As crucial as it was to make the playoffs for the first time since returning to Winnipeg, the 2015-16 season is even bigger for the Jets.
After years of frustration, management’s slow-and-steady approach showed serious returns, but the franchise is heading toward multiple forks in the road.
Let’s consider some of the big factors ahead.
Contract years for key players – Hockey fans can debate whether Dustin Byfuglien’s the biggest name on the Jets or not, but he’s the earth-shaking wild card. Andrew Ladd is the gritty, stable winger who might just be the polar opposite. They’ve been immensely important players in Winnipeg, but what does the future hold?
Aging core – It’s easy to look at 21-year-old Jacob Trouba and 22-year-old Mark Scheifele and picture a bright future, especially with a generally well-regarded farm system.
For all the future talk, it’s a make-or-break season for the current crop of key players. Byfuglien is 30, Ladd is 29, Blake Wheeler is 28 and Bryan Little is 27.
Those core players aren’t ancient, but management probably needs to see them win some playoff games (or even series) to justify keeping the band together.
Goalie question – To especially weary Winnipegers, Ondrej Pavelec’s contract probably feels endless, and it does still have two years remaining. Management is sticking with Pavelec and Michael Hutchinson, which is a short-term gamble. Are they any closer to making a decision that reaches a little further?
The Jets have some big questions to answer next season, yet let’s not forget: Winnipeg hasn’t been home to an NHL team with this sort of potential for a long, long time.
Jets’ biggest question: Who will take the reins in goal?
One of the bigger questions for the Winnipeg Jets heading into the 2015-16 season is who will grab the starter’s role in goal and run with it.
Ondrej Pavelec began the 2014-15 season as the Jets’ No. 1 goaltender starting 15 of the first 16 games. He started sharing the net with rookie Michael Hutchinson in late November and lost his starting role by February.
“Ondrej played through some difficult circumstances this year,” Cheveldayoff said per the Winnipeg Sun. “Pro athletes have to learn how to handle those kinds of adversities.”
Pavelec finished the season with a 22-16-8 record while posting a career-best .920 save percentage and a 2.28 G.A.A. in 50 regular season appearances. While the Jets were in the hunt for a playoff spot, Pavelec went 9-2-1 and recorded three shutouts in his final 12 decisions. The 27-year-old struggled again in the playoffs posting an .891 save percentage and a 3.73 G.A.A. as the Jets were swept by the Anaheim Ducks.
Hutchinson finished with 38 appearances last season posting a 21-10-5 record to go along with a 2.39 G.A.A. and .914 save percentage. The 25-year-old had a strong first half, but faltered down the stretch posting an .890 save percentage in his final 15 games.
Despite the inconsistencies, Cheveldayoff believes the Pavelec can be the team’s starter going forward.
“We’re excited to have him as our No. 1 goalie,” Cheveldayoff said during his end-of-season media availability. “We’re really excited to have (Hutchinson) as a guy that can push and continue to do the things that he’s done.”
Jets fans should also expect Connor Hellebuyck to challenge Hutchinson for the backup role at camp this season. Hellebuyck posted a 28-22-5 record to go along with a 2.58 G.A.A. and a .921 save percentage in his rookie season with the St. John’s IceCaps.
The 22-year-old was the starting goaltender at the AHL all-star game and represented the U.S. at the world championship leading the Americans to a third place finish.
Jets’ GM Kevin Cheveldayoff doesn’t only have to make a decision on what to do with Dustin Byfuglien, he also has to deal with the matter of his captain Andrew Ladd heading into the final year of his five-year, $22 million contract.
Ladd is coming off a season in which he scored 24 goals and a career-high 62 points while averaging 20:04 in ice time a night.
“Like everything, there’s lots of moving parts that come into play,” said Cheveldayoff of contract talks with Byfuglien and Ladd. “But we’ve had good conversations with the agents for both players.”
Ladd underwent sports hernia surgery in May and is expected to be ready for the start of the season.
“I’ve skated the last couple of weeks and I don’t have any ill effects,” he told NHL.com last week. “It’s been a different summer because I don’t usually take a whole lot of time off and I get back into it quickly. This was a slower start to the offseason, and I kind of (eased) my way into things, doing different stuff. But it’s feeling good, and I’m excited to be back on the ice.”
The 29-year-old, who is set to become an unrestricted free agent next summer, is likely in line for a raise on the $4.5 million he will make this season.
The Winnipeg Free Press reported last month that Ladd is seeking an extension “north of $6 million” annually, and “in the range of $40 million” overall.
For his part, Ladd appears committed to staying in Winnipeg and trying to win a Stanley Cup with the Jets.
“I think with the group we have, a lot of character guys in that room and no one that’s really satisfied, that’s what gets everybody excited, that we know what we have and the kind of people we have and we’re excited for the opportunity we have with that group,” Ladd said.
Despite his $5.2 million cap hit, Dustin Byfuglien heads into this season as the highest paid member of the Winnipeg Jets taking home $6 million in salary and could hit the open market next July.
According to Ken Wiebe of the Winnipeg Sun, Byfuglien is looking for a long-term deal of more than $7 million per season as an unrestricted free agent.
If the 30-year-old is going to command those kinds of numbers from the Jets, or anyone else for that matter, he’ll need to prove he’s worth it.
Winnipeg was shorthanded a league-leading 308 times last season and Byfuglien was the face of the problem leading the way with 124 penalty minutes – good for seventh most in the entire league. It’s not exactly a category you want one of your leaders, and highest paid players, leading.
As the Jets were battling for a playoff spot in April, Byfuglien was suspended four games for his cross check on Rangers’ forward J.T. Miller.
Byfuglien certainly gives Paul Maurice options as he’s capable of playing both on defense and up front, but has been a liability on the back end, which led his former coach Claude Noel to use him as a forward in 2014. Even Maurice thought he was better suited there leaving him as a forward to start last season.
The 6-foot-5, 265-pound blue liner’s inconsistent play and contract status coupled with the young talent the Jets have on the blue line (Jacob Trouba and Josh Morrissey) could make him expendable.
Byfuglien is under pressure to prove he should be paid the money he’s looking for in his new deal.
After averaging nearly two points per-game in the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League last season, Winnipeg Jets prospect Nikolaj Ehlers is hoping to make the leap to the NHL this season.
The 5-foot-11, 176-pound forward scored 37 goals and 101 points in 51 games with the Halifax Mooseheads last season. He added 10 goals and 21 assists in 14 playoff games prior to being called up by the Winnipeg Jets in April.
Ehlers also represented Denmark at the world juniors scoring a goal and three assists in five games.
“I feel like over the last year in Halifax, I really improved on some details on and off the ice. I think I’m going to come (to training camp) as a better player and bigger,” Ehlers said at the Jets’ prospects camp in July. “I want to make the team this year and obviously I’ve got to work hard for that.”
The 19-year-old is also realistic of his chances of playing for the Jets next season.
“It’s going to be tough coming back here and trying to get that one spot on the team,” he said. “But there’s lot of excitement and I think that on the ice there’s a lot of things that I can improve on.”
If he doesn’t crack the Jets’ opening night roster, he would have to be returned to junior because he is not old enough to play in the American Hockey League.
However, Ehlers could have a second option, if he is unable to make the leap to the NHL this season.
“I honestly do not think about this now,” he said. “But Switzerland is at the top of my list if I’m not going to play in the NHL in the upcoming season.”
After recording 205 points in 114 QMJHL games over two seasons, returning Ehlers to junior doesn’t seem like the best move for his development. The Dane will certainly be one to watch at next month’s camp in Winnipeg.