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How Jets can continue to contend

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Right now, it’s probably almost all sadness and anger, but eventually, the Winnipeg Jets will look back at this season with mixed feelings.

[Golden Knights eliminate Jets in Game 5]

There are a ton of entries in the “Pros” column. After years of being betrayed by goaltending during the Ondrej Pavelec era, Connor Hellebuyck finished 2017-18 as a Vezina candidate and was mostly great during the 2018 Stanley Cup Playoffs. Winnipeg went from never winning a playoff game in its Thrashers – Jets iteration to making it to the third round. They finished the season with the second-best record in the NHL and dispatched the top-ranked Predators during the postseason. Budding stars like Patrik Laine and Mark Scheifele took their next steps, while Kyle Connor joined this team’s absolutely bursting list of impressive assets. The future is mostly bright, and so is the present, thanks in part to the patience of the past.

Still, it had to be gutting to lose to the Vegas Golden Knights as a considerable favorite, especially considering how frustrating it was to try – and mostly fail – to solve Marc-Andre Fleury.

It’s easy to assume that the Jets will be a fixture in the West’s top rankings for ages, yet the counterpoint is chilling: what if this was actually their best shot?

Overall, the Jets are in a great position to contend for years. That said, GM Kevin Cheveldayoff needs to churn out some more wins, and some breaks need to go their way. Let’s consider what the Jets need to do to contend next season and beyond, along with some of the bumps in the road that could derail such dreams.

Central casting

In 2017-18, the Central Division was the general pick as the toughest division in the NHL. It’s difficult to imagine it getting a lot easier.

The Nashville Predators pushed Winnipeg to seven games, and David Poile’s not shy about making bold moves to get better. The Stars and Blues have a strong chance to improve next season, while the Blackhawks could rebound. Colorado seems like a young, modern team while Minnesota is, if nothing else, scrappy enough to make playoff spots tougher to come by.

Even if Cheveldayoff makes all the right moves, the Jets may simply lose to some very tough competition in the opening two rounds as long as that’s the playoff format the NHL chooses.

The next steps

It’s up to the Jets to continue to cultivate this robust bounty of talented players.

Patrik Laine is already a deadly sniper; can he become a more well-rounded threat? Nikolaj Ehlers looks great, but he failed to score a single goal in the playoffs. Could Sami Niku round out Winnipeg’s defense and will Jack Roslovic be another breakthrough young forward?

Winnipeg players reaching the next level won’t be easy, but it’s crucial.

And if the Jets’ prospects and greener NHL players can really climb, they might be able to shrug off some of the biggest team-building conundrums …

Restrictions coming

The Jets possess one of the best bargain contracts in the league in Scheifele, a legitimate top-line center in the meat of his peak at 25, only carrying a cap hit a bit over $6 million through 2023-24. Despite postseason ups and downs, extending Ehlers at a precise cap hit of $6M through 2024-25 sure looks forward-thinking.

Cheveldayoff’s biggest tests are coming up during the next two summers. Will he be able to maintain this team’s deadly and versatile arsenal once bargains and entry-level contracts expire?

The most immediate tests come in two RFAs heading for big raises: Hellebuyck and underrated defenseman Jacob Trouba. Things seemed a little tense at times with Trouba, so don’t expect another cheap and strange structure for his next contract. (If the NHL wasn’t such a country club atmosphere, you’d almost wonder if someone might send an offer sheet to Trouba and/or Hellebuyck.)

Anyway, Hellebuyck and Trouba aren’t likely to be cheap. The key will be to find the right compromise, whether that means a shorter deal or lowering cap hits with riskier, longer terms.

July also represents the first opportunity to extend some very big names.

Patrik Laine and Kyle Connor will both see their rookie deals go away after 2018-19. Laine’s cap hit could very well reach the teens in millions, while Connor might not be easy to retain after coming off of a 30-goal rookie season.

Wheeler’s next deal

Maybe the most fascinating situation comes with a pending UFA in Blake Wheeler. The 31-year-old’s been an under-the-radar star at a manageable $5.6M cap hit for years now and should command a considerable raise. That could be a tricky situation, as he’ll be 33 when his next contract kicks in.

