The Winnipeg Jets finally broke through in 2017-18, recording a franchise-best 114 points and reaching the Western Conference Final.
Off-Season Game Plan examines a Jets team that is loaded with talent, but will have some interesting times when it comes to contracts.
The Jets are dealing with first-world hockey problems in that they have so much talent that it’s going to be difficult to keep them all under the salary cap.
The first tough decision of the summer may affect unrestricted free agent centre Paul Stastny, who was a great addition at the trade deadline, but will be in demand on the free agent market and given the Jets’ other contractual obligations, it’s tough to commit big money to Stastny, no matter how good he was for the Jets.
But, this team has defencemen Jacob Trouba and Josh Morrissey and centre Adam Lowry, among others, as restricted free agents. However, this summer also presents the opportunity to sign extensions for Blake Wheeler, Patrik Laine and Kyle Connor and while all of those players don’t have to have deals in the summer of 2018, because their contracts run for one more year, those decisions are coming.
But, as daunting as it may be for the Jets to fit all this talent under the salary cap, that also says that they’re in great position to be a contender for years to come, not only because they have so much skill on the NHL roster, but there is more coming in the prospect pipeline.
After a breakthrough season, expectations are going to be high for the Jets but they have the horses to warrant lofty hopes in the years to come.
Kevin Cheveldayoff/Paul Maurice
Patrik Laine – The second-year winger scored 44 goals, including a league-leading 20 on the power play.
Blake Wheeler – The 31-year-old captain registered a career-high 91 points, including a league-leading 68 assists. Wheeler’s past three seasons have brought the three best point totals of his career.
Connor Hellebuyck – After flopping in the starter’s role in 2016-17, the 25-year-old netminder put it all together and had a fantastic season, posting a .924 save percentage in 67 games.
Steve Mason – The veteran goaltender was brought in to shore up the position, but ended up hurt for much of the year and had a .906 save percentage, his lowest since 2011-12.
Dmitry Kulikov – It isn’t so much that Kulikov played poorly; he was entirely fine as a third-pair defenceman, but he’s getting paid to be more than that and he played a career-low 17:04 per game last season.
Marko Dano – The 23-year-old winger hasn’t been able to get off the prospect bubble and is now getting passed by younger and sleeker models. After three points in 23 games fo the Jets, while playing just 7:11 per game, it may be time to move on.
FREE AGENT FORWARDS
The heart and soul of the Jets, 31-year-old captain Blake Wheeler has missed a total of six games in the past seven seasons, and he put up a career-best 91 points in 2017-18. He did have atypically mediocre possession stats (50.1 CF%, -1.7 CFRel%), but he’s a tremendous all-around player. Heading into the last year of his contract, though, it will pose another interesting decision – how long, how much? – for a team that has a lot of long-term contract situations to cover.
Through first two NHL seasons, Patrik Laine has scored 80 goals while shooting 18.0%, placing him in elite company among active players. He’s a brilliant shooter, and Winnipeg takes advantage of that on the power play, but his all-around game still has room for growth. He plays with some attitude, the type that might be expected from a premier goal-scorer.
Although injuries cost him 22 games last season, Mark Scheifele remained a point-per-game scorer. He’s been riding a lofty shooting percentage (19.3%) over the past two seasons, on his way to 142 points in 139 games, but the Jets have been getting seriously high-quality chances when the 25-year-old is on the ice. He's a star, but it would be easier to like his chances to remain productive if his shot rate was higher.
A dynamic winger who creates chances with his blinding speed and puck skills, Nikolaj Ehlers has put up at least 60 points coupled with strong possession numbers in back-to-back seasons. He didn’t score a goal in 15 playoff games, so that was a little bump in the road, but the talented 22-year-old is ascending.
Even though he started last season in the AHL, Kyle Connor finished as the top rookie goal-scorer with 31, including 24 at even-strength. He did get a plum spot on the wing with Scheifele and Wheeler, but Connor showed that he has the skills to keep up at that level, and he’s still just 21, so he should still be getting better.
