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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.

2018 NHL Draft Tracker

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Once you moved beyond the premium picks, the 2018 NHL Draft became “The Year of the Mobile Defensemen.” Almost half of the first round featured defensive picks, most of whom fit the mold of the modern, attacking NHL.

The draft began with two predictable top picks, and then the drama escalated once the Montreal Canadiens and Ottawa Senators came into the mix. Maybe hockey fans should just get used to that, as those franchises stir things up more than any others?

Early on, it seems like the Red Wings and Islanders rank among the biggest winners once you push beyond the slam-dunk picks. Time, of course, will tell if that’s even remotely accurate.

Check out the first round results below, along with some early analysis. The remainder of the 2018 NHL Draft takes place early on Saturday.

Round 1

1. Buffalo Sabres – Rasmus Dahlin, Defenseman, Frolunda (Sweden)

“He is a terrific skater and stick handler who can rush the puck, or join the attack in a hurry. Impressive agility makes him a good one-on-one defender. He has fine passing ability, and although not a big-time bomber, he has an accurate shot from the point.” – Elite Prospects.

Dahlin is the most hyped defensive prospect in years, if not decades. Some say we haven’t seen this kind of excitement for a defenseman since Denis Potvin. Yeah.

2. Carolina Hurricanes – Andrei Svechnikov, Winger, Barrie (OHL)

“Svechnikov has size, speed and skill. He can play a power game or a finesse game, make plays or score goals any way they can be scored – off the rush, one timers from far out, getting his nose dirty in front of the net or off the cycle.” – Bob McKenzie, TSN.

3. Montreal Canadiens – Jesperi Kotkaniemi, Center, Assat (Finland)

“A smart forward with a dangerous shot, Kotkaniemi possesses a high hockey IQ and determination with the skills to back it up. Positions himself well and often seems to be a step ahead of plays.” -Matias Strozyk, Elite Prospects.

4. Ottawa Senators – Brady Tkachuk, W, Boston University (NCAA)

“Tkachuk is a lot less refined and less polished than the other elite picks but the big raw-boned winger plays a hard driving, aggravating power and agitation game.” McKenzie, TSN.

5. Arizona Coyotes – Barrett Hayton, C, S.S. Marie (OHL)

“Very smart two-way centre who contributes in all areas of the game and has potential to be a very key player.” TSN.

6. Detroit Red Wings – Filip Zadina, W, Halifax (QMJHL)

“Filip Zadina is a dynamic offensive forward that plays a complete game. A deft and agile skater, he exhibits explosive mobility both up and down the ice. In all three zones, he proactively looks to create problems for the opposition.” – Curtis Joe, Elite Prospects.

7. Vancouver Canucks – Quinn Hughes, D, Michigan (NCAA)

“He plays a go-go-go offensive game, at times more like a rover than a defenceman. He’s fearless, not afraid to make high risk, high reward but also high danger plays.” TSN.

8. Chicago Blackhawks – Adam Boqvist, D (Sweden)

“A dynamic offensive defenceman that can carry plays with the puck on his stick. A highly mobile and nimble skater that moves with fluidity, balance, and confidence. Utilizes an active stick and creates turnovers frequently. Could be more proactive in his own end …” Curtis Joe, Elite Prospects.

9. New York Rangers –  Vitali Kravtsov, W, Chelyabinsk (KHL)

“A big, skilled winger that can play up and down the lineup and provide scoring in a number of roles. He brings grit and physical size, but could be more assertive in throwing his weight around more.” Elite Prospects.

10. Edmonton Oilers – Evan Bouchard, D, London (OHL)

“A highly intelligent all-around defenceman that plays with poise and can shift the pace of play in a multitude of ways. Showcases smooth four-way skating ability and loves to get involved in all situations – especially when that situation happens to be an up-ice rush.” – Curtis Joe, Elite Prospects.

11. New York Islanders – Oliver Wahlstrom, W, NTDP

“Offensively, he might be described as uncontainable: the confidence he has in his individual puck skill, paired with a high level of thinking, makes him a difficult cog to take out of alignment. He is able to create opportunities for himself, as well as teammates, out of nothing; this, in turn, translates to energy on the ice and in the building as a whole.” – Curtis Joe, Elite Prospects.

12. New York Islanders (from Flames) – Noah Dobson, D, Acadie-Bathurst (QMJHL)

“Dobson is a strong skater with a high degree of creativity, vision and offensive prowess. Scouts feel we’re only seeing the tip of the iceberg here.” – Bob McKenzie, TSN.

13. Dallas Stars – Ty Dellandrea, C, Flint (OHL)

“Very strong two-way centre who plays all situations and can contribute offensively and defensively. Terrific improvement.” TSN.

14. Philadelphia Flyers (from Blues) – Joel Farabee, W, NTDP

“Plays all situations in the game with full understanding and has the skills to contribute offensively.” Craig Button, TSN.

15. Florida Panthers – Grigori Denisenko, (Russia)

“Highly skilled, very dynamic offensive player who is a very dangerous player and capable of quick strike scoring.” Craig Button, TSN.

