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Patience pays off for Jets in building Stanley Cup contender

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If their five meetings from the regular season are any indication of what is to come, the Nashville Predators and Winnipeg Jets are probably going to pummel each other over the next two weeks in what looks to be the best matchup of the 2018 Stanley Cup Playoffs.

They finished the season with the top two records in the league, while the Predators won the season series by taking three of the five games, with all of them being tight, fierce, chaotic contests that saw Nashville hold a slight aggregate goals edge of just 22-20.

They really could not have played it any closer.

They are both outstanding teams. They are evenly matched. The winner will almost certainly be the heavy favorite to represent the Western Conference in the Stanley Cup Final no matter who comes out of the Pacific Division bracket.

For as similar as their results on the ice were this season, the teams have taken two very different paths to reach this point.

The Predators have been a consistent playoff team in recent years, and while they have a strong core of homegrown talent (Roman Josi, Viktor Arvidsson, Mattias Ekholm, Ryan Ellis, Pekka Rinne, etc.), a large portion of this team has been pieced together through trades, including two of the biggest player-for-player blockbusters in recent years. They also made the occasional big free agent signing. They traded for Filip Forsberg. They traded Shea Weber for P.K. Subban. They traded Seth Jones for Ryan Johansen. They traded for Kyle Turris. They signed Nick Bonino away from the Pittsburgh Penguins. They have been bold and aggressive when it comes to building their roster.

On the other side, you have the Winnipeg Jets, a team that has been the antithesis of the Predators in terms of roster construction.

Since arriving in Winnipeg at the start of the 2011-12 season the Jets, under the direction of general manager Kevin Cheveldayoff, have taken part in one of the most patient, slow, methodical “rebuilds” in pro sports, and in the process demonstrated a very important lesson of sorts.

Sometimes it pays to do absolutely nothing at all.

[NBC’s Stanley Cup Playoff Hub]

On the ice, the Jets have been a mostly mediocre team since arriving in Winnipeg, continuing the tradition the franchise had established for itself during its days as the Atlanta Thrashers. Before this season they made the playoffs once in six seasons in Winnipeg and were promptly swept in four straight games (just as they were in their only playoff appearance in Atlanta).

They were never among the NHL’s worst teams, but they were also never good enough to be in the top-eight of their conference. They were mediocrity defined.

The lack of success was at times baffling because it’s not like it was a team totally devoid of talent. It also at the same made complete sense because the single biggest hurdle standing in front of them was the simple fact they never had a competent goaltender or one true superstar to be a difference-maker.

In other words, they were basically the Canadian version of the Carolina Hurricanes.

What stands out about the Jets’ approach is they never let the lack of success lead to overreactions. We have seen time and time again in the NHL what overreactions due to a lack of success can do to a team. It can lead to core players being traded for less than fair value. It can lead to teams throwing good money at bad free agents and crippling the salary cap for years to come. It can lead to a revolving door of coaching changes. When all of that works together, it can set a franchise back for years.

The Jets did none of that.

Literally, they did none of it.

They have had the same general manager since 2011-12 even though before this season he had built one playoff team.

Despite their lack of success when it came to making the playoffs, they have made just one coaching change, replacing Claude Noel with Paul Maurice mid-way through the 2013-14 season.

Just for comparisons sake, look at how many coaching changes other comparable teams have gone through over that same time frame. Buffalo is on its fifth coach (and third general manager). Dallas will be hiring its fourth coach this offseason since the start of 2011-12. Calgary, after the hiring of Bill Peters on Monday, is on its fourth coach. Florida is on its fifth.

You want significant roster changes? Well, there has not been much of that, either. At least not in the “roster move” sense.

The Jets never tore it all down to the ground and went for a full-on rebuild. It took Cheveldayoff four years on the job before he made a single trade that involved him giving up an NHL player and receiving an NHL player in return. Even since then he has really only made one or two such moves.

There are still five players on the roster left over from the Atlanta days — Blake Wheeler, Tobias Enstrom, Bryan Little, Dustin Byfuglien, and Ben Chiarot, who was a draft-pick by the team when it was Atlanta — even though it has now been seven years since they played there. The fact so many core players still remain from then is perhaps the most surprising development given how much the team has lost during that time.

