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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

The Buzzer: Gibson’s shutout ends losing skid; Campbell finally gets support

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Three stars

1. John Gibson, Anaheim Ducks

Gibson was simply sensational, stopping all 37 shots he faced, including 10 on the power play, as the Ducks finally stopped their losing streak at 12 games in a 3-0 win against the Minnesota Wild.

Gibson’s in a race for the Vezina, and he’s been fantastic this season — one of few, if any, constants with the Ducks. The run support he’s received throughout the season, or lack thereof, just highlights further how important Gibson has been. Anaheim has just 116 goals for this season, ranking 30th out of 31 teams.

There are other cases to be made, but Gibson might just have the strongest one.

2. Jack Campbell, Los Angeles Kings

It’s a shame injury got in the way of Jack Campbell playing more. He’s been one of best backups in the NHL, despite missing nearly two months due to a meniscus tear.

His record might not reflect it, but never mind that: just check out his save percentage.

Consider this: In his past three starts coming into Thursday, Campbell has come out winless despite save percentages of .929, .979 and .972.

Campbell got the goals he needed at the other end of the ice and stopped 29 shots in a 2-1 win against the Dallas Stars.

3. Sami Niku, Winnipeg Jets 

Niku has gone from seventh-round pick to the AHL’s Defenseman of the Year and into the limelight on Winnipeg’s blue line in pretty short order.

Niku played his best game as a pro on Thursday as the Jets came into Nashville and embarrassed the Predators 5-1. Niku was a big part of that, doing it all on Winnipeg’s eventual game-winner with an assist and then grabbing his second assist of the night when his point shot was deflected past Pekka Rinne.

Injuries to Dustin Byfuglien and Ben Chiarot have put Niku into the lineup and he’s thrived in the opportunity, so much so that he’s made a case to stick in the lineup even when the blue line returns to health.

Highlights of the night

Steeeeretch:

Body bag, indeed. What a hit:

Saad smacks this one in out of mid-air:

Vasilevskiy just being himself:

Factoids

Given their long and storied history, this is impressive:

Scores

Rangers 4, Blackhawks 3
Islanders 4, Devils 1
Bruins 5, Blues 2
Maple Leafs 4, Lightning 2
Jets 5, Predators 1
Ducks 3, Wild 0
Kings 2, Stars 1


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

The bleeding ends: Ducks finally halt record losing streak

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The agony is over.

The Anaheim Ducks have won for the first time in 2019 (and the first time since a 4-2 win against the Pittsburgh Penguins on Dec. 17), snapping a 12-game losing skid that earned the title of a franchise record.

Yes, the bleeding has ended, due in large part to John Gibson, who has been the one constant during the winless stretch. Gibson stopped 37 shots, including 10 on the power play for the shutout in a 3-0 win against the Minnesota Wild.

The Ducks got goals from Adam Henrique, Brian Gibbons and Rickard Rakell.

Devin Shore, who the Ducks picked up earlier this week in a trade that sparked the first of four in the span of 72 hours, added an assist. Derek Grant, who the Ducks traded for in a flurry of deals late Wednesday, played 16:21.

While Bob Murray’s moves didn’t dent the scoresheet too much, they certainly sent a message to the locker room. To be fair to the Ducks, they had been playing better as of late, only to have a couple games slip through the cracks, including a 4-3 overtime loss to the Winnipeg Jets and a 7-4 loss to the Pittsburgh Penguins that should have been an Anaheim win if not for an epic implosion.

But that’s all history now with the losing streak coming to an end.

The Ducks won six of their first seven games in December and still sit in a three-way tie for the last wildcard spot in the Western Conference. With Gibson’s Vezina-caliber season so far, and the fact that a lot of teams in the West seem disinterested in distancing themselves from one another, the Ducks have as good a chance as any to sneak in the backdoor.

Breaking that losing streak was the start. What happens over the next few weeks is the next test.


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

Rangers hold on, win second straight after Quinn’s call-out

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The New York Rangers are 2-0-0 now after head coach David Quinn put his team on blast this past Sunday.

Sometimes the truth hurts, and Quinn destroyed his team in his post-game comments after losing 7-5 against the Columbus Blue Jackets.

The response? A 6-2 win against the Carolina Hurricanes on Tuesday and a 4-3 win against the Chicago Blackhawks on NBCSN on Thursday.

You’ve got to pick your spot sometimes, and the rookie NHL bench boss seemed to find the right time to light the spark.

The Rangers probably aren’t going to be challenging for a playoff spot this season, but setting a tone going forward is exactly what Quinn needs to do with his group of youngsters. And despite getting down early in Thursday’s game, it’s likely Quinn enjoyed his team’s response and then its resiliency.

