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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

Stanley Cup Final Preview: X-factors for Bruins, Blues

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Leading up to Game 1 of the Stanley Cup Final (Monday, 8 p.m. ET, NBC), Pro Hockey Talk will be looking at every aspect of the matchup between the Boston Bruins and St. Louis Blues.

With all of this time off until Round 4 begins, PHT’s covering all the skirmishes of Bruins – Blues.

Of course, the danger in drilling deep into the numbers and potential matchups is that you might obsess over “on paper” and forget certain human factors that might swing things as much as a hot power play or a shutdown defensive performance.

Let’s consider some of the X-Factors of this series, and no, mutant superheroes are not involved … although Patrice Bergeron might have Wolverine’s healing powers.

[NBC 2019 STANLEY CUP PLAYOFF HUB]

The inevitable rest vs. rust question

Most of the time, I’d roll my eyes and make other dismissive gestures about rest vs. rust.

In many cases, rust is merely used as an easy way to explain a defeat that has more complex, existential explanations. After all, it’s easier to cope with thinking “Ah, if only we were on the top of our game” rather than considering the possibility that the other team just mopped the floor with your team.

The Bruins’ 11-day rest does kind of push the envelope, though.

Chiefly, will Tuukka Rask cool off after not tracking pucks in a playoff situation for almost two weeks? He was absolutely on fire, and all the scrimmages in the world can only do so much to prepare you for a Blues team that’s looked like a buzzsaw at times during the 2019 Stanley Cup Playoffs.

All that tape

Maybe rest vs. rust should morph into three r’s, as you can add another factor: research.

While the Bruins didn’t know if they’d face the Blues or Sharks until Tuesday, May 21, Bruce Cassidy and his crew have had all that extra time to scout for weaknesses and tendencies regarding their opponents. If their video staff is really on point, you’d think that Boston may enjoy some subtle schematic advantage from getting extra opportunities to break down tape.

Interestingly, while rust might be a challenge for Bruins goalie Rask, that additional research could present a hurdle for rookie Blues netminder Jordan Binnington.

Rookies face challenges in adapting to the NHL, yet the reverse is worth noting: opponents haven’t had as many reps to expose weaknesses. That’s especially true in the exhausting grind of the postseason. If Binnington has some flaws to his game, the Bruins have had the rare luxury of gaining more opportunities to find those issues. For all we know, a few quirks could equal a tide-turning goal or two; maybe the Bruins can score on a wraparound where Jamie Benn and Roope Hintz barely didn’t in Game 7 of Round 2?

Health

All things considered, the Bruins and Blues seem as healthy as anyone can reasonably expect after three rugged rounds of playoff hockey.

Still, the best reasonable expectation for playing at this level into June is that you’re basically wearing so many ice packs it looks like you’re in a full suit of armor.

Frankly, teams aren’t particularly eager to divulge injury information, so we can only speculate about how healthy Zdeno Chara really will be if he can play in Game 1, and so on. So, yes, it’s interesting to see a sparse list of injuries beyond, say, Vince Dunn, but we really don’t know who’s playing at a level far below full-strength.

And, yes, 11 days provides a lot of time to heal — relatively speaking. Plenty of injuries suffered this time of year require longer than that, however, if they don’t demand surgery altogether. For two physical teams, the behind the scenes work of training staffs could be pivotal, even if they do everything they can to keep the rest of us oblivious about such ups and downs.

Bruins’ power play

Click here for a full breakdown of special teams, but it needed to be said: Boston’s power play is so powerful, it could swing the entire series.

Shenanigans

One thing that could bleed into the special teams discussion is if/when the teams get under each others’ skin.

Will Brad Marchand bait the Blues into taking foolish penalties, or might he shoot himself in the foot in trying to do just that? Does David Backes have some zingers regarding the team he once captained?

It seems like the Blues’ power play has gotten back on track, with at least one power-play goal in three straight games, and four during that span. So while Boston’s man advantage is the most dangerous, St. Louis could also make the Bruins pay if Marchand’s antics become a double-edged sword.

***

Ultimately, the 2019 Stanley Cup Final will come down to which players deliver, and if the coaches can put those players in the right situations to succeed. Rask and Binnington both have the capability to turn the series on its head with great play, too.

Don’t be surprised if the above X-factors make an impact, too, though. I mean, what’s really even the point if there are no shenanigans?

STANLEY CUP FINAL PREVIEW
Who has the better special teams?
Who has the better forwards?
Who has the better defensemen?
PHT Power Rankings: Conn Smythe favorites
Stanley Cup Final 2019 schedule, TV info

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.

Stanley Cup Final Preview: Who has better goaltending?

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Leading up to Game 1 of the Stanley Cup Final (Monday, 8 p.m. ET, NBC), Pro Hockey Talk will be looking at every aspect of the matchup between the Boston Bruins and St. Louis Blues.