How many teams would have looked at the team’s lack of success and decided that it just had to trade a Blake Wheeler? Or a Dustin Byfuglien? Or a Bryan Little? Or a Tobias Enstrom? Or, hell, all of them? You see it all the time when teams don’t win or lose too soon in the playoffs or don’t accomplish their ultimate goal. At that point a core player just has to go. Have to change the culture, you know? Have to get tougher and make changes. The Blackhawks got swept in the first-round a year ago and decided they had to trade Artemi Panarin to get Brandon Saad back because they had won with him before. The Oilers were a constant embarrassment and decided they just had to trade Tayor Hall and Jordan Eberle to help fix that. Montreal just had to get rid of P.K. Subban.

The Jets, to their credit, recognized that their core players were good. They were productive. They were players they could win with if they could just find a way to add pieces around them and maybe, one day, solve their goaltending issue. The only significant core players the Jets have traded over the past seven years have been Andrew Ladd and Evander Kane. Ladd was set to become an unrestricted free agent when he was dealt at the trade deadline two years ago and a split between the Jets and Kane just seemed like it had to happen at the time of his trade.

They have also refrained from dipping their toes into the free agent market.

You know what happens when you avoid free agency? You don’t get saddled with bad contracts that you either have to eventually buy out, bury in the minor leagues, or give up valuable assets to get rid of in a trade. Free agents, in almost every instance, are players that have already played their best hockey for another team, and you — the new team — are going to end up paying them more money than their previous team did. It is not a cap-friendly approach.

Only one player on the Jets’ roster is set to make more than $6.2 million over the next two years (Byfuglien makes $7 million). The only players on the roster that were acquired via NHL free agency are Matthieu Perreault, Matt Hendricks, Steve Mason and Dmitry Kulikov.

Mason and Kulikov, who combine to make $8 million the next couple of seasons, are probably the only bad contracts on the roster, and both are off the books within the next two years. Oddly enough, both were signed before this season. Neither has made a significant impact.

Looking at the Jets’ playoff roster you see how this team has been pieced together.

  • Five players were leftovers from the Atlanta days (where three of them — Enstrom, Little, Chiarot — were drafted by the team then).
  • Only four players — Myers, Joe Morrow, Joel Armia and Paul Stastny — were acquired by trade.
  • Hendricks, Perreault, and Mason are the only players to have appeared in a playoff game that were acquired as free agents (Perreault — due to injury — and Hendricks have played in one each; Mason played one period in the first round).
  • The rest of the team, 12 players, were all acquired via draft picks.

So what did the Jets do well to get? Focus on the latter point there. They kept all of their draft picks, they hit on their important draft picks, and they got a little bit of luck in the draft lottery at the exact right time to allow them to get the franchise player — Patrik Laine — that they needed.

This is where the Jets have really made their progress, and it is not like they did it by tanking for lottery picks.

Between 2011 and now the Jets have picked higher than ninth in the NHL draft just two times. Only once did they pick higher than seventh. NHL draft history shows us that there is usually a significant drop in talent and expected production between even the second and eighth picks. No matter where the Jets have picked in recent years they have found NHL talent — top talent — with their first-round picks.

They got Mark Scheifele seventh overall in 2011. He is a core player and among the top-four goal scorers and point producers in the NHL from his draft class.

They got Jacob Trouba ninth in 2012. He is also a core player and a top-pairing defender.

Josh Morrissey was the 13th pick in 2013.

Nikolaj Ehlers was the ninth pick in 2014 and is the third highest point producer and goal scorer from that class.

In 2015 they picked Kyle Connor (one of the top rookies in the NHL this season) at 17 with their own selection, then got forward Jack Roslovic at 25 with the pick they acquired in the Kane trade.

The next year in 2016 they had the ping pong balls go their way to get Laine at No. 2 and had another first-rounder (Logan Stanley) as a result of the Ladd trade.

They pretty much not only hit on every first-round draft pick they had between 2011 and 2016 (Stanley is the only one of the eight not currently on the team) but in most of the cases probably got more than the expected value from that pick.

