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It’s Winnipeg Jets Day at PHT

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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 focusing on a player coming off a breakthrough year to asking questions about the future. Today we look at the Winnipeg Jets. 

2017-18
52-20-10, 114 pts. (2nd in the Central Division, 2nd in the Western Conference)
Playoffs: Lost in five games to the Vegas Golden Knights in the Western Conference Final

IN
Laurent Brossoit

OUT
Shawn Matthias
Paul Stastny
Joel Armia
Matt Hendricks
Toby Enstrom
Steve Mason
Michael Hutchinson

RE-SIGNED
Adam Lowry
Marko Dano
Brandon Tanev
Jacob Trouba
Connor Hellebuyck
Nic Petan
Joe Morrow
Tucker Poolman

– – –

If there’s a better model for drafting and developing, we’d like to see it.

The Winnipeg Jets have endured some painful years since relocating from Atlanta in 2011. Their only foray into the playoffs came via a backdoor entrance in 2014-15. only to be quickly escorted out after four games by the Anaheim Ducks.

Since then, the Jets have chosen to stay patient with youth, get lucky in the draft lottery with Patrik Laine, and build a team that now owns contender status for years to come.

Last season was a culmination of sorts for general manager Kevin Cheveldayoff’s oft-criticized philosophy. When the Jets were losing, the plan wasn’t working in the eyes of many.

The contract extensions of both Cheveldayoff and head coach Paul Maurice prior to last season were questioned and rightfully so, given their records up until that point. Maurice led the Jets to playoffs in his first year as bench boss but had failed to do so in the two years following. Cheveldayoff had drafted well, with the likes of Mark Scheifele, Jacob Trouba, Nikolaj Ehlers and Josh Morrissey as mantle pieces, but the on-ice product hadn’t produced the desired results.

But when it came together this year, a lot of minds were changed.

The Jets rattled off 52 wins, a franchise record, to finish second in the Western Conference with 114 points, three shy of the Presidents’ Trophy-winning Nashville Predators.

[Jets Day: Under PressureBreakthrough | Three Questions]

The biggest proponent of this was the play of Connor Hellebuyck, who produced a 44-win season to break a franchise record and also a record for wins in an NHL season by an American-born goalie.

A year ago, the Jets made the decision to go out an sign Steve Mason on July 1, handing the former Calder Trophy winner a two-year, $8.2 million contract. The money made him the de facto No. 1, as did Hellebuyck’s not-so-strong showing in 2016-17.

The Jets needed a starting goalie and Mason was their guy — for two games.

The 30-year-old struggled out of the gate, and by the third game of the season, Hellebuyck had taken back his starting spot, grabbing it with an iron grip.

While Mason struggled with injuries — many of them — Hellebuyck thrived, finishing the season with a .924 save percentage and a second-place showing in Vezina Trophy voting.

Mason, the crown jewel of Winnipeg’s 2017 offseason, was rendered expendable by the team a year later after he was traded to the Montreal Canadiens for cap relief purposes and then bought out one day before free agency opened on July 1 by the Habs.

Hellebuyck’s offseason turnaround a year ago simultaneously crowned the Jets Stanley Cup contenders while forcing the team to find a way to get rid of the guy they brought in to take his job.

And the man got paid. 

Of course, it wasn’t all Hellebuyck last season.

Blake Wheeler had a phenomenal year — a career year — with 91 points. Wheeler’s biggest contribution may not have come on the scoresheet either, but at center, where he played for 16 games when Mark Scheifele went down injured. His play during that time helped the Jets to an 11-2-3 record with Scheifele out of the lineup. What was supposed to be a potentially season-threatening blow was nothing more than a blip on the radar, and showed how deep this Jets team was.

The Jets became buyers at the trade deadline, acquiring Paul Stastny in a deal that flew under the radar until it was announced.

Stastny formed an instant chemistry with Laine and Ehlers and was the hero in Game 7 against the Nashville Predators in the second round, producing a three-point game to live up to his nickname of Mr. Game 7.

The Jets dominated the Minnesota Wild in the first round, and grew as a team in the second against the Predators — a team many expected to achieve Stanley Cup glory — winning a seven-game thriller.

