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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

Golden Knights, William Hill sportsbook announce historic partnership

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It was a pretty busy Tuesday afternoon for the business side of the National Hockey League. In the span of an hour, the league announced a sponsorship with Jägermeister, making the liqueur company the “official shot” of the NHL, and the Vegas Golden Knights teamed up with the William Hill U.S. sportsbook for a multi-year partnership.

“We are always looking for innovative ways to engage different segments our fan base and provide a unique fan experience,” Golden Knights president Kerry Bubolz said in a release. “This partnership between a major professional team and a sportsbook operator is a historic, landmark agreement and we are delighted to be leading the way with William Hill in this space.”

The Golden Knights/William Hill U.S. deal is the first between an NHL team and a North American sportsbook. William Hill will get advertisements on rink dasherboards, in-arena signage and have updated odds from across the league promoted on the team’s Jumbotron between periods. 

And because everything in life these days is sponsored, once a period when Golden Knights make a line change it will now be known as the “William Hill Line Change” — because gambling, you see? The promotion will also be heard on radio broadcasts.

“We hope people will be sitting at T-Mobile and betting between periods,” said William Hill U.S. CEO Joe Asher told Sports Business Journal. “Frankly, we know they do that already. We’re hoping to be able to get more people to our site because the brand will be right there in front of them.”

This could be the start of new revenue streams for franchises if they reside in a state that has legalized sports betting.

In May, the Supreme Court opened the door for states to legalize betting on sports, breaking a longtime ban and creating a potential financial boon for states and the gambling industry. The state of Nevada, obviously, was already enjoying gambling well before the decision.

Despite opposition from the major sports leagues and the Trump administration, the high court struck down a federal law that had barred betting on football, basketball, baseball and other sports in most states. States that want to take advantage of the ruling now will generally have to pass legislation to allow sportsbooks to open.

Over the summer, NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman said those wanting to involve the NHL will have to negotiate a deal.

“We’ve historically been opposed to extending sports betting on our game, and, emotionally, I don’t think that’s changed,” said Bettman. “However, it is a fact of life in light of the Supreme Court’s ruling, and it’ll be up to states to decide whether or not they’re going to enact sports betting.

“From our standpoint, we believe that that whether it’s our intellectual property or data, whether it’s video of our game, we have important assets. And if somebody is going to avail themselves or want to avail themselves of those assets in order to conduct their business, then we’re going to need to have a negotiation.”

With files from the AP

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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.

Kotkaniemi gives Canadiens something to be excited about

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Montreal Canadiens fans haven’t had much to cheer about lately.

It makes sense, then, that Jesperi Kotkaniemi experienced the sort of ovation he’ll never forget after scoring a goal on his first shot in his first pre-season NHL game.

Kotkaniemi flashed some of the brilliance – not to mention a big, affable smile – that made him the third pick of the 2018 NHL Draft on the play. Not only did he manage to handle a rolling puck and send it into the net, but he also showed poise in shaking off a hard hit while making a pass that really got things rolling.

“That was sick,” a giggly Kotkaniemi told the media after Montreal’s 3-1 preseason win against New Jersey Monday night. “I’ve never heard a crowd that loud. It was pretty unbelievable.”

Habs fans clearly relished that moment, lavishing Kotkaniemi with additional praise once he was announced as the game’s third star:

Canadiens head coach Claude Julien underscored the on-ice adjustment Kotkaniemi faces as an 18-year-old with limited exposure to NHL-sized rinks and NHL-sized players (whom he compared to “superheroes”).

“He’s still a junior player to a lot of people’s eyes, and this is North American hockey on a smaller rink,” Julien said, via Sportsnet’s Eric Engels. “We play a much more aggressive style than they do where he’s from. But, again, I think you have to appreciate the way he handled himself tonight in the game and showed his skill level. He showed his patience. He’s also learning on the fly and I think he’s getting better and better on a daily basis. So it’s encouraging to see how well he’s doing so far.”

[Montreal mismanagement: Canadiens wasted opportunity with Max Pacioretty]

It would be a steep learning curve for any player, but the transition overseas is unlikely to be smooth. The Athletic’s Arpon Basu notes (sub. required) that Kotkaniemi really hadn’t seen on-ice fights until last night, and didn’t really know how to conduct himself during pre-game warm-ups.

Even so, there are those positive moments, and early feedback – including from Julien himself – that Kotkaniemi’s skating might be better than advertised.

So, would the Canadiens (and Kotkaniemi) be better off if the Finnish forward makes an immediate jump to the NHL, or would it be better if he continued to polish his game before burning off a year from his entry-level deal?

Well, it’s complicated.

Center of attention

On Monday, Kotkaniemi basked in the thrill of being the apple of the crowd’s eye.

Still, if we’ve noted anything about hockey-obsessed markets, it’s that the “honeymoon period” can be short-lived in a place like Montreal. Growing pains are probable whenever a young player makes the jump, yet throwing Kotkaniemi into the deep end right off the bat could only expose a lack of polish that much more.