All of these factors make it tough to imagine the team bringing back soon-to-be free agent Paul Stastny, who was a seamless addition. That’s especially true as Bryan Little‘s extension could stand as regrettable.

Ultimately, Cheveldayoff must make the right calls. Can he leverage RFA statuses to keep the core together? Will Wheeler and other nice, veteran players be affordable? These questions are mostly a little off in the distance, yet sometimes teams feel the need to be proactive. Simply put, players getting raises means that the Jets will most likely be forced to make choices and tough cuts.

(On the bright side, there’s some cap relief on the horizon as well. Toby Enstrom‘s deal is done. Tyler Myers‘ contract ends after next season. It’s not all bad.)

Backup plan?

When the Jets signed Steve Mason, it seemed like they’d either install him as the starter or as a platoon mate for Hellebuyck. An injury-ravaged season essentially pushed Mason out of the picture, and it’s reasonable to wonder what happens considering that his $4.1M cap hit runs through 2018-19.

Do the Jets try to move Mason and shuffle in Michael Hutchinson or a different backup?

Hellebuyck, even a richer version, is likely to be “the guy.” The modern NHL’s shown how valuable a good backup can be, especially during the 82-game grind of the regular season.

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Few, if any, NHL teams are constructed to compete in both the present and future as well as the Jets right now. They’re likely to get better merely as the likes of Laine come into their own. (Laine still can’t drink legally in the U.S. at 20 years old, after all.)

On the other hand, promising things can go splat in a hurry, especially in sports. Injuries can happen. Bad contracts can gum up the works. Marc-Andre Fleury could stand on his head again.

It’s up to the Jets to prove that this past run was the beginning of something great rather than their best swing at the fence. They have the power to do just that, but it won’t be an easy task.

MORE:
• Conference Finals schedule, TV info
• NBC’s Stanley Cup Playoff Hub

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.

The Buzzer: Huberdeau shootout hero for Panthers; Saros to the rescue

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Three Stars

1. Jonathan Huberdeau, Florida Panthers

A pretty eventful game against the Washington Capitals came to an end thanks to Huberdeau’s winner in the fourth round of the shootout. After the Panthers stormed out to a 4-1 first period lead, the Capitals clawed back in the second to even the score. But it was Huberdeau’s second of the season that gave Florida its lead back. After a Nicklas Backstrom goal late in the third tied it up, we were off to a shootout where Huberdeau ended things to cap off a three-point night in a 6-5 victory.

2. Devan Dubnyk, Minnesota Wild

The Wild netminder stopped 33 shots, including 24(!) in the second period during a 3-1 win over the Dallas Stars. Matt Dumba and Ryan Suter scored 3:17 apart midway through the third period to erase a Dallas lead and put Minnesota in front for good.

3. Juuse Saros, Nashville Predators

Pekka Rinne left the game with 14:51 left in the third period and Saros would stop all nine shots he faced in relief to help secure a 5-3 win over the Calgary Flames. Zac Rinaldo snapped a 3-3 tie 6:31 into the third period for his first of the year. Saros was tested immediately after entering the game, denying Elias Lindholm in tight.

Highlights of the Night

Ryan Suter went with the bank shot for the game-winning goal against the Stars:

Aleksander Barkov continues to be ridiculous in the shootout:

Factoid of the Night

Scores
Panthers 6, Capitals 5 (SO)
Wild 3, Stars 1
Predators 5, Flames 3

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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.

Dubnyk leads Wild during 3-1 win over Stars

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The Dallas Stars did what they could to try and solve Devan Dubnyk Friday night but only could beat the Minnesota Wild netminder once during a 3-1 defeat.

After a quiet first period, the Stars used the second period to test Dubnyk frequently. They fired 24 shots on the Minnesota net but were denied each and every time. Dubnyk would finish with 33 saves to earn his third victory of the season.

“You’ve just got to work as hard as you can,” Dubnyk said afterward. “I know if I can hold the fort down as long as I can, we’ll get there.”

