Nikolaj Ehlers

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Byfuglien’s loss is Trouba’s gain with Jets

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Theoretically, you could attempt to make the “injuries open up the door for other players to succeed” argument just about all the time, but aside from a Kurt Warner discovery here and there, most of the time a star player being out week-to-week is abysmal for a team.

The Winnipeg Jets can’t be thrilled to learn that Dustin Byfuglien is considered week-to-week thanks to a lower-body injury, with PHT’s Scott Billeck reporting that they hope to get the bulky blueliner back sometime around the Christmas holiday.

The domino effect could be bad overall, yet this actually is one of those cases where an injury could open a door for a player capable of much more, as Jacob Trouba stands to gain some significant offensive opportunities with Byfuglien on the shelf.

That much was already made clear today, as Trouba took Byfuglien’s spot on the top power-play unit. As of this writing, Byfuglien was averaging a team-leading 3:34 PP TOI per contest this season, towering over Trouba’s average of 1:22 per night.

You could make a reasonable argument that finances might have played a role in Byfuglien getting such an opportunity advantage, as Buffy is taking in (an increasingly scary) $7.6 million through 2020-21, while Trouba’s 2017-18 will play a significant role in how much of a raise he receives from his borderline-insulting $2.8M mark.

If all things were equal, would Byfuglien get this much leash, considering somewhat disappointing totals (zero goals, 15 assists)?

[Are the Jets merely cold or is this reality starting to hit them?]

Look, it’s likely that Byfuglien was going to get some bounces, much like Brent Burns finally is getting in San Jose. Still, considering the focus Winnipeg’s incredible forwards can draw, you’d ideally want to see Byfuglien fire at least a few pucks in the net.

Last week, The Athletic’s Craig Custance wrote about (sub required) Trouba being willing to sacrifice offensive opportunities this season, even in a contract year. An anonymous NHL executive read many minds in wondering if Trouba was capable of more than he’s shown so far this season.

“I could see a guy like Trouba segueing into a more offensive role. Where he is today, I don’t think is necessarily the ultimate barometer,” said one Eastern Conference executive. “They have a pretty good team. They play a great team game. The forwards are awesome. Sometimes you have to just give it to (Patrik) Laine and watch.”

Perhaps that’s true, but again, players like Laine, Mark Scheifele, Blake Wheeler, and Nikolaj Ehlers create havoc for opposing defenses. Sometimes such threats force teams to cheat a little bit to try to reduce their chances, conceivably opening up potentially precious extra moments for other skilled players to take advantage of unusually large windows of opportunity.

Trouba’s game has clearly gone more conservative at times this season. You can see it even in just shooting; Trouba’s averaging 2.3 shots on goal per contest, down from 2.57 per night last season. That might not seem massive, but wouldn’t you expect a healthy dose of greed to push Trouba closer to three SOG per game, especially since it might actually benefit Winnipeg for a talented player to fire the biscuit that much more?

A cynical observer might wonder if the Jets were trying to have their cake and eat it too here: hold off on Trouba getting a bigger offensive push until after he signs his next contract, while reaping the benefits of having at least one more season of employing a top-pairing defenseman for less than $3M.

[Jets salary cap outlook, and more on how much Trouba could cost.]

Sly observers will see that Trouba is an excellent two-way piece, but when it comes to contract negotiations, sometimes a lack of goals and assists can mysteriously hurt a blueliner’s bottom line.

All of these factors make this tweak awfully interesting for Trouba, not to mention other Jets players, including the wonderfully named Tucker Poolman.

Deep down, Jets management might not want this experiment to be too successful, honestly.

In other Jets injury news, Steve Mason has been activated from IR. Check out more Jets fun from Billeck at NHL.com.

James O’Brien is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.

Winnipeg Jets have finally arrived

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After relocating from Atlanta prior to the 2011-12 season the Winnipeg Jets’ existence has been the definition of mediocrity.

It’s also been painfully dull.

A snails pace rebuild (if you want to even call it that) with almost zero trades of consequence and no free agent signings of significance has meant that the results on the ice have been a continuation of the mediocre results they produced during their time in Atlanta. There are still Not quite good enough to be a playoff team. Not quite bad enough to be an embarrassment or land a top draft pick to net a franchise player (though, that changed when their number came up in the draft lottery to get Patrik Laine … but more on that in a bit).