Such a decision would run the risk of shaking Kotkaniemi’s confidence.

There’s another factor not unlike Filip Zadina possibly soothing some pain in Detroit: a reasonably productive and promising Kotkaniemi could give Canadiens fans a sorely needed bright side to look on. The Max Pacioretty trade – not to mention picking third – sent at least a partial rebuild message, so if 2018-19 is as rough on the ice as it is on paper, it might be nice to glimpse some of the light at the end of the tunnel.

The bottom line is that, at some point, the pressure will really rise on Kotkaniemi to be the Canadiens’ long-sought-after high-end center. Considering how short the fuse can be when it comes to Marc Bergevin assessing a player’s usefulness in that regard, it could be a cruel test for the Finn.

Cautionary tales

The modern NHL treasures speed, skill, and smarts. Sometimes that translates into young players managing instant success, as we saw with Nico Hischier being a quick study after a splendid jump from being the top pick of the 2017 NHL Draft.

There are some examples of the immediate jump going wrong, or at least being handled poorly, and you can look at some recent third picks as warnings for Montreal.

Alex Galchenyuk – Like Kotkaniemi, Galchenyuk was a could-be center (and could be one in Arizona) who Montreal selected third overall. In the case of “Chucky,” it was the third pick in 2012.

Galchenyuk jumped right from that 2012 draft to the 2012-13 season, at least once the lockout dissipated. He played in all 48 regular-season games (and five playoff contests), acquitting himself quite nicely.

Yet, patience wasn’t in great supply for the talented forward, as Bergevin shut the door emphatically on Galchenyuk’s bid to be a center, and the atmosphere sure felt toxic pretty quickly.

Would Galchenyuk’s game been more well-rounded if he didn’t make the jump right away? Was stepping from the draft to the pressure cooker of Montreal hockey an example of “too much, too soon?”

In my opinion, it’s absurd to look at Galchenyuk as a failure. That said, the Canadiens failed to handle his situation properly, and it’s unclear if Bergevin & Co. truly learned from their mistakes. Rushing Kotkaniemi into the NHL could end up being an unpleasant example of history repeating.

Jesse Puljujarvi – While Kotkaniemi was a mild surprise in rising to the third pick, plenty were surprised that fellow Finn Puljujarvi slipped below the third choice, instead going fourth overall in 2016.

It’s far too early for this to be a permanent judgment, but at the moment, the Blue Jackets’ bold decision to go with Pierre Luc-Dubois instead may end up being the correct call.

Either way, it’s been a bumpy ride for Puljujarvi, and a considerable portion of the blame falls on the Edmonton Oilers, an organization that hasn’t exactly developed the greatest track record of handling all but the most can’t-miss of prospects. (They haven’t messed up Connor McDavid, although they’ve blundered spectacularly when it comes to giving him help.)

Puljujarvi burned a year off his entry-level contract by making an immediate jump in 2016-17, a move that proved to be ill-fated, as he was demoted to the AHL. He’s spent the past two seasons going between the AHL and NHL, with some legitimate concerns about stunted growth.

Even if Puljujarvi pulls out the sort of season that would justify his draft placement, the Oilers have already squandered most of his rookie contract. Edmonton’s essentially written the blueprint on how not to handle Kotkaniemi in the form of his countryman Puljujarvi.

The North American Game

Although the above scenarios inspire some fear of mishandling Kotkaniemi, the Habs could theoretically see some advantages in keeping him around, even if his 2018-19 season isn’t a smash success.

As mentioned before, Kotkaniemi hasn’t experienced much exposure to the North American game. The Canadiens might reason that he’d be better off not returning to Finland for this next campaign, then.

***

With plenty of cap space and a lot of forwards under contract (according to Cap Friendly’s listings), it’s not as though the Canadiens badly need to get solid production from a cheap rookie contract. If expectations are as low in-house as they are on the streets of Montreal, then sliding the first year of Kotkaniemi’s entry-level deal to 2019-20 might be a lot more prudent.

Overall, there are some notable pros and cons to Kotkaniemi making the immediate jump, so the Canadiens better look before they leap.

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.

Captaincy continues Aleksander Barkov’s growth as a player

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It was Shawn Thornton who requested that Aleksander Barkov move his stall closer to his within the Florida Panthers’ locker room. In Barkov’s second year in the NHL it was Thornton’s goal to get the shy young Finn to show off his personality a little bit more around his teammates.

The move happened and Thornton slowly pecked away and brought more and more of Barkov’s personality out.

“When you sit next to that kind of player and person, it helps you a lot,” Barkov told Pro Hockey Talk on Tuesday. “Even the first couple of days, you’re just shy and sit next to him and answer his questions. Then a little bit at a time you just get out of your shell and start talking to him, joking with him and just have fun with him. That helped me a lot. If you can be good friends with this guy, you can be good friends with everybody.”