When you combine that with a core that already top-end talent like Wheeler, Byfuglien, Enstrom, and then finally give them competent goaltending you have the force that the Jets have become this season.

Will this sort of approach work for everybody? Probably not (and if I’m being honest, I was highly critical of the Jets’ approach on more than one occasion over the years), and it requires an owner and general manager that has an almost unheard of level of patience in professional sports to stick with it. And let’s face it, sometimes you do need to make changes. I’m not advocating for say, the New York Islanders, to just keep letting Garth Snow do whatever it is he is doing. And maybe the Jets would have been a playoff team sooner had they made a better effort to find a goalie, for example. You also need to have a little bit of luck when it comes to the draft.

But there are still some important lessons that the rest of the NHL can take from the Jets’ patient approach, especially when it comes to keeping your good players even when times get tough, and not thinking that all of the answers to your problems are available on July 1 when everyone acts like they have a blank check to sign whoever they want.

A few years ago Maple Leafs blog Pension Plan Puppets jokingly asked who had a better first day of free agency, then-general manager Dave Nonis, or a potato. The joke being that the potato had a better day because it was an inanimate object that couldn’t do something dumb. I don’t mean this is an insult to Cheveldayoff, but the Jets for the past seven years have basically been the potato in the sense that they just sat back and did nothing except keep their good players, keep their draft picks, and not sign overvalued players in free agency.

If you do nothing, you can’t mess up.

Today, the Jets might actually win a Stanley Cup because of it.

Hockey really is funny sometimes.

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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.

What the Penguins need to become a championship team again

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There is going to come a point in the next few years where the Pittsburgh Penguins are no longer a playoff team.

Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, and Kris Letang are all over the age of 32 and probably only have a handful of high-level years ahead of them. When they start to decline or retire there is going to be no replacing them and no matter what moves the Penguins make today there is not going to be anything that stops them from needing an extensive rebuild in the not-too-distant future. That future is not quite here yet.

After barely making the playoffs and getting swept in Round 1 with a roster that seemed to lose its way, it is not unfair to say that the team has slipped a bit in its standing as a Stanley Cup contender. What do they need to get back closer to the top?

We know the Sidney Crosby-Jake Guentzel duo is going to excel on the first line and the Kris Letang-Brian Dumoulin pairing is going to be great. After that it is a bunch of questions. The obvious keys focus on Alex Galchenyuk fitting in, Evgeni Malkin being better (especially at even-strength), and Matt Murray playing at his best (all things we already looked at today).

But that alone will not be enough.

[MORE: 2018-19 Summary | Under Pressure | X-Factor | Three Questions]

1. Rediscover their identity. I touched on this immediately after their Round 1 loss but the single biggest flaw the Penguins have is their sudden fascination with having players that provide “push back.” For a team that won two Stanley Cups under the mantra of “just play” it was a needless overreaction to some perceived injustices from a select few opposing players. The result was a shift away from what made team so tough to play against (balanced offense, mobile defense, speed, four scoring lines) and a rapidly growing collection of long-term, pricey contracts for depth players (Jack Johnson, Erik Gudbranson, Brandon Tanev). The big thing that would help address this: Another mobile, puck-moving defender that can play on the second pair. The big intangible thing: Go back to “just play” instead of worrying about pushing back.

2. A resurgence from a (hopefully) healthy Patric Hornqvist. Hornqvist’s status as a team leader and gritty forward with a non-stop motor masked the fact that his play rapidly deteriorated in the second half of the season, to the point where he was a complete non-factor offensively. It was a stunning slump after a strong first half. The thing that stands out about that is there is a pretty firm line that separated his season. That line was another head injury that kept him out of the lineup midway through the season. Was it a fluke slump? Was it a result of the injury? Was it a sign of things to come for him in the future now that he is 32 years old? A combination of all three? Whatever it was, the Penguins have Hornqvist signed for four more years at more than $5 million per season. The work ethic and effort are great, but at that price the Penguins need him to produce more than he did this past year or that contract will quickly turn into another drain on the salary cap.