They have just sort of … existed. This is an organization that is still, 18 seasons into its existence, searching for its first ever postseason win. Not postseason series win. Postseason win. Period.

Since moving to Winnipeg it has been a bizarre team to watch from the outside, especially in recent seasons.

There has been a lot of individual talent on the team. When you look at the roster on paper and see what some of the players have produced, especially in recent seasons, it’s baffling to see how little team success that has all translated to. They should have been better.

So far this season, the results are starting to show up.

After their 7-4 win over the Vegas Golden Knights on Friday night the Jets enter Saturday with the best record in the Western Conference and are off to one of the best starts in franchise history.

They are looking like they might be for real and that their time as a legit contender may have finally arrived.

How did it finally happen?

Let’s start with the big one: They are finally getting decent goaltending.

One of the biggest factors in the Jets’ mediocrity over the past eight years has been a constant void in net. They committed to Ondrej Pavelec for too long, never really tried to find a better solution, and were consistently sunk by sub-par goaltending on a nightly basis.

They signed Steve Mason this summer, but the job has been taken over to this point by Connor Hellebuyck with a .923 save percentage entering play on Saturday.

Just to give you an idea as to how much of an issue goaltending has been, and how much of a difference it is making this season, consider where the Jets have ranked in team save percentage since the start of the 2011-12 season.

2011-12: 25th

2012-13: 21st

2013-14: 24th

2014-15: 12th (only playoff year)

2015-16: 27th

2016-17: 28th

When you get goaltending like that you’re not even giving yourself a chance to compete.

The thing about this Jets roster is that with the way it is currently constructed and the talent that it has up front they don’t need elite goaltending to have a chance. Even if Hellebuyck sees a slight regression in his performance as long as he is able to avoid being one of the bottom-10 goalies in the league they should still have a chance.

Which brings us to the other big factor in the Jets’ improvement: They are finally being rewarded for their patience.

Since being named general manager of the team Kevin Cheveldayoff has taken a “build from within” approach. Wanting to build through the draft isn’t exactly a unique thing. Every team wants to do that. But the Jets have taken it to the extreme, so much so that in the seven years he has been in charge of the team he has only made two trades that involved NHL players going in each direction.

Combined with a lack of significant free agent moves and it has been an astonishing level of inactivity for an NHL team.

But the drafts are finally starting to pay off and the Jets actually have a core of young, talented players that can be organizational building blocks for a long, long time.

Four of the team’s top-five scorers right this season are age 24 or younger, including three (Patrik Laine, Nikolaj Ehlers and Kyle Connor) that are age 21 or younger.

Since the start of the 2015-16 season Mark Scheifele (currently the team’s leading scorer) and the criminally underrated Blake Wheeler have been two of the top-eight point producers in the NHL.

Only six players have scored more goals than Laine since the start of last season (Laine’s first in the NHL), while Ehlers is on pace for his second 60-plus point season before his age 22 season.

These are all top-line players and currently some of the most productive in the entire NHL. And other than Wheeler, they are all still young enough that their best days might still be in front of them.

Put all of that together and you have a team that has been one of the best offensive teams in the league for two years now and one that probably still has a chance to get better.

Winnipeg fans waited a long to get an NHL team back, and for six years the team they were given was just a rebranded version of the Atlanta Thrashers that just happened to be playing in a different city.

It’s taken a long time, and a lot of patience, but they finally have a team that is worth getting excited about and a team that might actually be worthy of being labeled as a contender.

Adam Gretz is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @AGretz.

Central Division is once again best in the NHL

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Last season, it was pretty clear that the Metropolitan Division was the class of the NHL.

Such a notion was expressed for reasons beyond the Metro being home to the repeat champion Pittsburgh Penguins, and really going farther than the Washington Capitals repeating as the Presidents’ Trophy winners. This was a deep division, with the Columbus Blue Jackets and New York Rangers each over 100 standings points and the New York Islanders nearly making a wild card run of their own.

The 2016-17 season wasn’t as impressive for the Central Division as a whole, but with the first quarter of 2017-18 out of the way, it looks like this is once again the premier group in the league. At least so far.

Let’s consider a few factors, and then also note that a few of the teams might continue down their impressive paths.