16. Colorado Avalanche – Martin Kaut, W, Parduice (Czech Extraliga)

“All the skill to be a top six winger who is capable of scoring and being a playmaker.” Craig Button, TSN.

17. New Jersey Devils – Ty Smith, D, Spokane (WHL)

“Elite skating defender whose upside is not far off from the top defenders in the 2018 class.” ISS Hockey.

18. Columbus Blue Jackets – Liam Foudy, C, London (WHL)

“Great speed that creates opportunities for his team and makes life uncomfortable for opponents. Catalyst type player.” Craig Button, TSN.

19. Philadelphia Flyers – Jay O’Brien, C, Thayer (USHS)

“Smart with a quick mind and very good hands where he can make a play or finish a play. Improvement as good as any player.” Craig Button, TSN.

20. Los Angeles Kings – Rasmus Kupari, C, Karpat (Finland)

“Slick Finnish forward, very dangerous with the puck on his stick, always a threat offensively.” – ISS Hockey.

21. San Jose Sharks – Ryan Merkley, D, Guelph (OHL)

“There is chatter that he’s a bad teammate/uncoachable. He’s also one of the most purely gifted playmaking defencemen not named Rasmus Dahlin that we’ve seen in recent years. None of Timothy Liljegren, Erik Brannstrom or even Cale Makar had his kind of creativity in 2017. Nor did Olli Juolevi, Mikhail Sergachev or Charlie McAvoy in 2016.” – Scott Wheeler, The Athletic (paywall).

22. New York Rangers (from Ottawa Senators, previously from Penguins) – K’Andre Miller, D, Wisconsin (NCAA)

The Rangers traded up to make this choice.

“Strong skating, puck carrying defenceman who can quickly get the play moving forward. Athletic with excellent potential.” Craig Button, TSN.

23. Anaheim Ducks – Isac Lundestrom, (Sweden)

“Very versatile and can adapt to different positions and play in different slots in the lineup. Very smart with good skill.” Craig Button, TSN.

24. Minnesota Wild – Filip Johansson, D (Sweden)

Some believe Paul Fenton made a reach with his first pick as Wild GM.

25. St. Louis Blues (from Toronto Maple Leafs) – Dominik Bokk, W (Sweden)

“A hungry scorer who likes to shoot the puck and gets himself into scoring spots and has a very good shot.” Craig Button, TSN.

26. Ottawa Senators (from New York Rangers, previously from Bruins) – Jacob Bernard-Docker, D, North Dakota (NCAA)

“Steady presence, never gets burned, headed the NCAA route out of the AJHL,” – Scott Wheeler.

27. Chicago Blackhawks (from Predators) – Nicolas Beaudin, DDrummondville (QMJHL)

“Nicolas Beaudin is a diminutive yet cunning defenceman that is able to use his size to his advantage. His mobility is all but elite at this point; he primarily uses his speed to open up passing and shooting lanes in the offensive zone.” Curtis Joe, Elite Prospects.

28. New York Rangers (from Lightning) – Nils Lundkvist, (Sweden)

“Acquitted himself very well in the Swedish top league as a 17-year old. Smart and knows how to take advantage of his skills.” Craig Button, TSN.

29. Toronto Maple Leafs (from St. Louis Blues, previously from Jets) – Rasmus Sandin, D, S.S. Marie (OHL)

“Not big in stature but he plays a strong game in all areas. Skates, thinks, makes plays with puck and competes.” Craig Button, TSN.

30. Detroit Red Wings (from Golden Knights) – Joe Veleno, C, Drummondville (QMJHL)

Veleno dropped in the first round after being one of the few players (along with the likes of John Tavares and Connor McDavid) of being granted “exceptional player” status.

“The fleet-footed center is unselfish and will primarily look to make a play at top speed; however, when the chance arises to put it in the pot himself, he will capitalize. He sees the ice well and is rarely caught out of position. His defensive game is refined and he actively pursues puck control.” Curtis Joe, Elite Prospects.

31. Washington Capitals – Alexander Alexeyev, D, Red Deer Rebels (WHL)

“He’s a mobile puckmover in the mold of the modern NHL defenders.” Mike Vogl, Washington Capitals website.

Red Wings pick Filip Zadina has a message to teams that passed on him

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DALLAS — Call it swagger or confidence, Filip Zadina has it and he has a message for the Montreal Canadiens, Ottawa Senators and Arizona Coyotes, the three teams that passed him over before he went to the Detroit Red Wings sixth overall in the 2018 NHL Draft.

“I’m telling my agent if they will pass on me, I will fill their net with the puck,” Zadina said. “Yeah, it’s just I want to prove [to] them that they have done, like, bad decision. But I’m so glad that I am in Detroit right now, so I just want to prove to Detroit that they have got a pretty good decision.”

Zadina, who led the QMJHL’s Halifax Mooseheads in goals with 44 goals and recorded 82 points, saw heavy speculation linking him to Montreal at No. 3 and Ottawa at No. 4, but the Canadiens decided on Finnish center Jesperi Kotkaniemi and the Senators took winger Brady Tkachuk from Boston University. The Coyotes selected center Barrett Hayton out of Sault Ste. Marie.

