The Canadian Press
WINNIPEG–Before training camp even began, Blake Wheeler set the bar for the Winnipeg Jets.
It’s basically playoffs-or-bust this season for the NHL club’s second-year captain.
“It’s got to be this year, it just has to be,” Wheeler told reporters after an informal skate in late August.
“It’s been a lot of the same thing,” he noted. “We have enough talent, there’s no reason why we can’t push this to the next level this year.”
The Jets’ only playoff appearance since relocating to Winnipeg from Atlanta in 2011 was a first-round sweep at the hands of the Anaheim Ducks in 2015.
Since then, the franchise’s draft-and-develop plan has added plenty of youngsters who are beginning to excel.
Players are confident the Central Division squad now has the talent, depth, and experience to qualify for the post-season.
Winnipeg finished ninth (40-35-7) in the Western Conference last season–seven points behind Nashville for the final wild-card spot–and begins its playoff quest tomorrow with a home-opener against the Toronto Maple Leafs.
Third-year winger Nikolaj Ehlers said he’d view anything less than a playoff spot as a failure.
“Yes, I would,” the speedy 21-year-old Dane said recently.
“I think everybody else in this room would, too, because we’ve been working really hard the past couple of years at getting to where we want to go, and that’s the playoffs.
“We all believe that this is our year,” addd Ehlers. “We feel ready.
“We want it. We want it bad,” he stressed.
Ehlers was one of four Jets who finished with more than 60 points last season. Centre Mark Scheifele led with 82 points, followed by Wheeler with 74, then Ehlers and Patrik Laine with 64 each.
Laine fired in a team-high 36 goals and was a finalist for the Calder Trophy as top rookie.
The goal for the Finnish sniper this season isn’t, well, more goals. At least, he’s not saying that publicly.
“Just making the playoffs,” said Laine, 19. “That’s my only goal for the season, and working hard every day so we can make that happen.”
A key to Winnipeg’s success will be avoiding injuries.
The club’s 364 man games lost to injuries last season was second to Vancouver’s 459.
The Jets’ four top point-getters will suit up with veteran centre Bryan Little and Mathieu Perreault to make up the top two lines, although head coach Paul Maurice may tinker around.
Little wasn’t getting into early playoff talk.
“If anything, I think we shouldn’t be thinking about playoffs right now,” he remarked.
“We should just be focusing on having a good start, knowing that we have a team that can be a playoff team if we put a full season together.”