The Winnipeg Jets have seemingly been a team on the up in the last few years, but are arguably at a crossroads going into the 2023/24 campaign.
In their first six seasons after relocating to Winnipeg, the Jets reached the playoffs just once, but they have qualified for the postseason proper in four of the last six seasons, missing out in 2021/22, while they lost in the qualifying round in 2019/20.
Two of the key stars on their roster - goaltender Connor Hellebuyck and top goalscorer Mark Scheifele - are going into the final year of their contracts and the future direction of the franchise may depend on what happens this season.
|What||2023/24 NHL Season|
|Where||US & Canada|
|When||October 10, 2023 - June 2024|
|How to watch||Sportsnet, TVA, RSN & NHL Centre Ice|
|Odds||TOR Maple Leafs +800, COL Avalanche +850, EDM Oilers +900, NJ Devils +1000|
In some ways, last season was a success for the Jets as they recorded their third-most wins in a season and fourth-highest number of points in franchise history.
They won five of their last seven games in the regular season to secure the last Western Division playoff spot, finishing two points clear of the Calgary Flames.
Despite winning the opening game of their first-round series 5-1 in Las Vegas, the Jets lost the next four and ended up as one part of the Golden Knights' road to Stanley Cup glory last season.
Rick Bowness returned as head coach going into the 2022/23 season, making a big decision to strip long-time leader Blake Wheeler of the captaincy from the get-go, and ultimately going through the season without a 'C'.
Having missed out on the playoffs the previous season, it was a bold but necessary move for Bowness to make and he delivered postseason hockey in Winnipeg - albeit with the manner of their defeat to Vegas in the first round leaving plenty of hurt and frustration in the Jets' dressing room.
Such issues will not be a problem going into the new season, at least according to Bowness. But there are still plenty of questions to answer, with a number of their core squad potentially heading into unrestricted free agency putting the future up in the air.
Connor Hellebuyck and Mark Scheifele are two such players and there are obvious questions as to whether they want to stay in Winnipeg. Their expiring contracts mean they may be more motivated to produce this season, regardless of where their futures lie.
Trading away Pierre-Luc Dubois to the Los Angeles Kings in exchange for Alex Iafallo, Gabriel Vilardi and Rasmus Kupari might have improved the depth, but has arguably decreased the star quality - and has put a little more pressure on the top line to deliver.
If the Jets were to regress this season and not make the playoffs, Hellebuyck and Scheifele may indeed decide to seek greener pastures. For better or worse, the team’s fate looks to lie in their hands.
That seems particularly true of Hellebuyck, who has been one of the elite goaltenders in the NHL for a number of years now, a three-time Vezina Trophy finalist and winning that award in 2019/20.
The 30-year-old tied for third in wins last season, tied fourth in save percentage, and faced the third-most shots while making the second-most saves. Having been a big reason the Jets had the eighth-best defence in 2022/23, Hellebuyck probably needs to put up similar numbers if the Jets are to reach the postseason once again.
Hellebuyck needs help from elsewhere, but their offense looks a little short of creativity, particularly with Dubois and Wheeler having moved on.
Scheifele in all likelihood needs to step up even more after registering 68 points from 81 games last season, finishing second to Kyle Connor on the team in points and joint-ninth in the league in goals scored with 42.
A lot depends on those two, with two of the team's top five scoring leaders (Dubois and Wheeler) gone and not ideally replaced.
A lot of pressure also lies on the shoulders of Josh Morrissey following a career-year in goals (16), assists (60) and points (76) in 2022/23 which has cemented his status as the team's top defenseman.
Although he was tied-second in the NHL for points for all defensemen last season, it is worth noting that those figures more than double his previous best of 2021/22, and whether he can repeat or improve those stats is open to question.
The supporting cast may of course provide the necessary backup to make life easier as a well-rounded if unspectacular offense, but making the playoffs could well be the ceiling for the Jets this season.
The Jets are priced at +4000 to win their first Stanley Cup this season, while they are +2000 to go one better than in 2017/18 and win the Western Conference.
Winnipeg are +850 to win the Central Division in 2023/24, while they are -140 to make the playoffs, and +110 to fail to do so for the second time in three seasons.
Hellebuyck's over/under total for wins has been set at 31.5, while he is co-favorite of four at +600 to win his second Vezina Trophy award, alongside Ilya Sorokin, Juuse Saros, and Igor Shesterkin.
The Jets open their campaign on the road at the Calgary Flames on October 11, before a tricky three-game home stand against former coach Paul Maurice's Stanley Cup finalists, the Florida Panthers, Dubois' Kings and defending champions, the Vegas Golden Knights.
Winnipeg are hosting the St Louis Blues on October 24, with further games on November 7 and February 27, while games against the Nashville Predators take place on November 9 and 26, March 13 and April 9.
A back-to-back double header against Minnesota closes out 2023, with the Wild visiting the Canada Life Centre on February 20, before the Jets travel to the Xcel Energy Centre on April 6.
Last season's Central Division winners, the Colorado Avalanche, are the opposition on December 7 and 16, and April 13, a trip to Seattle looms on trade deadline day on March 8, while a home game against the Vancouver Canucks closes out the regular season on April 18.
Rick Bowness' first NHL head coaching role came in Winnipeg back in 1988/89, finishing the original Jets' campaign that season after the sacking of Dan Maloney.
Bowness was not taken on permanently at the end of his 8-17-3 spell but returned to coaching with the Boston Bruins in 1991/92, finishing second in the Adams Division (now the Atlantic Division), before beating Buffalo and Montreal en route to the Conference finals, where they were swept by the Pittsburgh Penguins.
The now-68-year-old then spent time at the Ottawa Senators, New York Islanders and Phoenix Coyotes - missing the playoffs each time, before taking the Dallas Stars to the Stanley Cup Finals in 2019/20 and the playoffs two seasons later.
Bowness returned to Winnipeg last season, improving the Jets to a 46-33-3 record and fourth place in the Central Division.
Laurent Brossoit (G) Vegas
Collin Delia (G) Vancouver
Jeffrey Viel (LW) San Jose
Gabriel Vilardi (C) Los Angeles
Rasmus Kupari (C) Los Angeles
Alex Iafallo (LW) Los Angeles
Artemi Kniazev (D) San Jose
Pierre-Luc Dubois (C) Los Angeles
Blake Wheeler (RW) New York Rangers
Leon Gawanke (D) San Jose
Arvid Holm (G) Colorado
Alex Limoges (C) Washington
Karson Kuhlman (C) New York Islanders
Evan Cormier (G) Charlotte Checkers (AHL)
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