WINNIPEG, Manitoba -- Before training camp even began, Blake Wheeler set the bar for the Winnipeg Jets. It's playoffs or bust this season for the second-year captain.
"It's got to be this year, it just has to be," Wheeler said. "It's been a lot of the same thing. 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 postseason after finishing seven points out of the playoffs last season.
Speedy third-year winger Nikolaj Ehlers, 21, was one of four Jets who finished with more than 60 points last season. Center Mark Scheifele led the team with 82 points, followed by Wheeler with 74 and 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 19-year-old Finn is simply interested in reaching the postseason.
Winnipeg scored 249 goals (tied for sixth in the NHL), but its 256 goals against was 27th out of the 30 teams. The penalty kill was a woeful 26th.
New arrivals who could help include veteran goalie Steve Mason, defenseman Dmitry Kulikov and Matt Hendricks, a forward whose strengths are faceoffs and killing penalties. Mason is expected to get the bulk of games in his 10th NHL campaign, with last season's inconsistent starter Connor Hellebuyck learning from him and pushing for his turn during his third season.
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. Only four Jets played all 82 games: Wheeler, Ehlers, forward Adam Lowry and rookie Josh Morrissey.
Morrissey (20 points) and veteran Dustin Byfuglien (80 games, 52 points) were two of the lucky rearguards. The team's top six defensemen were only in the lineup for part of one game, as Jacob Trouba returned from a contract dispute for the same game that saw Tyler Myers go down with an injury.
Myers ended up playing only 11 games, but he's back now and full of optimism.
"There's no doubt we have the guys on the backend to do that," Myers said. "It's coming together as a pairing, as a six-man unit on the backend."
Gone from Winnipeg's roster are veteran defensemen Mark Stuart and Paul Postma and forward Chris Thorburn.
The Jets' four top point-getters will suit up with veteran Bryan Little and Mathieu Perreault to make up the top two lines, although coach Paul Maurice may tinker around.
Maurice cautioned that "it's probably smarter to lower your expectations" so a win is a "marvelous thing" and a loss is just a learning experience - but he was fine with Wheeler's playoff proclamation.
"That's exactly what I want the captain of the team thinking," Maurice said. "Right now. Right here. Right now with this team, so that when you do have a stretch that's not going your way, you are going to get pressure put upon you so we've got to learn how to deal with that."
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