At the end of the 2018-19 season, the Winnipeg Jets turned their attention to what general manager Kevin Cheveldayoff called the busiest off-season of his tenure.
Yet no team – for now, anyway – has had a quieter summer than the Jets.
It’s a fascinating situation in Winnipeg right now. The Jets have every reason to focus their efforts internally – taking care of the eight restricted free agents alone (including Patrik Laine, Kyle Connor, Andrew Copp, Jacob Trouba (traded), Nathan Beaulieu, Joe Morrow, Laurent Brossoit and Eric Comrie) is a mountain of work.
But the two biggest names in Laine and Connor are still without contracts, and, at least in Laine’s case, everything is quiet. The last we heard from Laine, he seemed prepared for anything – including the mounting possibility of a trade to another team.
In many ways, the Laine contract negotiation represents the real summer of 2019 for Winnipeg. Laine is a tremendously talented player, but the on-ice results just weren’t there in the 2018-19 season. There are serious reservations about where his defensive game is right now and how much of that limits the team’s overarching performance. This is a 21-year-old with three consecutive 30-plus goal seasons to start his NHL career on a competitive team, yet there is a legitimate question about the prospect of a trade and whether or not it would make Winnipeg better.
Despite the gory defensive numbers last year, I’m still quite bullish on Laine as a player. It’s just extremely difficult to find players who can shoot the puck as well as he can, and his comparables in this area include names like Steven Stamkos, Ilya Kovalchuk, and Alexander Ovechkin.
The question I have, though: if the Jets just extend the rest of their restricted free agents (including the aforementioned Laine and Connor) and remain inactive elsewhere, is that a satisfactory summer?
I think patience is a virtue when it comes to roster building. But we are talking about a Winnipeg team who inexplicably cratered last year. By the time the playoffs rolled around, they hardly felt like a challenge for any other playoff team, let alone the likes of the St. Louis Blues. With no significant personnel changes and head coach Paul Maurice coming back for his seventh season, is that enough?
It’s important to underscore just how bad things turned last season for Winnipeg, especially in the context of their summer run-it-back strategy. Consider a 20-game average of their underlying performance over the last three seasons, and pay specific attention to the back-half of last year:
You expect slight bounce in performance over the course of a regular season – even elite teams like the Tampa Bay Lightning can go through stretches where play slips, and the team starts either struggling offensively or bleeding goals defensively, or a combination of the two. (Tampa Bay had one heck of a first-round series in last season’s playoffs to prove this!)
The problem with Winnipeg though is their slide lasted the majority of the season. At some point you have to lower expectations and accept that performance is the new norm.
We talked about Winnipeg as a possible Stanley Cup contender in 2017-18, and there was still some belief the team could compete in that realm last season. But it’s a real problem when you are only turning 45 per cent of the shots in your favour. When you adjust for shot quality by way of expected goals, Winnipeg actually looked worse than the shot numbers would indicate.
So without a major – or really even minor – player acquisition and no change to the coaching staff, where should Winnipeg fans place their hope? The starting point is that normal roster attrition (like letting Tyler Myers walk in favour of some younger talent on the blueline) will have a positive impact. That would also include the growth and development of the team’s younger players whose peak performance years are still ahead, led by the likes of Laine, Connor, Jack Roslovic, Nikolaj Ehlers, et al.
But the one critical area that Winnipeg needs to address immediately? Their top units – the team’s first two lines and top blueline pairing – need to return to form. Last year, most of Winnipeg’s problems were actually at the top of the lineup. The depth of the Winnipeg lineup outplayed their weaker competition for the majority of the year; the same cannot be said for the Mark Scheifele or Bryan Little lines:
Not only was the majority of the playing roster last year in the red, some of the most notable deviations were from the team’s best players. The team’s impact forwards – including Blake Wheeler, Scheifele, Connor, Laine, and Little – were all in the red, and in some cases considerably so. Add that to an entire blueline that was treading water for most of the year, and you have a real problem.
Winnipeg still has a very formidable roster and the Central Division, though extremely competitive, isn’t as daunting as it once was. That might be why the Jets front office felt comfortable giving this lineup one more shot. It’s pretty uncommon to see such a talented lineup with a track record of producing fall completely off the wayside, and I don’t think that it’s unreasonable to make one more bet on the core of this group to drive Winnipeg back to the top of the Central.
That said, the pressure is on – for both the players and the coaching staff. If the opening of the 2019-20 regular season looks like the last 60 games of 2018-19, heads are going to roll. Expectations are high and this team needs to deliver.
Data via Natural Stat Trick