On Wednesday, the Winnipeg Jets held their year-end locker cleanout. It was an opportunity for players to answer questions from the media one final time before saying goodbye to Manitoba for the summer.
“It’s so hard to win,” captain Blake Wheeler said. “Even the teams that come into the playoffs as the favourite or the teams that everyone thinks is going to win the Stanley Cup, it never works out that way. The bounces, hot goaltending, all these little factors play into it. My perspective is that basically what I’ve always done here, I’m going to give everything I have to this team, to this city, for the rest of my career here and I hope that that ends with our team raising the Stanley Cup.”
Having earned a matchup with the Edmonton Oilers in the first round, the Jets took it to their opponent, sweeping Connor McDavid and Co. in four games. But that excitement wore off rather shortly as a nine-day break between series’ left Winnipeg without much momentum in its second round battle with the Montreal Canadiens.
Wheeler and some of the longer-termed players will now say their goodbyes to teammates from this past year, while welcoming in new players to Winnipeg for the coming 2021-22 season.
“It’s hard. That’s the worst part of the job, the revolving door,” he reflected. “The teammates you build a strong bond with and guys you really rely on, guys you really enjoyed being around and they’re not around anymore. So that’s the hard part of the job. The best part of the job, though, is that you still talk to a lot of those guys. Even after our last games, the amount of former teammates the reached out, it’s great. You make a lot of life-long friends in this business, which is pretty unique. You lay it all on the line with guys, you form a bond with the guys that will kind of meet you half-way and lay it on the line with you, you form a lot of really good friendships. It’s more like a we’ll see you later than a goodbye kind of thing, because you’re likely to play against them or just see them.”
For second-time Jet Paul Stastny, exploring free agency will be an exciting time for he and his family. Returning to Winnipeg isn’t 100 percent out of the question, however.
“I’ll probably just take my time away with it,” Stastny said. “Now that I’m older, options are probably more limited but you have an idea of what’s best for me, what’s best for my family… We’ll be patient about it. There’s no rush. You kind of have an idea of what places you want to play at. You want to be where it’s a good fit for you and you want to go somewhere you’re wanted too. I have nothing but good things to say here. I know the future has always been bright, it continues to be bright and there’s always going to be a chance here. That’s a really important piece to picking a team you want to play for.”
Neal Pionk, who is a restricted free agent – meaning the Jets hold the negotiating rights – has yet to begin thinking about his demands in a new contract.
“To be completely honest, I haven’t thought a whole lot about it,” he admitted. “I’m still kind of decompressing from the season and decompressing from that last series there. I’m sure that over the next few days, my agent and I will talk really for the first time about a new deal. But for the most part, I’ll let him take care of that.”
Newcomer Pierre-Luc Dubois is not a free agent, but will be playing for a contract next season. And the 22-year-old knows he can be more successful in 2021-22.
“I had a hard time trying to find what I could do,” he said. “At the end of the day it’s our job to be the best players we can be and to help the team win. It was hard for me this year to adjust. Many reasons, I think, but at the end of the day you only have yourself to blame. I know I can be a lot better. This year was my fourth year in the NHL. I’m really happy with my first three years. One year doesn’t define you of my confidence of who I am and what I can do. You don’t change just because of one disappointing season.”
‘Disappointing’ is certainly one way of describing Winnipeg’s finish this year. And with a boatload of talent potentially walking away this offseason, things could look very different next year in Jets country.
“I thought we made some good strides at the end of this year,” goaltender Connor Hellebuyck said. “We really turned our game into a full-team game and a full defensive zone, neutral zone, offensive zone kind of game. You’ve got to ask Chevy about the pieces coming in because every year changes with guys coming in and out, but I’m looking forward to the team we put down on the ice next year.”
With the Seattle Kraken Expansion Draft, the NHL Entry Draft and Free Agency all set to occur following the presentation of the Stanley Cup, there are many important days to come for GM Kevin Cheveldayoff and the management team this summer.