“It’s going to be good games for me and I’m excited for it, sure,” Zadina said about facing those teams in the future.

Zadina will have every opportunity to make the Red Wings next season given the state of the franchise. Two playoff-less seasons has the franchise in rebuilding mode and allowing him to develop immediately at the NHL level could go a long way to seeing him become an integral part of a turnaround.

“A deft and agile skater, he exhibits explosive mobility both up and down the ice,” according to Elite Prospects, Zadina is eager to prove his worth to Red Wings fans and hopes his play can one day equal that of Nikita Kucherov of the Tampa Bay Lighting, whom he models his game after.

Despite some nerves, Zadina wasn’t too disappointed with ending up No. 6 overall. He’s just pleased his team is the Red Wings.

“I don’t want to call it that I fall to sixth. It’s a draft and I am in Detroit, so I don’t care what position I’m in,” he said. “I’m a Detroit player. I just want to prove to Detroit that they have done a pretty good decision, so I’m just glad that I could be here.”

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Sean Leahy is a writer forPro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line atphtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @Sean_Leahy.

Islanders stay put, land Wahlstrom, Dobson with back-to-back picks

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DALLAS — It’s been quite few weeks for the New York Islanders organization. After hiring Lou Lamoriello as their new president and general manager and then snatching up Barry Trotz to replace Doug Weight as head coach, they scored big in the first round of the 2018 NHL Draft.

Sitting at picks No. 11 and 12, the Islanders were able to select forward Oliver Wahlstrom and defenseman Noah Dobson.

“All we can say is we’re glad where they were when we picked, so we feel very good about it,” said Lamoriello. “You never know when it comes to drafts, everybody has a little different focus, but these were two players we had very high.”

“It’s a dream come true. To be in New York, that city’s awesome and the organization is a powerhouse organization throughout the years. I couldn’t be more happy,” said Wahlstrom, who spent the last two seasons with the USA Hockey National Team Development Program.

Wahlstrom, who was a viral star as a 9-year-old, scored 48 goals and recorded 94 points this season. There’s no question about his offensive ability (“Scoring goals is my specialty”). It’s his play away from the puck that he feels he needs to improve, along with consistency. Currently committed to Boston College, he says he’ll make a decision at the end of the summer.

“If I have to develop for one year, Boston College is a great spot for me to develop as a person,” he said.

Also offensively-minded is Dobson, who helped the Acadie-Bathurst Titan of the QMJHL win the Memorial Cup in May. Modeling his game after Alex Pietrangelo of the St. Louis Blues, he’s a good puck moving defenseman that is confident on the rush.

His abilities mesh with where the NHL is going.

“The NHL is a fast game now and you’ve got have D that are able to get the pucks up to the forwards and let them do their thing,” said Dobson. “I think it says a lot. Obviously there’s a lot of great defensemen in this draft. The game’s becoming a fast game so you’ve got to be able to move the puck quick and get the puck up ice.”

Dobson said he wants to use the summer to get stronger and increase his chances of making the team out of training camp in September.

As a 15-year-old, Dobson left his home in Prince Edward Island to spend a year with the Red Bull Salzburg academy. There hs impressed against older competition and furthered his development in a professional setting.

“I think that year at Red Bull showed him how hard he had to work to get to where he wanted to be,” said former NHLer Brian Savage, who served as a Red Bull scout.

Both players were tabbed to go a little higher than they did in many mock drafts, but as Wahlstrom noted, it doesn’t matter where you’re selected.

“You always want to be the best and picked as high as possible,” he said. “But it’s the draft and you get picked and then after that you have to focus on what you do to make the team.”

MORE:
Oliver Wahlstrom goes from viral stardom to NHL top prospect
Noah Dobson and his unique road to the 2018 NHL Draft

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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 go retro, Hurricanes get new look with third jerseys

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Before the start of the first round of the 2018 NHL draft on Friday night the Arizona Coyotes and Carolina Hurricanes revealed their new third jerseys for the upcoming season.

With all due respect to the Hurricanes, the Coyotes kind of stole the show on this one by announcing that they will be bringing back the Kachina jerseys the team wore during the early seasons in the desert.

“We’re thrilled to make our black Kachina jersey the official third jersey of the Arizona Coyotes,” said Coyotes’ Owner Andrew Barroway in a team statement. “These are iconic jerseys that are beloved by our fans and players. We’re excited to have our players wear these great jerseys 14 times this season and hope that our fans will enjoy wearing these classic jerseys for many years to come.”

Here they are all in of their glory.

The Coyotes wore those jerseys on the road between 1996 and 2003 before bringing them back for one game in 2015 for a throwback night.

The Coyotes also included this note in their announcement.

In August of 2016, in a fan poll conducted by Arizona Sports 98.7 FM (which received over 35,000 votes), the Coyotes black Kachina jersey was voted as the best jersey in Valley sports history over 47 other team jerseys.

So, yeah, they are popular among Coyotes fans.

As for the Hurricanes, here is what they introduced for their new third jersey this upcoming season.

They went with the all black jersey/pant combo with red trim, and a new secondary logo.

Sharp look on the color scheme, and that is definitely a different look on the front.

Your thoughts on these new threads?

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.