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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

Will coaching change be enough to give Ducks’ goalies some help?

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Since becoming the Anaheim Ducks’ starter, John Gibson has become one of the best goalies in the NHL.

For the first part of the 2018-19 season he was almost single-handedly carrying the team and helping to keep it at least somewhat competitive. He was not only in the Vezina Trophy discussion, but as long as the Ducks were winning he was a legitimate MVP contender. But for as good as Gibson performed, the entire thing was a house of cards that was always on the verge of an ugly collapse.

The Ducks couldn’t score, they couldn’t defend, they forced Gibson to take on a ridiculous workload in terms of shots and scoring chances against.

Eventually, everything fell apart.

Once Gibson started to wear down and could no longer steal games on a nightly basis, the team turned into one of the worst in the league despite having a top-10 goaltending duo. That is a shocking accomplishment because teams that get the level of goaltending the Ducks received from the Gibson-Ryan Miller duo usually make the playoffs.

How bad was it for the Ducks? They were one of only three teams in the top-15 in save percentage this past season that did not make the playoffs.

The only other teams in the top-15 that missed were the Montreal Canadiens, who were just two points back in a far better and more competitive Eastern Conference, and the Arizona Coyotes who were four points back in the Western Conference and the first team on the outside looking in.

The Ducks not only missed, they were 10 points short with FIVE teams between them and a playoff spot. Again, almost impossibly bad.

It is a testament to just how bad the rest of the team performed in front of the goalies, and it continued a disturbing trend from the 2018 playoffs when the Ducks looked completely overmatched against the San Jose Sharks in a four-game sweep. It was clear the team was badly flawed and was falling behind in a faster, more skilled NHL.

The problem for the Ducks right now is that so far this offseason the team has remained mostly the same.

They bought out the remainder of Corey Perry‘s contract, will be without Ryan Kesler, and have really not done anything else to change a roster that has not been anywhere near good enough the past two seasons.

That means it is going to be another sink-or-swim season for the Ducks based on how far the goaltending duo of Gibson and Miller can carry them.

It is a tough situation because the Ducks have made an absolutely massive commitment to Gibson as he enters the first year of an eight-year, $51.2 million contract. T

hat is a huge investment in a goalie, and for the time being, the Ducks have not really done anything to support him. Even if you have the best goalie in the league — or just one of the best — it is nearly impossible to win based only on that. Great goalies can help, they can mask a lot of flaws, and they can even carry a mediocre or bad team to the playoffs if they have a historically great season (think Carey Price during the 2014-15 season). But that still puts a ton of pressure on the goalie, and it is nearly impossible to ride that all the way to a championship.

There is, however, one small cause for optimism.

A lot of the Ducks’ problems defensively last season seemed to be based around their system and structure in the early part of the season under then-coach Randy Carlyle.

Under Carlyle the Ducks were one of the worst teams in the league when it came to suppressing shot attempts, shots on goal, and scoring chances during 5-on-5 play.

They were 29th or worse when it came to shots on goal against, scoring chances, and high-danger scoring chances, and 26th in total shot attempts against. This is something that always happened with Carlyle coached teams and they would always go as far as their goaltending could take them. In recent years, Gibson masked a lot of those flaws by playing at an elite level and helped get the Ducks in the playoffs. He was able to do it for half of a season this year before finally playing like a mortal instead of a goaltending deity.

But after Carlyle was replaced by general manager Bob Murray, the Ducks showed some massive improvement defensively, shaving multiple shots, shot attempts, and scoring chances per 60 minutes off of their totals.

They went from 26th to seventh in shots on goal against, from 29th to 19th in shot attempts, from 30th to 17th in scoring chances against, and from 29th to 17th in high-danger scoring chances against.

Still not great, but definitely better. Much better. So much better that even though Gibson’s overall performance regressed, the Ducks still managed to win games and collect points at a significantly better rate than they did earlier in the season. They were 14-11-1 from Feb. 10 until the end of the season under Murray.

That is a 91.3 point pace over 82 games. That would have been a playoff point total in the Western Conference this past season.

Under Carlyle, it was a 74.6 point pace. That would have been one of the four worst records in the league.

Coaching changes are very rarely a cure-all. It is still a talent-driven league, and if you do not have talent you are probably not going to win very much. But there are always exceptions and outliers, and sometimes a coaching change is a necessity and can help dramatically improve a team.

New Ducks coach Dallas Eakins has an incredibly short NHL head coaching resume so we don’t have much to go by when it comes to what he will do What we do have to go by came in Edmonton where it has become abundantly clear over the past 15 years that the problems go far beyond the head coach (because they have all failed there). The Ducks are still short on talent at forward and defense, but it should still be able to perform better than it did a year ago. And with a goalie as dominant as Gibson can be (with a great backup behind him) there is no excuse for them to be as far out of the playoff picture as they were.

The Ducks don’t need to be the 1995 Devils defensively to compete.

They just need to not be the worst shot suppression team in the league.

If Eakins can figure out a way to build on the momentum the Ducks showed over the final two months of the 2018-19 season, they might actually have a fighting chance.

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.

Calgary Flames set with arena plans to replace Saddledome

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CALGARY, Alberta (AP) — The Calgary Flames have a tentative agreement for a new arena to replace the Saddledome.

The city, NHL team and the Calgary Stampede have agreed in principle to terms. The Stampede, a rodeo exhibition, owns the land.

The deal was to be presented to the City Council on Monday and then put to a vote. Calgary citizens would then have a week to voice their opinion before a council vote next week to ratify the deal.