Then they hit a wall — specifically Marc-Andre Fleury — in the Western Conference Final, losing in five games as the well of offense that had benefitted them all season ran dry.

Disappointment, certainly, but the Jets showed they’re now a team to be reckoned with.

The Jets lost Stastny in free agency, despite their best efforts to re-sign him. It’s a blow, surely, but the reality is the Jets were a very good team before signing him. It hurts, but it doesn’t break the Jets.

And the simple truth is the Jets are now a legitimate Cup contender going forward. They learned a lot in the playoffs as a young group and now need to apply that to the coming season.

Prospect Pool

Sami Niku, D, 21, Manitoba (AHL) – 2015 seventh-round pick

Niku led all American Hockey League defenseman in points with 54 in 76 games. He was named the best defenseman in the whole of the AHL, a first-team all-star and named to the all-rookie team. That’s right. Niku was a rookie last season, making his numbers all the more impressive to look at. Couple that with the fact that he was a seventh-round draft pick, and the Jets may own another steal from the 2015 draft.

Niku has a very good chance of taking a roster spot next season on Winnipeg’s backend. He could be the new partner of Dustin Byfuglien, depending on how things shake down in training camp.

“Antifreeze in the veins, that’s the way he looked,” Jets head coach Paul Maurice said after Niku scored his first NHL goal on his first NHL shot in March.

Kristian Vesalainen, LW/RW, 19, Karpat (Liiga) – 2017 first-round pick

Scored 43 points in 49 games split between HPK and Karpat, who Vesalainen was traded to near the end of the season in the Finnish Elite League. In the playoffs, he helped Karpat to a league title with eight points in 18 games and showed his prowess on the power play during the regular season as he paced Liiga with 14 markers.

Vesalainen signed an entry-level contract this past week. He’s headed to Jets training camp and will compete for a spot, although it’s likely the team will want him to play in the American Hockey League.

For the first year of Vesalainen’s contract, he has a clause where if he fails to make the Jets, he can return to Europe to play. He wouldn’t burn a year of his entry-level deal, so there’s no risk there for the Jets, but having him playing in North America will be the goal this season.

Mason Appleton, C/RW, 22, Manitoba (AHL) – 2015 sixth-round pick

Like Niku, Appleton was a late-round pick who has found a different gear in the AHL. After completing two years at Michigan State University, Appleton came into the professional ranks and put up a dazzling year with 22 goals and 66 points in 76 games as a rookie.

Appleton’s play garnered him AHL All-Rookie Team, AHL First All-Star Team and AHL Rookie of the Year Honors. He also paced all rookies with assists (44) and points. A second year in the AHL is likely for Appleton, but he will get a look in training camp. Vesalainen is the better player, but Appleton could see time this year if injuries occur.


Scott Billeck is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @scottbilleck

Seven hockey players suspended in Belarus match-fixing case

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ZURICH — Seven ice hockey players have been suspended during an investigation into match-fixing in the Belarus league.

The players — five from Belarus and two from Russia — told a domestic investigation they were paid to help arrange the outcome of a game in November, the International Ice Hockey Federation said on Friday.

“During the investigation, each of the players also admitted that they had agreed to exert an unlawful influence on the outcome of the game in exchange for illegal remuneration,” the governing body said in a statement.

The IIHF said its disciplinary board had taken over the case “for further review and sanctioning.”

The case involves Dynamo Molodechno’ losing to Mogilyov 6-5 in a Belarus Extraliga game.

The players have been suspended from taking part in any competition organized by the IIHF or its member federations.

PHT Morning Skate: NHL vs. viruses; Flat salary cap pain = Avs’ gain?

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Welcome to the PHT Morning Skate, a collection of links from the NHL and around the hockey world. Have a link you want to submit for the PHT Morning Skate? Email us at phtblog@nbcsports.com.