The third period was a different story and where the game flipped. Jason Spezza deflected a Miro Heiskanen shot to finally give the Stars their first goal, but after that it was all Wild in a period where they outshot Dallas 14-4. Nine minutes after Spezza’s goal Matt Dumba would put home a loose puck in front of Ben Bishop to even the score.

Three minutes later the Wild would grab the lead for good as Ryan Suter‘s shot from below the goal line deflected in off of Stars defenseman Esa Lindell for a 2-1 lead.

Suter’s goal and assist helped him hit 500 points in his career, making him the 11th U.S.-born defenseman in NHL history to reach the milestone.

Dallas had no answer for Dubnyk as they dropped their third in a row and fourth in their last five games.

MORE: Your 2018-19 NHL on NBC TV schedule

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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.

Coyotes’ Dvorak sidelined indefinitely by torn pectoral

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GLENDALE, Ariz. (AP) — Arizona Coyotes center Christian Dvorak is sidelined indefinitely after having surgery Friday to repair a torn pectoral muscle.

“We looked at our options and decided that surgery was our best option to get him back as soon as possible,” Chayka told reporters on Friday. “He had the procedure this morning and it went very well. Now it’s the road to recovery and it’ll be a number of months.”

Dvorak was injured last week during a rehab skate for an unrelated injury.

“The doctors told us it’s a fairly unique injury, especially for hockey players, and then the severity of the tear, it differs from person to person,” Chayka said. “You hope it’s not the season, but it’s not out of the question.”

The 22-year-old Dvorak has yet to play this season, his third with the Coyotes. He had 15 goals in each of his first two seasons.

WATCH LIVE: Wild visit Stars on NBCSN

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NBC’s coverage of the 2018-19 NHL season continues with Friday night’s matchup between the Minnesota Wild and the Dallas Stars at 8 p.m. ET. You can watch the game online and on the NBC Sports app and by clicking here.

As the Stars look to get back to winning ways they likely will be without Alexander Radulov Friday night. A lower-body injury could keep him out against the Wild, which would see Roope Hintz bumped up to the top line, according to head coach Jim Montgomery. Connor Carrick remains out after not showing enough during his time in the lineup, opening the door for Roman Polak to state his case.

Making a return for the Wild will be captain Mikko Koivu after he missed Tuesday’s game for the birth of his son Oskar. Marcus Foligno will also be back.

Meanwhile, it was last April in Dallas where Wild defenseman Ryan Suter suffered a broken ankle. As he once again eats major minutes (26:12 per game) on a nightly basis, he still has some hesitatation when it comes to plays near the boards.

“At different points going back for pucks I try not to put myself in that situation quite yet,” Suter said via the Star Tribune. “That play probably happens five or 10 times [per game]. It’s hard to get around it. You’re a little more hesitant. You think about it a little bit more. Hopefully soon that won’t be on my mind.”

WHAT: Minnesota Wild at Dallas Stars
WHERE: American Airlines Center
WHEN: Friday, October 19th, 8 p.m. ET
TV: NBCSN
LIVESTREAM: You can watch the Wild-Stars stream on NBC Sports’ live stream page and the NBC Sports app.

PROJECTED LINEUPS

WILD
Jason ZuckerEric StaalMatt Read
Zach Parise – Mikko Koivu – Mikael Granlund
Nino NiederreiterCharlie CoyleJordan Greenway
Nate ProsserEric FehrJ.T. Brown

Ryan Suter – Matt Dumba
Jonas BrodinJared Spurgeon
Nick SeelerGreg Pateryn

Starting goalie: Devan Dubnyk

[WATCH LIVE – 8 P.M. ET – NBCSN]

STARS
Jamie BennTyler Seguin – Alexander Radulov/Roope Hintz
Devin ShoreJason SpezzaTyler Pitlick
Mattias JanmarkRadek FaksaBlake Comeau
Jason Dickinson – Roope Hintz/Gemel SmithBrett Ritchie

Esa LindellJohn Klingberg
Marc MethotMiro Heiskanen
Julius Honka – Roman Polak

Starting goalie: Ben Bishop