The Saddledome is almost 36 years old. The cost of the event center is $550 million to $600 million. It is to have a seating capacity of about 20,000 for sports and would be the heart of a larger revitalized commercial and residential district.

Penguins sign Zach Aston-Reese to 2-year deal

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PITTSBURGH (AP) — The Pittsburgh Penguins and forward Zach Aston-Reese avoided arbitration on Monday, agreeing to a two-year deal that runs through the 2020-21 season.

The deal is worth $1 million annually. The two sides came together minutes before heading to arbitration.

”We were actually setting up for the meeting and kind of right before it started, right at nine o’clock, it got done,” Aston-Reese said. ”Right on time.”

Aston-Reese, 24, posted career highs in goals (eight) and assists (nine) despite being limited to 43 games because of a hand injury. Aston-Reese – who skated alongside Sidney Crosby on the top line but also put in work with the fourth line – gives the Penguins more options as they try to bounce back from a first-round playoff sweep at the hands of the New York Islanders.

”Zach is a responsible player who plays a solid two-way game,” general manager Jim Rutherford said. ”He has a heavy style of play that is especially effective on the forecheck and penalty kill.”

Aston-Reese admitted he was relieved to get a new contract ironed out before going through arbitration.

”It’s a little bit awkward and I was just really happy to get the deal done before that meeting began,” he said. ”You hear stories of things like that and it’s no coincidence that only what, 5% actually go through with the meeting. I was happy to avoid that.”

How Phil Kessel can transform Coyotes’ offense

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The Arizona Coyotes made a significant splash this offseason when they acquired Phil Kessel from the Pittsburgh Penguins, adding a much-needed impact player to the top of their lineup. Getting him was a perfect confluence of events that involved the Penguins feeling desperate to shake up their roster, Kessel having almost full control over where he ended up going, and the Coyotes having a head coach (Rick Tocchet) the Kessel liked playing for in the past and wanted to play for again.

Despite an impossibly bad run of injury luck the Coyotes made a valiant push for a playoff spot only to fall just short, in large part because they did not have enough offense.

They finished the season 28th in goals scored, 20th in shots on goal, and 26th on the power play. None of that is promising.

One player alone can not fix all of that — especially a player that will be turning 32 at the start of the season — but adding a player like Kessel certainly helps.

A lot.

Acquiring Kessel is so significant because the Coyotes have simply not had a player like him in more than a decade. Maybe even longer.

A *bad* year for Kessel offensively is probably 25 goals and 60 points, while he is also still capable of being an 80-90 point player. Even the middle ground between those two is bonafide first-line production.

To put all of that that into perspective, just consider that since the start of the 2008-09 season the Coyotes have had only two players top the 70-point mark in a single season, and none since Ray Whitney did it during the 2011-12 season. No one has topped 80 points during that stretch.

Over that same stretch they have had only five 60-point performances (and only Clayton Keller has done it since 2011-12), only two 30-goal seasons (none since, again, 2011-12) and only three 25-goal seasons.

Twenty-five goals and 60 points are not huge numbers. Those are great second line numbers in today’s NHL and pretty good first line numbers. But even those have been almost unheard of in Arizona for the past decade. They just simply have not had anyone that is even close to being an impact forward.

Should Kessel be expected to be the same 80-or 90-point player that he has been the past two seasons? Probably not, not only because he will not have the luxury of Hall of Fame centers next to him, but also because he is also going to be another year older. There is a definite recipe for regression there, especially at even-strength. But he is still gifted enough of a player (and passer and playmaker, perhaps his most underappreciated skill) that he will still be one of the best and most productive offensive players to wear a Coyotes uniform in years.

But the area he should make the biggest impact is on Arizona’s dreadful power play.

The Coyotes have been one of the worst teams on the man-advantage for five years now, mostly because they just have not had anyone at forward that could really take over and run things.

The power play is where Kessel does a significant part of his damage.

Over the past three seasons Kessel is sixth in power play assists per 60 minutes (5.49), 11th in primary assists per 60 minutes (2.91), and third in total points per 60 minutes (7.47).

It is easy to write that off in recent years to playing alongside the likes of Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin, Kessel was often the one that unit ran through and it was far less dangerous when he was not on the ice. His passing, vision, and playmaking made him an elite weapon and one of the most productive players in the league on the man-advantage.

The Coyotes have had no one that even comes close to that level of performance over the past few years.

Kessel definitely has his flaws, and his defensive shortcomings are very real, but he remains an impact winger and a player that can still completely help transform a power play unit. He alone may not make them the best unit in the league, or even one of the best, but he is going to make them better. Very likely a lot better.

The Coyotes have been assembling a promising roster that is pretty good defensively and definitely has the potential to grow into a good team in the not too distant future. The biggest thing they have been lacking in this rebuild is a forward that can change a game and be a difference-maker offensively. Ideally, that player would be someone younger and still closer to the prime of their career and would better match up with some of their core players, but those players are nearly impossible to acquire without a lot of luck or a top-pick in the right draft year.

Kessel may not be perfect, but can definitely still help give them a lot of the elements they have been lacking offensively and help bring some firepower to an offense that has been one of the dullest and least dangerous in the league.

Combined with the addition of Carl Soderberg and, hopefully, some better injury luck and that should give the Coyotes a fighting chance to make up that ground in the Western Conference playoff race.

(Data in this post via Natural Stat Trick and Hockey Reference)

Related: Coyotes acquire Phil Kessel from Pittsburgh Penguins for Alex Galchenyuk

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.