Lafreniere, COVID-19 hockey concerns, and how Avs may benefit from a flat salary cap

• Rank Maple Leafs goalie Frederik Andersen among those expressing some misgivings about playing amid the COVID-19 pandemic. [TSN]

• Breaking: Alexis Lafreniere is not a defenseman. In all seriousness, a look at some Maple Leafs possibilities … which might be complicated at No. 1 because of that positional point. Maybe? [Pension Plan Puppets]

• Speaking of those Maple Leafs, Buds fans are not pleased about the idea of a possible flat, $81.5M salary cap. There are teams who might take advantage of this situation, though. Here’s why the Avalanche could be one of those teams. [Mile High Hockey]

• A look back at the NHL’s “rivalries” with viruses. Does the history of the NHL’s dealing with such issues — even the Mumps — be a cause for concern amid COVID-19 outbreaks? [Arctic Ice Hockey]

• Earlier this week, PHT selected the best landing spots for Alexis Lafreniere. What about getting even more specific? Andrew Berkshire shared his picks for some of the lines that would benefit most from adding the consensus No. 1 pick to their left side. [Sportsnet]

Other hockey links

• Sean Gentille put together an oral history for the Jean Claude Van Damme masterpiece “Sudden Death.” If you haven’t heard of the candidate for “so-bad-it’s-good” designation, how about the elevator pitch: “Die Hard at a hockey game.” [The Athletic (sub required)]

• On face value, this article focuses most on Rudy Gobert and Novak Djokovic and athletes feeling invulnerable to COVID-19. But it’s a really good read for hockey fans, players, and executives as cautionary tales with a return-to-play picking up steam. [The Score]

• Joe Pelletier of Greatest Hockey Legends wonders why the bar is set so high for goalies to get into the Hockey Hall of Fame. Not an awful point when you consider that they play the most important position in the sport, and all. I wouldn’t mind Ron Hextall making a future cut, to name just one worthy goalie. [Greatest Hockey Legends]

• Five crossovers between hockey and Todd McFarlane. Yes, the “Spawn” guy. [PuckJunk]

• Taking a run at putting together the Sabres’ roster during the upcoming offseason. It gets elaborate, including potential trades. Yes, this scenario includes trading away Rasmus Ristolainen. Don’t they all? [Die by the Blade]

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.

Our Line Starts podcast: NHL, NHLPA nearing agreement; hub cities, Olympics, CBA

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Liam McHugh, Keith Jones, and Patrick Sharp react to the reports that the NHL and NHLPA are nearing the completion of a massive agreement that would not only cover this year’s Return to Play protocols, but also serve as an extension to the Collective Bargaining Agreement. The guys discuss Edmonton and Toronto emerging as hub city favorites, as well as what it would mean for the NHL to return to the Olympics. Plus, a breakdown of the Qualifying Round series in both conferences.

Start-4:45 Edmonton, Toronto new hub city frontrunners
4:45-8:45 NHL, NHLPA nearing CBA extension, including Olympic participation
8:45-13:00 Other return to play details
14:00-23:00 Eastern Conference Qualifying Round preview
23:50-End Western Conference Qualifying Round preview

Where else you can listen:

Apple: https://itunes.apple.com/us/podcast/id1482681517

Stitcher: https://www.stitcher.com/podcast/nbc-sports/our-line-starts

Spotify: https://open.spotify.com/show/7cDMHBg6NJkQDGe4KHu4iO?si=9BmcLtutTFmhRrNNcMqfgQ

NBC Sports on YouTube: https://www.youtube.com/nbcsports

Mrazek vs. Reimer and other Hurricanes lineup questions readying for Rangers

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Beyond obvious outliers like the Penguins, the Hurricanes rank among the most legitimate of the NHL’s Qualifying Round teams. Yet as stable as the Hurricanes are compared to a field full of erratic teams, Carolina faces many of the same lineup questions as the Rangers, the team they’d face in a best-of-five series.

Some might argue that the Hurricanes face tougher questions than the Rangers. (Though, the Rangers aren’t off the hook in that regard.)

In particular, the Hurricanes may need training camp to find answers in net and on defense. For all we know, Hurricanes lineup questions could even persist beyond “Phase 3.”

Let’s glance at both the goalie and defense questions for the Hurricanes.

Who should start in Hurricanes playoff lineup: Mrazek or Reimer?

