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When you look at the Western Conference, you have a wide array of teams built in different ways.
On one hand, you have the Vegas Golden Knights, whose core group of skaters was built from great expansion drafting and nifty trading.
On the other hand, you have high-pick star players of the Edmonton Oilers who have not one, but two super-star forwards, with one potentially winning flashy hardware due to near-otherworldly production on the ice this season.
Everywhere in-between, you have teams built on drafted players, free agent moves and blockbuster trades.
Then, you have the Winnipeg Jets.
The devil’s advocate in the back of the room will say that yes, it is true that the Jets’ style of drafting and developing players is not a revolutionary concept. However, the sheer quantity of homegrown players they possess, and how they have helped vault the team into a Wild Card spot with the potential to shoot up into the Western Conference top-three, should the season resume.
This team has already found success with their home grown talent as they reached the conference finals in 2018 after defeating the Minnesota Wild and Nashville Predators. Then last season, they made another trip to the playoffs but lost in the first round to the eventual Stanley Cup champion St. Louis Blues.
When you scroll through the roster, you automatically go to the three-plus-one combo the Jets have at their disposal in their top line going into their secondary. Left winger Kyle Connor and Mark Scheifele lead the team with 73 points, closely followed by right winger and team captain Blake Wheeler with 65. To complete the tandem, you have right winger Patrick Laine whose 63 points are good enough for fourth on the team. With the four forwards, the Jets hold the honor of being the only NHL team to have four players with at least 60 points.
Three of those players – Connor, Scheifele and Laine – all share a similar characteristic in that they are all 27 years old or younger and have been drafted by the Jets in the first round (Scheifele in 2011, Connor in 2015 and Laine in 2016). Even Wheeler, despite not being drafted by the Jets, was traded to the team when he was only 24 during the 2010-2011 season when they were still the Atlanta Thrashers.
But the homegrown talent does not end there. Forwards Nikolaj Ehlers, Jack Roslovic and defenseman Josh Morrissey, 5th, 7th and 8th respectively on the team in points were all drafted by the Jets as well, with all three players coming back-to-back-to-back in drafts (Morrissey in 2013, Ehlers in 2014 and Roslovic in 2015).
By now, you get the picture – the Jets draft well. Of their top 11 players in terms of points, all but three (Wheeler and blue-liner Neal Pionk and forward Mathieu Perreault) were drafted by Winnipeg.
Obviously, a ton of the credit has to go to the front office – since Kevin Cheveldayoff took over the general manager chair in the summer of 2011, he has taken off and not only scored big with top draft picks but also lottery tickets in the middle and late rounds. And that is not even taking into account his activity at trade deadlines when necessary. However, credit has to go the players themselves for honing their craft and becoming more complete hockey players.
Take their game against the Edmonton Oilers on March 12th, the final day of hockey action before COVID-19 shut down all operations. With the Jets finding themselves quickly down only nine seconds into the second period, they quickly found their puck movement and scored four of the final five goals in the game, winning the matchup 4-2. Why is this significant? The Jets were battling turnover issues during the game and have statistically started off games slow; the Jets are 29th in the NHL in 1st period goals with only 50. However, the entire team worked together with puck movement in the neutral zone and were able to set up solid shots in the slot that eventually found their way in. Like many other victories this season, the Jets have made it a habit of getting enough clutch plays from a variety of their homegrown players. Their victory over the Oilers exemplifies that although they start slow, their blend of homegrown players meshing and knowing each other’s styles of play in addition to their pure talent has begun to show itself in a productive way.
Sure, any team can say a similar story with their victories. Maybe a flashy free agent signing has made the difference. Perhaps they are finally reaping the benefits of a top-three draft pick. A nifty trade is also possible. When scanning the Western Conference, you see all of this with other team’s homegrown players.
When you see the Jets, though, you just see pure drafting and trading for young players top to bottom, high draft pick or low.
When you see the Jets, that recipe bodes well in the long-term.