  • The Central Division is the only one with three teams at or above 30 standings points.
  • Every team is fairly to quite competitive. At 23 points in 21 games, the Blackhawks are at the bottom of the Central, yet they’re ahead of nine other NHL teams and three other West teams.
  • Expanding upon that previous point, only one Central Division team has a negative goal differential: the Dallas Stars at -2. By comparison: only two teams are in the plus column in the top-heavy Atlantic, four are in the negative in the Metro (the Penguins somehow are at -20), and the Pacific boasts five teams in the minus.
  • Every Central team has at least 10 regulation/overtime wins. There are 11 teams that haven’t reached double digits between the NHL’s remaining three divisions.

Yep, the Central can brag about a lot of quantity-type accomplishments, but there’s also high-end potential.

The Blues lead the Central and the West, and they’re not that far behind the league-leading Lightning. For the most part, whatever holes you’d try to poke in Tampa Bay’s game, you’d do the same for St. Louis (if you want to rain on  the parade of that majestic Brayden SchennJaden SchwartzVladimir Tarasenko line). Even if they slow down, they seem like a contender in the West.

The Predators blanked the Blues last night, and they’re not waiting until late in the year to heat up this time around. They’ve won four in a row and nine of 10, looking deadly with Kyle Turris helping to balance out their scoring. Pekka Rinne‘s been great, and Nashville might end up being the best in the division if Ryan Ellis can come back reasonably healthy at some point this season.

The Jets are a chic pick for a breakthrough, and with good reason, particularly considering the lethal one-two punch of Mark Scheifele + Blake Wheeler and Patrik Laine + Nikolaj Ehlers. They might have some work to do, but their array of young talent is the envy of much of the NHL.

Also: The Avalanche no longer stand as a layup, in part because of the ascension of Nathan MacKinnonThe Blackhawks may be flawed, but deep down, plenty of teams would at least be a little queasy to see them as a first-round opponent. And while it hasn’t always been pretty, the Wild are sneakily heating up; Bruce Boudreau keeps pumping out winners like hockey’s answer to Andy Reid. The Stars remain a work in progress at least considering the hype they generated from another splashy off-season, but they’re another team that could easily go on a big run.

Now, look, the Metro still deserves consideration in this discussion, especially with the Penguins generally having a tendency to hibernate until the games really matter and considering that the Capitals seem like they’re getting things together. When you go beyond current results, the best division argument might come down to personal taste.

At the moment, it’s pretty tough to argue with the Central Division. Maybe the most comforting thought for the rest of the league is that the 2018 Stanley Cup Playoffs will be structured in a way that they might just wear each other out.

James O’Brien is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.

Jets basically have two top lines, and that’s scary

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At times, this season feels like The Year of the Mega-Lines.

Even so, the modern NHL is cruel to offense, and many of us are waiting for the other shoe to drop, as much as we want the fun to continue. What if Steven StamkosNikita Kucherov is driven down by injuries? Can Brayden Schenn remain a point-per-game player with Vladimir Tarasenko and Jaden Schwartz into the spring?

A lot has been going right for the Winnipeg Jets lately, as they improved to 14-5-3 after beating the Anaheim Ducks 4-1 on Friday. It was their sixth win in seven games; they’ve gone 11-2-3 since beginning 2017-18 with a sputtering 3-3-0 mark.

Still, there are some of those red flags that make you wonder if the party might stop soon. They ranked second in the NHL in even-strength PDO (via Natural Stat Trick) coming into today’s action, one of the go-to signs that a Cinderella story may end. Their possession numbers have left much to be desired. Connor Hellebuyck might be playing over his head.

All or at least most of those considerations are worth some concern.

Even so, Friday managed to shine a spotlight on a scary notion: the Jets might possess the equivalent of two “top lines,” or at least an electric top duo and a young, rising one that isn’t far behind.

Around the start of the season, the Jets raised some eyebrows – mine, anyway – by handing Nikolaj Ehlers a seven-year extension that carries a $6 million cap hit. It’s not like the 21-year-old lacked signs of brilliance; instead, it was just a little startling to see them be so proactive with a big contract and term rather than seeing if his 25-goal, 64-point breakthrough from 2016-17 was “for real.”

