Jets shooting for the playoffs

Dustin Byfuglien leads a strong group on defense that has the Jets aiming for the playoffs. Bruce Fedyck/US Presswire

ARLINGTON, Va. -- Zach Bogosian was 18 years old when he made his NHL regular-season debut in an October win over Washington. Bogosian had the athletic pedigree and work ethic -- with a father who captained Syracuse's football team -- so the on-ice portion of the adjustment wasn't the challenge.

It was everything else that went into being an NHL player that made things tough on him.

"You had to grow up really fast," Bogosian said when we chatted at U.S. Olympic orientation camp this week. "It's a different world."

The thing that stands out to Bogosian was just how nervous he was to be around veteran NHL players. Guys who had been in the league for years, or had families to support -- all of it seemed foreign to Bogosian. Then, on top of that anxiety came the challenges that come with being the last line of defense before the goalie.

"It's your responsibility to be the backbone of the team. If you screw up, it's just the goalie who can save you," he said. "You can have all the physical attributes in the world as a defenseman. If you're not there mentally, you don't know certain ways to handle things, you'll get eaten alive."

And so when he sees the calm and confidence displayed by his 19-year-old Winnipeg teammate, defenseman Jacob Trouba, he's even more impressed. Some of the things that Bogosian struggled with while trying to break into the NHL don't appear to be a problem for Trouba. He's completely comfortable, not only in a room of his teammates, but in a room with future Olympians, some of the best players in the world.

When Trouba chatted with the media at Team USA's Olympic orientation camp, it was with ease and confidence. At one point, he was asked about future teammate Dustin Byfuglien, and he started off seriously enough.

"He's a pretty special player; the things he does are pretty crazy," Trouba said. "He obviously is well-liked in Winnipeg and is a good guy."

Then he couldn't resist jokingly taking a shot at his future teammate's focus on offense. "I'm thankful to have him there. He's a good guy to watch. Offensively," Trouba said, and then gave a big grin. "No, and defensively too. He's a good player."

Naturally, the guys in Winnipeg already like Trouba.

"I haven't seen him play, but I've heard good stories," Byfuglien -- also taking part in the camp -- said. "Talking with him -- he's a beauty. He seems like a good young kid. I'm excited to play with him and see what he's got and have a good, fun time."

GM Kevin Cheveldayoff has been careful not to rush his young players in Winnipeg, so Trouba might have an uphill climb to make the Jets out of training camp this fall. But the moment he emerges as an NHL defenseman, the Jets become a different team.

Along with big forward Blake Wheeler, the Jets had three defensemen at U.S. camp -- more than any other NHL team. Byfuglien is the only one of the trio with an inside track at playing in Sochi, but having those three at camp is an indication something special is being built on the Winnipeg blue line. The Jets also took defenseman Josh Morrissey with the No. 13 pick in the 2013 NHL draft.

"We have a lot of good young players, and it seems like we've been around each other a few years now and a few more years to come," Bogosian said. "That's what we're hoping for. That's the main thing is chemistry. If you can keep chemistry for a few years, that's obviously a good thing. Things are looking forward on the blue line."

The Jets added experience up front with the trade for Devin Setoguchi and the signing of Michael Frolik, but the most interesting part of their offseason was the portfolio of long-term deals given to their core players.

Cheveldayoff signed Wheeler to a six-year deal worth $33.6 million. Bryan Little got a five-year deal worth $23.5 million. Bogosian signed a seven-year deal worth $36 million. Grant Clitsome got a three-year deal worth $6.2 million. Other key players like Ondrej Pavelec, Evander Kane, Tobias Enstrom, Andrew Ladd and Byfuglien are already on long-term deals.

The decision to lock up important players on this team removes contract distractions and can get the group focused solely on winning in a crucial season in Winnipeg. It's also not without risk. This group hasn't made the playoffs, and Cheveldayoff has committed significant money and cap space in a risky act of faith.

If the addition of the young talent the Jets have drafted -- like Trouba and Mark Scheifele -- can mix with this core and make the playoffs, the blueprint makes perfect sense. If not, it could end up looking like the Columbus Blue Jackets from a few years ago when Scott Howson awarded long-term contracts to players like R.J. Umberger, Rick Nash, Antoine Vermette, Derick Brassard and Fedor Tyutin while committing to unproven goalie Steve Mason.

It didn't work out for Columbus (or Howson).

That's what makes this season so crucial for the Jets. They need to build off the learning experience of last season, one in which they were a playoff team until a five-game losing streak derailed their hopes in early April. A late rally -- the Jets won six of their final nine games -- wasn't enough to overcome a devastating losing streak during a short season.

It becomes less devastating if those five games give this team a mental toughness to play with more consistency this season.

"That's the difference between being a playoff team and not a playoff team," Wheeler said. "Everyone is going to lose two, maybe three games [in a row]. When I was in Boston, we'd get to that point and we were like, 'We're not losing tonight. No matter what, we're going to win.' We just didn't have that last year [in Winnipeg]."

With the move to the Western Conference, the Jets need the maturing and growth to continue. They'll need a better season out of Pavelec, who hasn't had a save percentage north of .906 since the move to Winnipeg. They'll need a little more luck for Olli Jokinen, who had a PDO of just 0.939 in his first season with the Jets, a sign he didn't get a lot of bounces during a campaign in which he scored just seven goals in 45 games.

And if the Jets can get contributions from a young player like Trouba, this becomes a team more than capable of breaking through with a playoff season.

"I think this year, anything less than [the playoffs] is unacceptable for our team," Wheeler said. "That's how we feel in our locker room. Now it's a matter of going out there and doing it."