By Judy Owen, The Canadian Press
WINNIPEG — The Winnipeg Jets will soon find out if dealing with some early adversity has harmed or helped them.
Training camp started without restricted free-agent goal scorers Patrik Laine and Kyle Connor, while veteran defenceman Dustin Byfuglien was granted a personal leave of absence to reportedly ponder retirement following an injury-marred season.
Laine created more headlines when some comments he made about playing partners to a Finnish reporter were viewed as possibly insulting Jets centre Bryan Little, a regular lineman. He ended up apologizing to Little.
The distractions finally began decreasing last Friday when Laine inked a two-year deal. Connor signed a seven-year contract late Saturday.
Byfuglien remains a question mark as the NHL club prepares for Thursday’s season opener in New York against the Rangers.
“We’ve had a lot to deal with throughout camp and the guys that have showed up and put the work in, we’re forming a pretty tight group here,” Jets captain Blake Wheeler told reporters after Laine’s deal was confirmed but before Connor’s was announced.
“It’s going to be great to welcome guys back whenever they get here… Hopefully, we’ll hit the ground running.”
Camp also differed from last season because of another missing element — high expectations for the team.
Fans and pundits had slotted the club as a top contender to hoist the Stanley Cup after it lost to Vegas in the 2018 Western Conference final, but the Jets fell far short of those predictions.
Winnipeg (47-30-5) couldn’t get on a roll to end the regular season and was unable to flip the switch in the playoffs. The St. Louis Blues knocked them out of their first-round matchup in six games and went on to claim the Cup.
Jets goalie Connor Hellebuyck is glad to shed the weight of those expectations.
“I think we kind of built up expectations on ourselves a little bit last year and I don’t think that’s ever great for a locker-room,” Hellebuyck said.
“But I think having that underdog mentality, which I think now we’re all pretty hungry to get back at it (will be good), so we have the hunger and we’re not thinking too highly of ourselves anymore. We’re back to work.”
Many fans and hockey analysts are now wondering how the Jets will fare in the tough Central Division, especially with deletions from their defence.
Top-pairing defenceman Jacob Trouba was traded to the Rangers for fellow blue-liner Neal Pionk, while veteran Tyler Myers and Ben Chiarot left through free agency.
But Hellebuyck is optimistic about the help the goaltenders — the returning backup is Laurent Brossoit — will get in front of them.
“The pieces that come and go, they’re all going to be good and they’re all going to play their part and they’re all going to do it well, as long as we build the chemistry together,” he said.
Wheeler said the skaters are collectively working to help their netminders.
“We’re real focused on the details of our game. I think it’s going to make us a stronger defensive team,” he said.
“We took a step back in that department last year so I think it’s going to enable our goalies to see a lot of pucks, eliminate some of the more egregious chances against that we gave up and, hopefully, build a real confidence in our team game so that they can carry the load for us.”
WINNIPEG JETS AT A GLANCE
Paul Maurice enters his sixth full season with the Jets.
47-30-5, lost to St. Louis Blues in first round of the playoffs.
Connor Hellebuyck: The starting netminder went from being a Vezina finalist two seasons ago to average last season (.913 save percentage, 2.90 goals against average). He’ll need more consistency and hot outings with a less-veteran defensive group in front of him or backup Laurent Brossoit will be a viable option.
Patrik Laine: The Finnish sharp shooter has a new two-year bridge deal and will have to show his decline in goals last season (30 from 44) was a blip, while his overall game has improved.
Josh Morrissey: Management put their confidence in the Calgary native with an eight-year contract extension. Can the defenceman live up to it, and handle the extra minutes and leadership expectations that will come his way?
THE BIG QUESTION
Can the Jets bounce back from a first-round playoff exit last season minus three starting defencemen, or four if Dustin Byfuglien retires? They have weapons on offence to make up some slack, but line juggling is still needed until the right chemistry emerges.