Reimer, Mrazek, Hurricanes Rangers lineup questions NHL playoffs
(Photo by Greg Thompson/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

With Henrik Lundqvist jousting with two young upstarts, some might wonder if the Rangers have too much of a good thing in net. The Hurricanes don’t enjoy quite the abundance of options.

Even so, coach Rod Brind’Amour faces a decision, as they lack a clear No. 1. Should the Hurricanes go with Petr Mrazek — who helped them during the 2019 Stanley Cup Playoffs — or James Reimer (who boasts superior numbers this season)?

If Brind’Amour knows, he’s putting on a poker face.

“It’s easy to say right now, ‘OK, I’m going to go with Petr,’ but I don’t know,” Brind’Amour said in a recent interview, via NHL.com’s Dan Rosen. “He may be in rough shape. I don’t know until I get to see them and see what they’re like.”

It’s unclear if that last playoff run explains why Mrazek would be the “easy” choice, or if that came down to Reimer entering the pandemic pause with injury issues. (The Hurricanes may also be concerned about Reimer’s rather lengthy run of injury hiccups, too.)

Because, again, Reimer performed at a higher level than Mrazek in 2019-20. Reimer boasts a better save percentage than Mrazek this season (.914 to Mrazek’s .905) and over their careers (.914 to Mrazek’s .910). Reimer takes most/all goalie “advanced stats” between the two this season, as well. Generally speaking, we’ve seen more from Reimer over the past few seasons than Mrazek, whose career was teetering on the edge here and there.

(But, to be fair, Reimer’s had his issues, too.)

Regardless, just about every team should take a long look at how their goalies are performing during training camps. Even teams with clearer No. 1 options.

Honestly, with the NHL not expected to limit the number of goalies at training camps, maybe the Hurricanes should even look at options like Anton Forsberg or Alex Nedeljkovic?

An unexpectedly crowded defense

Dougie Hamilton Hurricanes Rangers lineup decisions playoffs
(Photo by Gregg Forwerck/NHLI via Getty Images)

During the 2020 NHL Trade Deadline, the Hurricanes acquired Brady Skjei and Sami Vatanen. As you may remember, those moves hinged at least partially on injuries to Dougie Hamilton and Brett Pesce. After the twists of those bad-luck injuries, the pandemic threw off Carolina’s rhythm once more.

The best news is that it sounds like Hamilton will be available. Don’t let the museum talk fool you. If Hamilton maintained his hot pace and didn’t get injured, he would have been a go-to choice for those making arguments against John Carlson‘s Norris credentials. Either way, Hamilton provides an enormous boost to the Hurricanes lineup — one they weren’t expecting during the deadline.

On the other hand, Brind’Amour told NHL.com’s Rosen that Pesce remains unlikely to return. However …

“It’s going to be a long shot, but the longer this goes the shot gets a little shorter,” Brind’Amour said.

(Anyone else visualizing that after that rather literal description from Brind’Amour? No? OK.)

So, Hamilton stands as probable while Pesce looks unlikely. Beyond that, the Hurricanes have two still-new faces in Skjei (just seven not particularly impressive games played) and Vatanen (who was injured and didn’t even get to suit up). Let’s say that represents three defensemen for the Hurricanes. Here are the other contenders for spots in the Hurricanes defensive lineup:

  • Jaccob Slavin, a lock.
  • Jake Gardiner, who dealt with a tough season, averaging only 16:40 TOI. Still, Gardiner is experienced, played in 68 games this season, and may have benefited from the break.
  • Joel Edmundson (68 GP like Slavin and Gardiner, averaged more TOI than Gardiner with 18:27 per contest).
  • Trevor van Riemsdyk (49 GP, less than 15 minutes per night; still, Hurricanes are very familiar with TVR).
  • Haydn Fleury (45 GP, averaged fewer than 15 minutes per game).

Realistically, Brind’Amour could have eight options on defense, and possibly nine if Pesce makes unexpectedly rapid progress. Being that some of those options are quite good, there are worse problems to have.

But it still adds to the notion that training camp could be quite important for Hurricanes lineup decisions. With both goalies and defense, Brind’Amour emphasized a wait-and-see approach. So … we’ll see?

More on the Hurricanes, Rangers, return to play, and similar subjects:

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.