WINNIPEG – Nate Schmidt is all about the vibes, the good vibes if we are being specific.
Since his arrival on the scene with the Winnipeg Jets after an off-season trade brought him in from the Vancouver Canucks a day after Brenden Dillon was acquired from the Washington Capitals to boost a back end that needed one, the vibe has been decidedly different – not to mention upbeat.
Sure, training camp is a time for optimism but there is a genuine belief this group has turned the proverbial corner going into the 2021-22 campaign, which opens Wednesday in Anaheim with a tilt against the Ducks that opens a three-game road trip.
“I like to feel that energy from people,” said Schmidt, whose positive energy has been on display throughout training camp. “Each person has something to bring and bringing your own personality and your own jam to the rink, you see that guys bring that through each day and that’s when you start to see that this guy has something for our group.
“It’s another piece that you add into our awesome puzzle that we have as a group.”
Now that the greatest deficiency has been addressed and the pieces seem to be in place for a successful season, the time has come for the Jets to show that they’re more than just a paper tiger.
After all, there are no banners raised for winning the off-season and history is littered with teams that often don’t live up to the hype.
However, it’s easy to make the case that this team is poised to take another run.
They’ve got a Vezina-calibre goalie in Connor Hellebuyck who is once again ready to carry the load.
The upgraded defence corps should help the Jets spend less time in the D-zone and conceivably make life easier on Hellebuyck when it comes to shot volume and shot quality.
“I hope that’s true. I mean, that’s the goal,” said Jets head coach Paul Maurice. “We’d love for him to be bored in the net some nights.”
Hellebuyck is a goalie who thrives on being busy, so it will be interesting to monitor if this impacts his ability to stay as sharp as he’s been during the past several seasons.
The forward group is once again a strength, with several game-breakers like Mark Scheifele, Kyle Connor and Nikolaj Ehlers set to take another step in what should be the midst of their prime and ample depth to round things out.
Certainly there is pressure on Pierre-Luc Dubois to have a strong season, as things didn’t go smoothly after the blockbuster trade with the Columbus Blue Jackets.
But Dubois arrived in training camp with a refreshed outlook and a steely focus on getting back to the player he was during the first three seasons of his NHL career.
Plenty of ink has been spilled on the improvements to the defence, but Schmidt and Dillon are leaving their mark on and off the ice.
They’ve got the experience of playing on winning teams and the skill sets to help their defence partners – Josh Morrissey and Neal Pionk – excel as the team moves back to playing a more aggressive and up-tempo style of game.
“If you look at this group of defencemen, we’ve got a lot of guys that can play a lot of different styles, which is really fun to see,” said Schmidt. “You’ve got a lot of guys that can move the puck and even the bigger guys can move the puck and they move well. Coach says we don’t have any slugs back there.
“But you look at this team and you look at the offensive firepower we have, when you play against this group, you look at that and now you start adding a little more of a dynamic to your back end, that adds another element to your group. You look at the most successful teams the last couple of years, they always have that type of skating, mobile defence that can always move, always be a threat and that’s kind of what I envision for our group this year.”
Moving back into the Central Division from the North Division will be a transition for the Jets, but this group has been embracing the fact expectations are on the rise.
After grinding it out through two seasons of being a bubble team, it’s a lot more fun to have high expectations and to be labelled as a contender.
Maurice isn’t shying away from expectations, but he’s not about to make any bold proclamations either – and it’s not because he’s lacking confidence regarding how his team stacks up.
“I think what’s holding any prediction back is that we haven’t seen the rest of the league in two years. That’s what it feels like,” said Maurice, who is back for a ninth season and is the second-longest tenured coach in the NHL behind Jon Cooper of the Tampa Bay Lightning. “You could come into this year and have a pretty good idea of what those other teams look like, right? They added a couple of players, you can assess them… I have no idea what those teams look like. Because you can watch them on TV but you’ve got to get down to bench level, play the game, and then you’ll either… You know, a lot of nights you’ll say, ‘Man that’s a good team, they’re not far off it’ or ‘they’re really coming’ or you’ll say, ‘that’s not quite the team that it used to be.’
“So then you have a pretty good idea of where you stack up. But we’re unusual. We don’t see them. It’s an unusual year at the start because everybody comes in with a whole lot of unknown. So it’s an advantage and a disadvantage, right? We don’t know them but they don’t know them either. We’ve got some changes, so it’s going to be a first look for all of us. The first tour around the NHL is going to be very interesting this year.”
With a good chunk of this core group under contract for at least the next three seasons, the stakes are also noticeably higher as the window to contend swings back open.
Now it’s all about trying to take advantage of the opportunity that is in front of the Jets, to take lessons from the emotional scar tissue that’s built up since the run to the Western Conference final and push forward in the quest to reach the ultimate goal.
“We feel pretty confident,” said Jets forward Andrew Copp, who opens the season in a top-six role with Dubois and Ehlers. “We liked a lot of the preseason. We’re excited, I feel like we’ve improved. We’re going to play fast, we’re a pretty tight-knit group already, so yeah, we’re just anxious to get the season going.”