It could only happen in hockey. The city of Winnipeg is one of the smallest metro areas in North America to host one of the four major professional sports teams, and the residents of that city have gone through a decades-long ordeal to have their beloved Jets return to them. The first incarnation of the Jets played in the city for more than twenty years before being relocated to Phoenix, Arizona in the 1990s- becoming the Arizona Coyotes. It would take another decade and a half for the city to host an NHL team once again.
The Atlanta Thrashers’ time as a franchise had consisted almost entirely of failures both on the ice (they only made the playoffs once in their history) and in terms of attendance, failing to make inroads in a non-traditional hockey market the way that other expansion franchises had been able to. With the Atlanta experiment not working out, the NHL looked to the safer bet of a Canadian market to resurrect the franchise.
After having been purchased by Canadian buyer True North Sports & Entertainment, the Thrashers label was discarded and the Jets franchise was resurreced in 2011. For their first several years back in Winnipeg, the Jets failed to make the playoffs, however General Manager Kevin Cheveldayoff worked diligently to rebuild the team’s farm system through trades and the draft. This culminated in 2016 when the club won the second overall pick in the draft lottery, enabling them to select Finnish winger Patrik Laine, projected to be one of the best goal scorers to enter the league in several years.
In the 2017–18 season, the pieces Cheveldayoff had been building finally came together. Laine led the team with 44 goals in his second year, right winger Blake Wheeler (acquired in a trade with former Winnipeg residents Arizona) turned in a 91 point season, and drafted players such as Kyle Connor, Nikolaj Ehlers and Mark Scheifele also made strong contributions. Goalie Connor Hellebuyck emerged as one of the league’s best netminders, and the team turned in 52 wins, one of the league’s best records. Although they lost in the Western conference finals to the Vegas Golden Knights, Winnipeg fans believed that a long run of contention was just beginning.
In the two years since, however, the team has failed to replicate their success. In 2018–19 the Jets won 47 games, but bowed out in the first round to the eventual Stanley Cup champion St. Louis Blues. In 2019–20, they fell to the Calgary Flames in the play in round of the expanded NHL postseason, thus technically missing the playoffs. Amidst all of this, rumblings of discontent grew from the man projected to be the Jets’ brightest young star.
Over the course of the 2020 offseason, rumors that Patrik Laine was dissatisfied in Winnipeg grew in intensity. The scuttlebutt was that Laine was dissatisfied with coach Paul Maurice not playing him on the team’s top line with no.1 center Scheifele, and as a result would not even consider a long term extension or resigning with the team once he reached free agency. Luckily for Winnipeg, an ideal trade partner was emerging as another team found itself dealing with a discontented young star.
Pierre-Luc Dubois was selected exactly one pick after Laine in the 2016 Draft, by the Columbus Blue Jackets. Although he lacks Laine’s flashy goal scoring ability, he has nonetheless emerged into one of the league’s premier young two-way (meaning strong both on offense and defense) centers, seemingly fitting in well with a Blue Jackets team known for its tough, physical style.
However, during the 2020 offseason rumors began to mount that he, too, was dissatisfied with his situation in Columbus and wanted a change of scenery. As the 2021 season began, the situation became untenable for Columbus, with the famously uncompromising Blue Jackets coach John Tortorella benching
The potential trade partnership of Columbus and Winnipeg almost seemed too obvious to be true. Indeed, as trade talks intensified in January 2021, alternate suitors for Dubois emerged, particularly his hometown team, the Montreal Canadiens. According to some sources, at one point virtually half the league had checked in on Dubois, given the rarity of chances to acquire a center of his caliber and young age.
In the end, however, the most obvious pick of trade partners turned out to be the right one. On January 23rd, 2021, the trade was announced- Laine and Jack Roslovic (a young Jets center who had also requested a trade out of Winnipeg) for Dubois and the sweetener of a future third round draft pick. The Patrik Laine era in Winnipeg had ended, before it had properly had the chance to begin.
Although it is doubtless disappointing for the Jets to give up a player of Laine’s caliber, the trade has nonetheless left them in a strong position going forward. Between Dubois, Mark Scheifele, and veteran Paul Stastny, the Jets now have some of the best depth at the center position in their all-Canadian North division, if not the entire league. Furthermore, the team still does not lack goal-scoring ability- last season, Kyle Connor emerged as nearly Laine’s equal in that regard, scoring 38 goals in 71 games. In goal, Connor Hellebuyck is coming off of the Vezina Trophy as the league’s best goaltender, and at twenty-seven should be in the midst of his prime.
The Jets have gotten off to a promising start this season, jumping out to second place in the North Division. The team will have to wait for Dubois to arrive, as the center will have to subject himself to the Canadian government’s mandated quarantine period. But when he does finally take to the ice in Winnipeg, the Jets will have completed the construction of a new identity for their team. The question now is whether this new incarnation is enough to bring Jets fans home a Stanley Cup for the first time.