Heading into the Stanley Cup Final, it’s pretty clear that the goaltenders on both sides are the front runners for the Conn Smythe Trophy. Both Tuukka Rask and Jordan Binnington have been terrific in the postseason, so don’t be surprised if goals are hard to come by for the Bruins and Blues.

But as good as both goalies have been, one of the two has to have an advantage. So let’s take a deeper look.

Boston Bruins: 

It’s nice to see Rask have so much success in the playoffs because the fans in Boston haven’t been easy on him this season or throughout his career. Yes, following Tim Thomas was never going to be easy, but Rask hasn’t been as bad as a lot of Bruins fans make him out to be. Whenever the Bruins have needed him most, he usually comes through. Now, he hasn’t delivered a Stanley Cup title but that’s not all on the goalie. And during this year’s playoffs, he’s been amazing.

In Game 6 against Toronto, he was outstanding. His team was facing elimination on the road and he managed to turn in such a strong performance to shut the Leafs down. That really set the tone for their Game 7 victory on home ice. After they went down 2-1 to the Columbus Blue Jackets in the second round, Rask became virtually unbeatable. He clearly got into the Blue Jackets shooters’ heads and the Columbus power play which was so good in the first round against Tampa, went ice cold because they couldn’t figure out how to beat Rask.

Since Game 5 of the first-round series against the Leafs, Rask has held the opposition to two goals or fewer in 11 of 13 games. That’s incredible. So if Boston scores two or three goals, they pretty much win 85 percent of the time.

[NBC 2019 STANLEY CUP PLAYOFF HUB]

The 32-year-old has a 12-5 record with a 1.84 goals-against-average and a .942 save percentage during the playoffs. He won’t be easy to beat for the Blues.

And something else we have to consider is goaltending depth. If something were to happen to Rask, the Bruins can turn to Jaroslav Halak, who had a terrific season and who’s gone on a long playoff run of his own. A one-two punch of Rask and Halak probably can’t be beat.

St. Louis Blues:

It’s amazing to think that Binnington spent a portion of last season with the Bruins’ farm team in Providence. It’s also incredible to think that he wasn’t even in the NHL at the start of this season. But Binnington is one of the major reasons why the Blues were able to go from last place on Jan. 2 to the Stanley Cup Final almost five months later.

The Blues have had terrific teams before, but goaltending has always been an issue for them. Roman Turek, Chris Osgood, Jake Allen and many others have all failed in an attempt to get the Blues their first championship. Binnington is a different story. Whether they win this series or not, general manager Doug Armstrong can confidently say that he’s finally found a goaltender that’s capable of carrying his team on long playoff runs. Yes, it’s a really small sample size, but it’s tough to imagine Binnington completely falling on his face in this series or even next season.

After the controversial ending to Game 3 of the Western Conference Final against San Jose, Binnington held the Sharks to two goals over the final three games of the series. That’s impressive against any team but even more so against a team with that kind of firepower.

The 25-year-old has 12-7-0 record with a 2.36 goals-against-average and a .914 save percentage this postseason. The Bruins may just be the biggest challenge he’s faced, but he’s already knocked out a great Jets team, a hungry Stars team and a talented Sharks team.

Again, for the purpose of this article, we have to check out the depth at the Blues’ disposal. Jake Allen has been a starter in the NHL, but he always seems to fall apart at the wrong time. In my mind, it’s impossible to give Allen the advantage over Halak.

Advantage: Boston Bruins

If both starting goalies were unavailable for this series, you’d have to give the edge to Boston. But if we put that aside, I still think Rask has to have a slight edge on Binnington. He’s been more dominant and he has the advantage of having Stanley Cup Final experience. There isn’t a big gap between the two players right now, but it’s impossible to overlook what Rask has done.

What do you think?

STANLEY CUP FINAL PREVIEW
Who has the better forwards?
Who has the better defensemen?
Who has the better special teams?
X-factors for Bruins, Blues

PHT Power Rankings: Conn Smythe favorites
Stanley Cup Final 2019 schedule, TV info

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.

Stanley Cup Final Preview: Who has the better defense?

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Leading up to Game 1 of the Stanley Cup Final (Monday, 8 p.m. ET, NBC), Pro Hockey Talk will be looking at every aspect of the matchup between the Boston Bruins and St. Louis Blues.

Part of the reason the Boston Bruins and St. Louis Blues are the last two teams standing is because they’re deep at every single position. Both squads are dealing with key injuries on defense, but they also have quality difference-makers on the back end that can help lead their team to victory.

So let’s see who has the advantage on the blue line:

Boston Bruins:

The Bruins have been without one of their regulars, Kevan Miller. The 31-year-old is a solid penalty killer and he brings a level of physicality to Boston’s defense. But without him, the Bruins haven’t missed a beat.