3. Some young players need to emerge. The big focus during their mid-season turnaround in 2015-16 was on the coaching change. But there was another element at play: A bunch of young players became impact players at the same time (Murray, Conor Sheary, Bryan Rust, Tom Kuhnhackl; Guentzel a year later). The Penguins need that again. While the farm system is thin, there are some candidates to take big steps forward at the NHL level. Dominik Simon is polarizing because he is a favorite of the coaching staff and struggles to score goals, but he is a good defensive player and playmaker. Jared McCann is a favorite of the front office because they love his potential and he had a strong showing after the trade from Florida. He needs to show it was not a fluke. Dominik Kahun is an intriguing add from Chicago and is coming off a solid rookie season. And even though this might be for a couple years down the line, Pierre-Oliver Joseph is the exact type of defender they need to emerge and become a regular.

The three superstars at the top are the most important ingredient. But they are only part of the recipe. These three keys are just as important.

MORE:
• ProHockeyTalk’s 2019 NHL free agency tracker
• Your 2019-20 NHL on NBC TV schedule

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.

It’s a big year for Penguins’ Matt Murray

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Each day in the month of August we’ll be examining a different NHL team — from looking back at last season to discussing a player under pressure to identifying X-factors to asking questions about the future. Today we look at the Pittsburgh Penguins.

Pittsburgh Penguins goalie Matt Murray has a lot to prove this season.

He has to prove to the NHL that he is still the goalie that backstopped his team to back-to-back Stanley Cups, and he has to prove to the Penguins that he is worthy of a significant long-term commitment after this season when his current deal expires.

Murray is an interesting player because he has already accomplished more in his first four years than most goalies will accomplish in an entire career. But for all of that team success there is still some debate as to what type of goalie he is and what his long-term prospects are as a No. 1 goalie.

His first two years in the league where as good as any goalie in the history of the league, maintaining a save percentage over .925 (regular season and playoffs) and winning two championships.  He regressed during the 2017-18 season and playoffs and then stumbled badly out of the gate this past season before catching fire when he was finally healthy in mid-December, playing some of the best hockey of his career between mid-December and the end of the regular season.

Looking at his career from a big picture perspective, he has been mostly outstanding when healthy and his play over the final four months of the 2018-19 season was probably one of the biggest reasons, if not the biggest reason, the Penguins were even able to make the playoffs. He masked a lot of flaws the team had defensively and their success was driven mostly by how he played.

[MORE: 2018-19 Summary | Under Pressure | 3 Questions]

When he was good, the Penguins won. When he was not good, they did not win.

Barring something unforeseen he is going to continue to be the Penguins’ starting goalie for years to come because, 1) he is good, and 2) they have zero organizational depth behind him. It is his spot. So while it is a little odd that have not made a new contract a priority (Jake Guentzel, Mike Sullivan, Jim Rutherford all signed long-term contracts within the organization over the past year — but the starting goalie has not) they still have time to get it done.

And Murray has time to show just exactly what type of goalie he is and what he is worth.

He is definitely the Penguins’ biggest X-Factor this season because with the makeup of their defense he is probably going to be tested often. Again. The Penguins are not as strong in front of him as they were two or three years ago and have a much smaller margin for error, finishing just four points clear of the first non-playoff team this past season. Even playing on a team that has Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, and Kris Letang as the core there is probably not a single player that will impact what they are capable of more than Murray. They all showed this past season how much his play impacts them in the standings.

If he plays like he did from December-March of this past season, which is pretty close to how he played in 2015-16 and 2016-17 when he was lifting the Stanley Cup, he is going to be in line for a huge contract.

If he plays like he did between 2017 and the end of November in 2018, it might create a little more uncertainty for the Penguins and make his next deal a little more complicated.

MORE:
• ProHockeyTalk’s 2019 NHL free agency tracker
• Your 2019-20 NHL on NBC TV schedule

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.

Penguins questions include defense, trade bait, and Malkin’s bounce-back

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Each day in the month of August we’ll be examining a different NHL team — from looking back at last season to discussing a player under pressure to identifying X-factors to asking questions about the future. Today we look at the Pittsburgh Penguins.

Three pressing questions for the 2019-20 Pittsburgh Penguins

1. Is the defense good enough?

In the opinion of general manager Jim Rutherford, yes. He has repeatedly defended the construction of his defense and at one point even went as far as to call it the best defense he has had during his time in Pittsburgh. High praise considering he has been in Pittsburgh for two Stanley Cup winning teams.