It’s incredibly early, but Ehlers is making it look like a wise decision, if not an outright steal. There are even moments when you might catch yourself wondering, “Is he just about as good as Patrik Laine?”

Perhaps the Ducks thought that way today, as Ehlers dropped two goals and an assist on them.

Snickers turn to nods of begrudging approval when you hear talk about “shot quality” with a team that might just have an excess of high-end shooters. After all, you can only cheat to cut off shooters so much if it means giving Ehlers too much time and space:

Laine played somewhere between coy and possum when discussing how hockey was “hard” for him during a relative scoring slump, as he’s climbing to right where the Jets would want him to be. Since November began, the 19-year-old has only failed to score a point in a single game and averages a point-per-night. (Overall, he has 17 points in 22 contests.)

This outburst gives Ehlers 10 goals and 17 points, and perhaps the Jets’ risky investment in Bryan Little may look better if he can merely set the table for these two. Perhaps it’s fair to say that the Ehlers – Laine benefit from the occasional wake-up call, though.

And, again, the scary part is that Ehlers – Laine isn’t even the first pairing you’d underline on the whiteboard.

Mark Scheifele and Blake Wheeler both sit at 25 points even after being blanked on Friday, and it seems like they might have found their third amigo in Kyle Connor, another young forward coming up the ranks in Winnipeg.

It has to be disheartening for opponents to consider that they might shut down Scheifele – Wheeler and still get blitzed out of the building by Laine and Ehlers, yet that’s the predicament you face, particularly since the Jets boast the sort of defensemen who might force you to “stay honest” in the likes of Dustin Byfuglien and Jacob Trouba.

Does this all mean that Winnipeg can just pencil in its first playoff games, nay, series wins already? No, they have questions, all the way up to if Paul Maurice can make it all work.

That said, days like these make you wonder if the talent will do all the work for him.

James O’Brien is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.

Jets’ Patrik Laine on struggles: ‘Hockey is really hard right now’

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The Winnipeg Jets are winning and sitting in a playoff spot in the Western Conference as the NHL season enters its second month. But Patrik Laine can’t relate to all those happy feelings at the moment.

Team success is great, of course, but the Jets forward, who’s scored four times in 11 games this season, is in a bit of a rut offensively. He’s pointless in his last four games, which includes an 0-fer during Sunday’s 7-1 rout over the Pittsburgh Penguins. Laine’s play of late is weighing on him, as he expressed after Thursday’s morning skate before facing the Dallas Stars.

“It feels like hockey is really hard right now, but I think everyone is going to have the same kind of feelings sometimes,” Laine said. “Just have to move forward and get through it somehow.”

Through the Jets’ first seven games, Laine was averaging 3.5 shots per game. Over this little skid, he’s fired a total of five shots in four games. Last season, he went two four-game spells where he went pointless. Both times he responded with a goal in the following game en route to a 36-goal, 64-point rookie campaign.

For now, Laine says he’ll work through by doing what he’s quite good at.

“Obviously I don’t have a lot of confidence, so just try to shoot a lot and try to be simple that way and just try to work hard every shift,” he said.

“Confidence is a really interesting one to get your head around,” said Jets head coach Paul Maurice. “The standard is hey, you’re getting your chances, just keep doing the right things, and it’s a standard because that’s all there is for a shooter until the puck gets by the goalie. Hitting posts doesn’t give a guy a whole lot of confidence for a guy that really values the goal scoring part of his game. It’s got to get in behind him. So we would start with all of these basics that would go into that and then if you’re not scoring goals there’s a whole lot of other things you could do to that can help your linemates score and help your hockey team win.”

It helps that Laine’s isnt’t he focal point of the Jets’ offense. It’s been a pretty balanced attack with 10 other forwards contributing to their 33 goals this season.

Last season, Laine had most of his success playing next to Mark Scheifele and Nikolaj Ehlers. Over this brief slide he’s spent most of his even strength time with Ehlers and Bryan Little. So while he battles through these confidence issues in his game, we can be quite confident that he’s going to break out of this “slump” sooner than later. The talent he possesses is just too good.

“I’ve had bad seasons. I’ve had tougher situations than this,” Laine said. “And always I’ve found a way to come out of there. Hopefully I can do the same thing right now. I think I’m gonna do that.”

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Sean Leahy is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @Sean_Leahy.