That small change allowed Barkov to get comfortable in his early NHL days and was the first step in him feeling confident enough to take on the responsibility of team captain, which the Panthers announced on Monday.

Barkov was approached at the end of last season and asked if he felt ready should they decide to have him wear the ‘C,’ replacing Derek MacKenzie. He said he was ready for the honor but also fine with remaining as an alternate, which he served as last season.

You might think there would be some awkwardness with MacKenzie being asked to give up the captaincy, but when he was given the ‘C’ in 2016 he knew that he was just holding it before one of the team’s younger stars was ready for the responsibility.

[Captain switch: Panthers give ‘C’ to Aleksander Barkov]

So when the change became official, MacKenzie was thrilled to be passing it on to Barkov.

“He called me right away and congratulated me,” Barkov said. “I was really happy to hear him calling me and congratulating me and telling me he’s OK with everything and he’s actually fine with that and he’s going to help me. I learned a lot from him. He’s probably one of the best captains I’ve ever heard in my six seasons here.”

MacKenzie, along with Willie Mitchell and Ed Jovanovski were the three captains Barkov played for since breaking into the NHL in 2013. Each of them has left a lasting imprint on the 23-year-old Panthers star.

“Those three guys, they helped me so much,” said Barkov, who also added that former NHLer Ville Nieminen, who played with Barkov and his father in Finland, was also a big influence. “Not just being a captain, just being great people you can talk to about anything, even if everything is good you can just go to them and talk to them and they’re true professionals. I got lucky to be with them in the same organization.”

Barkov takes on the captaincy at an important time in the Panthers’ growth. He’s coming off a career season offensively and the team missed out on the Stanley Cup Playoffs by a point. Bob Boughner is entering his second year behind the bench, Mike Hoffman was acquired over the summer and highly-touted prospects Henrik Borgstrom and Owen Tippett could make an impact. There are plenty of expectations that the trend continues upwards in 2018-19.

As far as leadership style goes, Barkov doesn’t expect much to change as they look to build off the last few seasons. The only thing that may change is how many dinners he may have to pick up as captain, but MacKenzie didn’t give him the heads up on that.

“No, nobody told me about that,” Barkov said laughing. “I’m just trying to keep quiet so nobody remembers that.”

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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.

Bridge deal for Nurse could end up costing Oilers big time

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It took some time, but the Edmonton Oilers were finally able to re-sign restricted free agent Darnell Nurse on Monday afternoon. Instead of locking him up to a long-term deal, the Oilers opted for a two-year bride deal worth $6.4 million ($3.2 million AAV). But was that the right move?

It’s great that the contract is done. Nurse can now report to the team and the Oilers can get the talented defender to training camp. Of course, Edmonton is pretty thin on defense, so he’ll be a welcomed addition to the team. But you can’t help wondering if this was just a quick fix to a problem that will resurface in a couple of years.

There will be added pressure on the 23-year-old to perform, especially because Andrej Sekera is out indefinitely with an Achilles injury. Nurse is coming off a season that saw him put up six goals and 26 points in 82 games. He also had a plus-15 rating and 67 penalty minutes while averaging over 22 minutes of ice time per game.

After making it to the second round of the 2017 Stanley Cup Playoffs, the Oilers fell flat on their face last season. They were bad. But looking at the data from last year, it’s easy to see that Nurse wasn’t the reason they failed to make the playoffs. Most of the numbers he put up ended up being better than the team average. For example, his CF% was 51.05 percent, while the team’s CF% was 50.59 percent, per Natural Stat Trick. He was also above the team average when it came to SCF%, HDCF%.

Nurse’s primary defense partner last season was Adam Larsson. The pair played just over 820 minutes together in 2017-18. The pairings’ CF% while together was 50.92 percent. While they were apart, Nurse’s CF% went up to 52.35 percent. Larsson’s dropped to 50.06 percent. That’s not a huge difference, but it’s noticeable enough.

Nurse is still just 23 years old, so there’s room for his game to grow. Getting him signed for $3.2 million per year over the next two years is a great deal given the numbers he posted last season. The problem with that thinking, is that it’s a little short-sighted. GM Peter Chiarelli might be getting a bargain now but if Nurse keeps getting better, his next contract will be long and expensive. Sure, the 26 points he put up are modest, but his points-per-game have increased in each of his three seasons. It’s not unrealistic to expect him to top 30 points this year.

The Montreal Canadiens are one example of a team that got burned by a bridge deal. In 2012, they signed P.K. Subban to a two-year deal worth less than $6 million in total. Subban held out, but eventually came back and won the Norris Trophy that season. The next time his contract expired, he ended up getting $72 million over eight years.

Yes, Nurse and Subban play a different style. And yes, this is an extreme example, but when you’re paying Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl big money ($21 million combined), getting long-term bargains on other players is important. The Oilers will benefit from having one of their top defenders signed to a team-friendly contract for two years, but Nurse, who will be an RFA again when this deal expires, could make them pay for it the next time his contract is up.

Joey Alfieri is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @joeyalfieri.