A reliable veteran centre, Bryan Little had less of an offensive role – last season’s 0.52 points per game was his lowest since 2009-10 – but he’s a steady presence amid a lineup of blossoming young talent. If Paul Stastny moves on as a free agent, the Jets will likely need Little to pick up the offensive pace again next year.
He always misses time with injuries, but Mathieu Perreault did play 70 games for only the second time in his career, and he consistently delivers efficient offensive production as well as superb shot metrics. The issue is, if Perreault is playing down in the lineup, as tended to happen last season, it might make more sense to spend his money on someone else.
2015 first-rounder Jack Roslovic had been tearing up the AHL, so the Jets eventually had to give him his shot last season, and he showed pretty well in limited ice time. The 21-year-old could certainly move into a more regular role next season.
There has been steady progress for 25-year-old winger Joel Armia, who isn’t consistently productive despite flashes of brilliance, but he’s a useful forward on the bottom half of the depth chart.
Blue-collar forward Andrew Copp took a bit of a step forward last season, with a career-high 28 points while playing a career-high 13:44 per game while dressing for all 82 games. He can play centre and wing, and is a solid complementary performer.
While most of the focus on new contracts in Winnipeg centres around great young skilled players or defencemen, the Jets ought to keep some room under the cap for Adam Lowry, a physical 25-year-old centre who only played 45 games last season, but he was dominant in those 45 games – he basically shuts down whomever he plays against.
Although his 2016-17 rookie season wasn’t terribly encouraging, 26-year-old winger Brandon Tanev had a strong sophomore campaign. His possession numbers improved dramatically and he chipped in some offence.
A 23-year-old who has 45 points in 130 career games, Marko Dano can’t get into the Winnipeg lineup, and would figure to be expendable if that isn’t expected to change next season. He’s still young enough that he might have value to other clubs.
For all of the outstanding forward talent that the Jets have on the roster, they still have more on the way. Nic Petan, Kristian Vesalainen, Brendan Lemieux, and Mason Appleton are some other prospects that may not be too far from earning NHL employment.
FREE AGENT DEFENCEMEN
There are few NHL players that stand out physically from the other 700-plus in the league, but Dustin Byfuglien is one of those that is different. Like Zdeno Chara, and maybe no one else, Big Buff is just so much stronger than his opponents, mere 6-foot-2, 210-pound wingers that he can have a major impact on the game when he decides to unleash his fury. He had 45 points last season and the last time the he had fewer in a full NHL season was 2009-10, when he was still a winger in Chicago. However, he was a game-changer in the playoffs, with five goals and 16 points in 17 games.
Six-foot-8 defenceman Tyler Myers recorded 36 points last season, his most in a season since 2010-11, while playing a career-low 21:26 per game. He’s a solid contributor in Winnipeg’s top four, yet as he’s heading into the final year of his contract, Myers’ name has started turning up in trade rumours. Certainly, it’s possible, but if the Jets are intent on contending for a Stanley Cup next season, moving out a top-four defenceman isn’t the easiest way to go about it.
A 27-year-old who has played about 15 minutes per game in 227 career games, Ben Chiarot doesn’t have great shot differentials, but does have a positive goal differential. As a third-pair defenceman, he’s fine.
Following an abysmal 2016-17 season in Buffalo, Dmitry Kulikov somehow secured a three-year contract from the Jets; a deal that was immediately panned and is likely going to result in complicating the Jets’ salary-cap situation.
The Jets are going to have to spend some money on the blueline as their top pair consists of two restricted free agents. Josh Morrissey handled a shutdown role in his second NHL campaign, and the 23-year-old started to get appreciated for all the little things that he does to keep the puck away from the front of the Jets’ net.
Twenty-four-year-old Jacob Trouba is a restricted free agent, and he’s a good one, but also has a hard time staying healthy, playing more than 65 games once in five NHL seasons. He also played a career-low 21:54 per game last season, but was effective and still seems on the cusp of busting out.
It’s taken a long time, and a bunch of teams, but 25-year-old Joe Morrow started to gain some appreciation last season, playing a career-high 56 games between Montreal and Winnipeg. He’s been a seventh or eighth defenceman throughout his career but, depending on offseason moves, might be able to squeeze into Winnipeg’s top six.