The Blackhawks took the early lead in this one, with Brandon Saad making a sweet play off a rebound for a 1-0 Blackhawks lead.

That lead would be relinquished later in the period when Filip Chytil notched his eighth, and before the period was out, Mats Zuccarello gave the Rangers the 2-1 lead.

After Chris Kreider scored his 22nd of the season to put the Rangers ahead 3-1 with the only goal in the second, Alex DeBrincat continued his stellar season to bring the Blackhawks back within one with his 24th just 1:40 into the third.

Mika Zibanejad ended up scoring the eventual game-winner with 38 seconds left in the game. His goal went into the empty net, to put the Rangers up 4-2. But with 1.5 seconds left, Dominik Kahun pulled the Blackhawks to within one, albeit with not enough time to do anything else.

Henrik Lundqvist made 24 saves for the Rangers, picking up 445th NHL win to tie him for sixth place on the all-time list with Terry Sawchuk.

The Rangers are now 3-6-0 in their past nine games.

The Blackhawks, meanwhile, have lost five straight.


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

WATCH LIVE: Blackhawks visit Rangers on NBCSN

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NBCSN’s coverage of the 2018-19 NHL season continues with Thursday’s matchup between the New York Rangers and Chicago Blackhawks. Coverage begins at 6 p.m. ET on NBCSN. You can watch the game online and on the NBC Sports app by clicking here.

Last season was the first since 2003-04 in which both the Blackhawks and Rangers failed to make the postseason. The Blackhawks had made nine straight postseason appearances prior to last season, while the Rangers had made the postseason in 11 of the previous 12 seasons prior to last year. However, both teams continue to struggle this season.

The Blackhawks have lost six of their seven games in the new year (1-3-3), including four straight losses (0-2-2). Since Jeremy Colliton took charge on November 6, Chicago has lost 23 of their 33 games under their new head coach (10-17-6) after going 6-6-3 in 15 games under former head coach Joel Quenneville. The Hawks are coming off a disappointing 8-5 loss at New Jersey on Monday, which included an eight-goal second period in which Chicago was outscored 5-3.

Chicago has won four of their last six on the road (4-1-1) after winning just four of their first 18 away games this season (4-12-2). Recent notable road wins have come at Colorado (Dec 29) and at Pittsburgh (Jan 6). The Blackhawks will look to continue this good away run, with four of their next six games coming on the road.

After losing six of seven games, the Rangers were called out by head coach David Quinn, who called the team’s performance in a 7-5 loss against Columbus “a freaking joke,” saying the team “failed miserably.” They responded with a 6-2 win vs Carolina on Tuesday, led by a four-point night from Mika Zibanejad (2G-2A). It was the Rangers’ most goals scored this season and their biggest win since November 21.

Mats Zuccarello has seven points in his last five games (3G-4A), after having just six points in his previous 19 games. The forward is currently on a three-game point streak (3G-3A), and is coming off a three-assist performance against Carolina, which included this no-look through-the-legs pass for Zibanejad’s second goal. Zuccarello has been the Rangers’ top scorer each of the past three seasons, but has been rumored with a trade away from New York as he is set to become an unrestricted free agent this summer.

[WATCH LIVE – COVERAGE BEGINS AT 6 P.M. ET – NBCSN]

What: Chicago Blackhawks at New York Rangers
Where: Madison Square Garden
When: Thursday, Jan. 17, 6 p.m. ET
TV: NBCSN
Live stream: You can watch the Blackhawks-Rangers stream on NBC Sports’ live stream page and the NBC Sports app.

PROJECTED LINEUPS

BLACKHAWKS
Brandon SaadJonathan ToewsAlex DeBrincat
Drake CaggiulaDylan StromePatrick Kane
Chris KunitzArtem AnisimovBrendan Perlini
David KampfMarcus KrugerDominik Kahun

Duncan KeithErik Gustafsson
Henri Jokiharju – Brent Seabrook
Carl DahlstromConnor Murphy

Starting goalie: Collin Delia

RANGERS
Chris Kreider – Mika Zibanejad – Mats Zuccarello
Filip ChytilRyan StromeJesper Fast
Jimmy VeseyBoo NievesVladislav Namestnikov
Cody McLeodBrett HowdenPavel Buchnevich

Marc StaalTony DeAngelo
Brady SkjeiAdam McQuaid
Ryan Lindgren – Kevin Shattenkirk

Starting goalie: Henrik Lundqvist

John Walton (play-by-play) and Brian Boucher will have the call from Madison Square Garden.