With no distractions in camp, Jets focused on returning to contender status

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WINNIPEG — Blake Wheeler has been around long enough to know that predictions and prognostications usually are not worth the paper they’re printed on.

So, when the topic of conversation shifted to the much-ballyhooed improvements to the defence corps following the opening day of training camp and what it meant for expectations surrounding his team, the Winnipeg Jets captain had virtually no interest in drawing any sweeping conclusions or making any bold proclamations.

While he’s thrilled about the arrival of Nate Schmidt and Brenden Dillon and what it could mean for the group, Wheeler made sure he set a serious tone as he spoke to reporters on Thursday afternoon.

Sure, he sprinkled in a splash of his sense of humour, making a crack about how a reporter may have been trying to bait him into an Aaron Rodgers type of rant when asked a question about what level — if any — he had in discussions with Jets management about trying to bring in players.

But this was classic Wheeler. Direct and to the point. That serious tone wasn’t an accident.

Wheeler is 34 years old and realizes his best chance at capturing a Stanley Cup could be sitting right in front of him.

The mood surrounding the Jets at training camp is decidedly different and this isn’t just your run-of-the-mill optimism almost every team feels as a new campaign approaches.

The opening day of training camp last season centred around Patrik Laine addressing his interest in a potential trade after his agents suggested a change of scenery might be best for both parties, one that came several weeks into the regular season. The other overarching theme surrounded a defence corps that was still very much in flux and likely still in need of improvement.

In the fall of 2019, the shocking news that Dustin Byfuglien had asked for and been granted a personal leave of absence — the first step toward him stepping away from the sport entirely — dominated the Day 1 headlines. Kyle Connor and Laine also missed that entire training camp as they awaited new contracts as restricted free agents. Despite being ready for the season opener that year, not having the scoring wingers around was certainly a storyline.

There were no bombshells dropped on the opening day this time around that would fall under the category of becoming a potential distraction — even though Wheeler was adamant that the lack of outside noise was nothing new inside the hallowed halls of the locker room.

“There’s never a narrative outside of hockey in our dressing room,” said Wheeler. “I’m sure guys are on social media. But nobody’s really, in the past, that I can recall, bought into any narrative or anything outside of just our team trying to win hockey games. We’re definitely excited about the off-season.

“That’s definitely been a change around here. We haven’t historically had off-seasons like that. I think that gives some of the guys that have been here for a while a little extra boost and extra excitement coming into training camp.”

That extra excitement is genuine, but Wheeler doesn’t want this group to get ahead of things or to be swept away by its press clippings.

Yes, the Jets should be moving comfortably back to contender status after residing in the bubble team column the past two seasons, but nothing is guaranteed and the hard work that is required to reach that point doesn’t happen on its own.

Jets head coach Paul Maurice said last week that this was probably the most balanced team he’s had since arriving in January of 2014 and Wheeler was asked if he shared those sentiments.

“I’ve skated with these guys one time. I’ve skated with these guys one time,” said Wheeler, who was just warming up. “I don’t know. Let’s play some games, because on paper means (expletive). It doesn’t mean a thing.

“The best team on paper is not the team that wins. I mean, Tampa has got some talent, but they had talent when they got swept by Columbus, too. So, there’s way more to it than that and that’s the most important thing. On paper, we look pretty good. But it doesn’t mean anything.”

Wheeler’s words have nothing to do with his belief in what this group could be. In fact, they merely represent the urgency he’s feeling internally.

And he’s not the only one sharing that line of thinking.

“I’m always excited to come back and play hockey but this one, I feel like we’ve really sold the farm and we’re going for it,” said Jets goalie Connor Hellebuyck, who revealed he dealt with a bout of COVID-19 in late August before getting vaccinated. “Every year, that’s been my mindset and now this year I know everyone around me has the same mindset, so I’m really excited to see what we can do and I’m going to give it my all.

“I don’t know if it’s a different feel. I think we just have a subtly different mindset coming in. We know we’re getting older, not getting any younger. Our time’s running out and Blake (Wheeler) says it all the time, that once you become that older guy, you look back and you wish that things would have went differently, so now’s our time for that to be different.”

One thing the Jets won’t have to worry about is questions about vaccinations as the players and staff aren’t leaving anything to chance.

“We’re all vaccinated on the team and that helps a lot,” said Jets centre Pierre-Luc Dubois. “Every team has a different situation, but we’re really happy about how we’ve approached it.”

Windows of contention can change quickly and in many cases, are a moving target. The Jets saw this first hand and with only one series victory since a run to the Western Conference final in 2018, it’s time to see if the organization is ready to take the next step. They don’t want to be left wondering what if or be left with feelings of regret.

The early signs are that the personnel is in place to make a similar run, thanks to a nice blend of young talent, blossoming stars and cagey veterans. Goaltending is in good hands with Hellebuyck, there should be plenty of offensive firepower and with an enhanced commitment to playing without the puck, the Jets should be able to improve defensively.

Most members of this core group have dealt with plenty of emotional scar tissue, but going through those difficult times is what makes the journey all the more enjoyable when a team is finally able to get over the hump.

But being considered to be among the winners of the off-season isn’t enough. This edition of the Jets has much loftier goals in mind.

Samberg shaken up

Defence prospect Dylan Samberg suffered an apparent right knee or ankle injury on the opening day of Jets training camp after falling awkwardly near the end of a drill.

Samberg was involved in a puck battle along the boards with frequent Manitoba Moose defence partner Johnny Kovacevic and was in noticeable discomfort as he was helped to the bench.

Although Samberg eventually left the ice on his own power, he wasn’t putting much weight on his right leg.

Maurice didn’t have an update on Samberg’s condition but was hopeful it was not serious as he’s hoping to see the blue-liner in multiple exhibition games.

The Jets plan to scrimmage regularly through training camp and the first one required a sudden death shootout to break a 1-1 tie (Nikolaj Ehlers and Josh Morrissey were the goal scorers).

Cole Perfetti settled the deadlock with a nifty forehand-backhand-forehand deke that beat Hellebuyck along the ice on the blocker side.

“You really want to know? He’s a slick player,” Hellebuyck said when asked about the move in question. “When he came in so slow, it really threw me off guard because I hadn’t gone that slow at all this summer. I’ve been going fast and making sure I get my speed up, so him coming that slow really put me in the trolley tracks and (it was a) good move for him.”

When it comes to those six exhibition games, Maurice said his initial plan was to likely give Hellebuyck three starts, Eric Comrie two and for Mikhail Berdin to get one.

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