This team, though, is not coming off of a Stanley Cup win and there is little objective evidence to suggest this defense is anything better than ordinary. They were 12th in the NHL in goals against this past season and even that ranking was driven significantly by the performance of Matt Murray in net thanks to some of the best play of his career from mid-December on.

As a team, the Penguins were one of the worst teams in the league at preventing shots, average in preventing scoring chances, and a little below average on the PK. They have one great defense pairing in Kris Letang and Brian Dumoulin (one of the best pairings in all of hockey) and then a bunch of flawed players and question marks after that. Other than shipping out Olli Maatta over the summer, the Penguins have done nothing else to change the look of their defense. Rutherford obviously believes in this group, and he is taking a pretty big bet that he is right.

2. Who is the next salary cap casualty or trade chip?

This is probably more of a preseason question than a question for the season, but somebody has to go.

Trading Phil Kessel was supposed to alleviate some of the salary cap crunch, but taking Alex Galchenyuk as part of the return and signing Brandon Tanev in free agency quickly erased that savings. Add that to the returning contracts for Jack Johnson and Erik Gudbranson and the Penguins have a significant chunk of money going to depth players that probably are not moving them closer to another championship. It has put them in a position where they have to move out someone else.

As it stands, they are slightly over the salary cap and still have to re-sign RFA Marcus Pettersson. After this season, Galchenyuk, Justin Schultz, Jared McCann, Dominik Simon and starting goalie Matt Murray will be in line for new contracts. So who goes?

[MORE: 2018-19 Summary | Under Pressure | X-Factor]

Johnson or Gudbranson could be an option to go off the blue line and would probably the ideal trade bait, while Bryan Rust or Nick Bjugstad seem like logical candidates at forward.

3. Will Evgeni Malkin bounce back?

It is a good bet that he will.

The final offensive numbers from this past season look good (better than a point-per-game average) and he had a great start to the season, but his production really slumped over the final three quarters of the season and especially at even-strength. His defensive game was also lacking and he will be the first to say the 2018-19 season was not his best. He can be better, and the Penguins need him to be better. Malkin is a proud player and will no doubt be motivated to show this past season was a fluke and that he is still one of the league’s best and most dominant players. A driven Malkin playing at his best is a season-changing player, and if he gets back to that level it will be more valuable to the Penguins than any other potential offseason addition could have been.

MORE:
• ProHockeyTalk’s 2019 NHL free agency tracker
• Your 2019-20 NHL on NBC TV schedule

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.

P.K. Subban, Lindsey Vonn announce engagement

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Lindsey Vonn and P.K. Subban are engaged, according to U.S. Ski & Snowboard.

Vonn, who retired in February with a female record 82 World Cup wins, and Subban, a New Jersey Devils defenseman, have dated for more than one year.

Vonn was previously married to fellow Olympic skier Thomas Vonn in 2007. They announced divorce plans in late 2011.

Vonn reportedly grimaced when asked in 2013 if she would get married again.

“No, thanks!” she said, according to Vogue then. “I am definitely not getting married. To anyone.”

After her divorce, Vonn dated Tiger Woods and NFL assistant coach Kenan Smith before dating Subban, going public in June 2018.

“Right off the bat, I knew he was different,” Vonn said, according to a Vogue magazine announcement of the engagement. “But I’d been married before, so I was pretty hesitant to let myself think that I could find someone that I would want to be married to again. After a few months of dating, I knew he was the one I wanted to be with, though.”

Subban, 30, also owns an Olympic gold medal playing for Canada in Sochi.

“Lindsey’s the best thing that’s ever happened to me,” Subban said, according to Vogue. “There are people in life that deserve to be with good people. They have that person who takes care of them and makes them smile, and she deserves to be with someone who loves her more than anything else in the world, and I do.”

Vonn and Subban would become one of the most prominent married Olympic champion couples, joining the likes of tennis players Andre Agassi and Steffi Graf and gymnasts Nadia Comaneci and Bart Conner.

For more from Nick Zaccardi check out Olympic Talk on NBC Sports