Tucker Poolman was effective enough in limited action as a rookie pro. He’s a solid depth option, but might have potential to handle a more regular role too.
If the Jets look internally for an upgrade on the blueline, puck-moving defenceman Sami Niku just had 54 points in 76 AHL games in his first season in North America, and scored a goal in his only NHL game. He would add a dynamic element if that’s what the team desires; with their forward group, that isn’t quite as necessary in Winnipeg as it might be with some other teams.
|NAME||GP||W||L||T||SV%||EV SV%||2018-19 CAP|
FREE AGENT GOALTENDER
|NAME||GP||W||L||T||SV%||EV SV%||2017-18 CAP||STATUS|
Steve Mason was supposed to provide the answer to Winnipeg’s goaltending questions, but it turned out that he struggled in his first three starts then was unable to stay healthy, which opened the door for Connor Hellebuyck to take the starting job and run with it. Mason now looks like an overpriced backup, so it’s conceivable that the Jets wouldn’t mind finding a taker for the last year of his contract.
Twenty-five-year-old Connor Hellebuyck had a tremendous track record in college and the minors, and was solid in part-time duty during his first NHL season, so it looked like a reasonable decision to make him the starter in 2016-17, but he fell flat. However, when the opportunity was opened up to him last season, Hellebuyck responded and established his credentials as a starting goaltender in the league. He’s probably not as good as his numbers suggest, though, because the Jets did a great job preventing high-quality shots against Hellebuyck.
|Jack Roslovic||RW||32||15||20||35||+16||Manitoba (AHL)|
|Kristian Vesalainen||LW||44||19||20||39||0||HPK (SML)|
|Brendan Lemieux||LW||51||19||24||43||+10||Manitoba (AHL)|
|Nic Petan||C||52||15||37||52||+15||Manitoba (AHL)|
|Dylan Samberg||D||42||1||12||13||+5||Minnesota-Duluth (NCHC)|
|Tucker Poolman||D||17||1||9||10||-2||Manitoba (AHL)|
|Eric Comrie||G||34||.916||Manitoba (AHL)|
|Mason Appleton||C||76||22||44||66||+14||Manitoba (AHL)|
|Sami Niku||D||76||16||38||54||+17||Manitoba (AHL)|
|Mikhail Berdin||G||45||.921||Sioux Falls (USHL)|
|Logan Stanley||D||61||15||27||42||+6||Kitchener (OHL)|
|Luke Green||D||14||5||10||15||+7||Sherbrooke (QMJHL)|
|Michael Spacek||C||70||17||21||38||-6||Manitoba (AHL)|
|Chase De Leo||C||69||12||23||35||+7||Manitoba (AHL)|
|Jansen Harkins||C||46||2||11||13||+6||Manitoba (AHL)|
No first-round pick.
The Jets have approximately $54.4M committed to the 2018-2019 salary cap for 14 players.
Inexpensive depth players
WHAT I SAID THE JETS NEEDED LAST YEAR
One depth forward, starting goaltender
Matt Hendricks, Dmitry Kulikov, Steve Mason
Mathieu Perreault, Joel Armia, Marko Dano, Jacob Trouba, Tyler Myers, Dmitry Kulikov, Steve Mason
PROJECTED 2018-2019 DEPTH CHART
|LEFT WING||CENTRE||RIGHT WING|
|Kyle Connor||Mark Scheifele||Blake Wheeler|
|Nikolaj Ehlers||Bryan Little||Patrik Laine|
|Mathieu Perreault||Adam Lowry||Joel Armia|
|Brandon Tanev||Andrew Copp||Jack Roslovic|
|Brendan Lemieux||Nic Petan||Marko Dano|
|Kristian Vesalainen||Mason Appleton||Chase DeLeo|
|LEFT DEFENCE||RIGHT DEFENCE||GOALTENDER|
|Josh Morrissey||Jacob Trouba||Connor Hellebucyk|
|Ben Chiarot||Dustin Byfuglien||Steve Mason|
|Dmitry Kulikov||Tyler Myers||Eric Comrie|
|Joe Morrow||Tucker Poolman|
|Sami Niku||Jan Kostelek|
Scott Cullen can be reached at email@example.com