Their top pairing is made up of 42-year-old Zdeno Chara and the best defenseman on their roster, Charlie McAvoy. Chara missed Game 4 of the Eastern Conference Final against Carolina with an undisclosed injury, but he’s expected to be ready for Game 1 of the Stanley Cup Final. The Bruins captain has clearly slowed down as he’s gotten older, but he’s also capable of turning in strong shifts in his own end and on the penalty kill. He’s also averaged almost 23 minutes of ice time per game in the Stanley Cup Playoffs.

As for McAvoy, he missed Game 1 of the Eastern Conference Final due to a suspension but he’s arguably been the most important defender on the team. The 21-year-old averages over 24 minutes per game and he’s picked up seven points in 16 games this postseason.

The second pairing has also been solid for Boston this spring as Torey Krug and Brandon Carlo have meshed well together. Krug is smaller and he’s the puck-mover that accumulates points and contributes on the power play, while Carlo is a bigger body that plays a sound defensive game.

These two have played together for just over 219 minutes during the playoffs. When skating on the same pairing, they have a CF% of 53.72 percent. When Carlo isn’t on the ice with Krug, his CF% drops to 45.93 percent. They’ve shown an ability to work well together and they’ll be an important part of shutting the Blues down in this series.

[NBC 2019 STANLEY CUP PLAYOFF HUB]

Matt Grzelcyk has been the one constant on the third pairing, and he’s played relatively well. He has seven points in 17 games including a two-goal effort in Game 2 of the Eastern Conference Final. Connor Clifton, John Moore and Steven Kampfer have also contributed this postseason. Not many teams can say that they have a player like Moore sitting in the press box on most nights, so the Bruins clearly have some depth at the position.

St. Louis Blues: 

The Blues have been without Vince Dunn over the last three games. The 22-year-old had accumulated two goals and five assists in 16 games before being hit in the jaw with a puck. It’s unclear if he’ll be available for Game 1 on Monday night, but getting him back would be a boost.

Captain Alex Pietrangelo has been skating with Joel Edmundson, who’s been a solid partner for him. With Edmundson, Pietrangelo’s CF% is 52.61 percent. Without him, his CF% drops to 47.25 while Edmundson’s increases to 57.63 percent. That’s not to say that Pietrangelo’s been bad this postseason. He’s accumulated two goals and 13 points in 19 postseason contests this spring. The 29-year-old is also averaging 25:34 of ice time in the playoffs this year.

The second pairing is made up of Colton Parayko and Jay Bouwmeester, who have played over 316 minutes together during the playoffs. Together, they have a CF% of 48 percent. In their 83 minutes apart (small sample size), Parayko’s CF% leaps to 60 percent while Bouwmeester’s falls to 36.97 percent.

Bouwmeester, 35, is like the Blues’ version of Chara. He’s older and not as effective as he once was but he’s still trusted to play significant minutes for his team.

If Dunn can’t play, St. Louis will roll with Robert Bortuzzo, who scored the game-winning goal in Game 2 of the Western Conference Final, and Carl Gunnarsson, who is a pretty good depth player to have on the roster.

Advantage: St. Louis Blues

As good and as deep as the Bruins are on defense, I still think the Blues have a slight edge in this category. Pietrangelo and Parayko are both valuable parts while Edmundson, Bouwmeester, Bortuzzo and Gunnarsson are nice complementary pieces of the puzzle. We also can’t forget a young puck-mover like Dunn, who can easily push one of these players out of the lineup whenever he returns from injury. The Blues have an advantage, but it’s not by much.

Who do you think has the better group of defensemen?

STANLEY CUP FINAL PREVIEW
Who has the better special teams?
Who has the better forwards?
PHT Power Rankings: Conn Smythe favorites
Stanley Cup Final 2019 schedule, TV info

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.

PHT Morning Skate: Players with most at stake in Cup Final; Bergeron’s postseason

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

• Rotoworld’s Gus Katsaros breaks down Patrice Bergeron‘s performance in the Stanley Cup Playoffs. (Rotoworld)

• Travis Yost explains why getting an early lead in hockey is a good thing, and it’s not for the reason you might think. (TSN)

• Which team should you root for in the Stanley Cup Final? (ESPN)

• Which players have the most at stake in the 2019 Stanley Cup Final? (NBC Sports Boston)

Mats Zuccarello could be an intriguing addition for the New Jersey Devils. (All About the Jersey)

Nolan Patrick will have to take a big step forward next season. (Broad Street Hockey)

• As good as Morgan Rielly was for the Leafs this season, there’s a chance he might continue to get better. (Leafs Nation)

• There have been rumblings about Phil Kessel being traded to Minnesota, but is that a wise move for the Pens? (Pensburgh)

• D.J. Smith has had to pay his dues on his way to becoming an NHL head coach. (Ottawa Sun)

• Chicago Wolves head coach Rocky Thompson has an interesting strategy when it comes to pulling his goaltender. (Sinbin.Vegas)

• The Winnipeg Jets have to find a way to stop taking so many penalties. (Arctic Ice Hockey)

• The Stars will benefit from the increase in the salary cap this off-season. (Blackout Dallas)

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.