By Judy Owen, The Canadian Press
WINNIPEG – The Winnipeg Jets know what went right, and what went wrong, in their 2016-17 season.
Talented young players and the ability to score goals were the bright spots. Inconsistent defence, goaltending and plenty of injuries hurt. But as the players cleaned out their lockers Sunday after missing the NHL playoffs for the fifth time in six seasons, they were collectively optimistic about the future.
“I don’t see many teams more talented than we are right now,” captain Blake Wheeler said. “We definitely have our flaws and some holes we could fill in, but on a night-in, night-out basis, with a young team like that, I never thought we were over-matched.”
The Jets finished the season setting a franchise record with a seven-game win streak. Their 87 points (40-36-7) was the second highest since the team relocated from Atlanta in 2011.
“We score enough goals and we won quite a few games, but it’s those losses and those goals against that are the biggest thing,” centre Bryan Little said. “We’ve got to get better defensively, I think is the main concern. I don’t think this team is ever going to have a problem getting offence and scoring goals. We just need to be better defensively and work on keeping the puck out of the net.”
Winnipeg’s 249 goals for were in the league’s upper level, but so were its 256 goals against and the 355 man games it lost to injuries.
Four players collected more than 60 points. Mark Scheifele led with a career-high 82, Wheeler had 74 and sophomore winger Nikolaj Ehlers and rookie sensation Patrik Laine each tallied 64.
Laine led the team with 36 goals (including three hat tricks), while rookie defenceman Josh Morrissey was steady and one of four Jets to play all 82 games.
Third-year forward Adam Lowry commended Laine for handling the intense spotlight from NHL and Finnish media.
“They’re kind of pitting you against another guy, him and (Toronto rookie Auston) Matthews it seemed like all year. They want the storylines,” Lowry said. “I think he did a great job.”
Winnipeg’s goaltending situation will be scrutinized in the off-season.
Veteran netminder Ondrej Pavelec was sent down to the AHL Manitoba Moose after training camp, leaving sophomore Connor Hellebuyck (26-19-4) backed up by third-year Michael Hutchinson (9-12-3).
Pavelec was called up in January and played eight games, but then was injured and never returned. It’s expected he won’t be in the team’s plans for next season as he and forwards Paul Postma and Chris Thorburn are the club’s pending unrestricted free agents.
Veteran forward Mathieu Perreault described the team’s goaltending as “a bit of a struggle.”
“There’s no team making the playoffs that isn’t getting saves, so we are going to definitely need some saves, too,” Perreault said.
Hellebuyck said he’ll work on his consistency in the off-season and doesn’t mind if the team brings in some competition for crease time.
“Competition’s good, it drives us to be better,” the 23-year-old said. “I’m a team player, so if it helps the team, it helps the team and I’m happy.”
The season also began with defenceman Jacob Trouba missing the first 15 games in a contract impasse. He signed a $6-million, two-year bridge deal and returned to post a career-high 33 points, including eight goals, in 60 games.
When asked if he would consider signing a long-term extension in the off-season, he replied he’d talk it over with his agent and Jets management.
“It’s not a super pressing issue, I don’t think,” Trouba said. “I’ve just got to play out next year and see where it goes.”
Some Jets will compete in May’s world championship in France and Germany.
Hellebuyck says he’ll represent the United States, Scheifele will be there for Canada and Ehlers with Denmark. Laine may take a pass to rest. He played in last year’s world championships and World Cup, then 73 NHL games and the all-star game. He missed eight because of a concussion and one from illness.
But fans will be happy to hear he plans to improve his strength and speed in the off-season.
“It’s easier to play when you’re faster and you can create more space for yourself,” Laine said. “Hopefully, (I) score some more goals and help my team to win more (next season).