurice's plan after ditching the Jets for two seasons in the KHL. He looks primed for a big return and adds to the depth the Jets already have up the middle, making their four top forward lines arguably the best overall in the division.
The old standby top line of Ladd, Bryan Little and Blake Wheeler will look to recreate the incredible chemistry they developed last season. They're entering the prime of their careers and as the Jets' three top scorers last year, they're the very definition of dependable.
The same can't be said, however, of defenceman Dustin Byfuglien. The big man is now back playing defence—where he always should have been after stints on the wing—and can punish opposing teams as an offensive threat from the blue line but also with his hulking frame. The edge he plays with saw him rack up a suspension and injuries last year, which could put parts of his season in doubt. But the bigger question remains his long-term future. He's an unrestricted free agent at the end of this season and will surely be the most sought-after defenceman if he makes it that far. If contract negotiations don't get finished, will he be shipped out of town?
As for Winnipeg's goaltending, it hasn't been a model of consistency. Ondrej Pavelec looked strong but his respectable .920 save percentage was largely bolstered by an excellent late-season swing. Can he solidify himself in net and be the team's No. 1 keeper he's long only hinted at?
If he can, the Jets should be considered a lock for another post-season berth.
There will be some who argue that the Jets remain nothing more than a middling NHL franchise and that last season's fight to crack a tough Western Conference playoff picture cannot be replicated. There's some merit to that argument, especially considering the Jets' offence, defence and special teams numbers were all decidedly middle-of-the-pack last season.
The underlying numbers showcased a team that was much better than its record would have you believe, including having the fifth-best score adjusted Corsi For percentage in the league. Improving on its 19-7-13 record in one-goal games, good for 15th in the league, might be the most necessary step in Winnipeg.
Many teams would be outright jealous about the depth of young talent the Jets have assembled. There is no doubt regarding the skill of this collection. How much they contribute to an already respectable cast of characters is going to be the story that dominates this season.
What a highlight-filled story it could be.