Jets struggling to fight way out of slump

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There’s a big difference between being a team in first place and being a first-place team.

The Winnipeg Jets are a team in first place these days (in that regard, the standings don’t lie). But they are nowhere close to being a team worthy of their spot in the standings (and this is where the standings are misleading).

You can call what the Jets are going through a slump if you’d like. You can refer to it as a blip on the radar screen or team facing a bit of adversity. There’s some truth ruffling around in there. The season is long. But Winnipeg’s problems run deeper than the adjectives being used to describe their recent stretch.

And that’s when you see that the slump might actually be a trend, and not one that started last week with a pair of losses to the Ottawa Senators and now a pair of defeats to the Colorado Avalanche (including an atrocity-on-ice in a 7-1 loss on Wednesday night).

The slide begins further back, let’s say around Christmas — when the Jets lost both Dustin Byfuglien and Nikolaj Ehlers to injury and seemingly stopped playing the same way they used to. And while they’ve have found wins since then — including a couple of emphatic ones along the way against Tampa Bay and Vegas — a slow drip has worked itself into a concerning leak.

The Jets are a good case study when it comes to relying too heavily on an unsustainably-good power play and great goaltending while not playing well enough five-on-five to cover off the two if one or both wells run dry.

The Money Puck chart above shows how far Winnipeg’s expected goal differential has dipped. It’s severe. Their expected goals-for has also been on a moonwalk backward since around the same time, which makes sense given how far that differential as fallen.

The numbers shouldn’t come as a surprise. Anyone who’s watched the Jets regularly can see a team that’s a shade of their former selves.

  • They’re slow.
  • They appear uninterested.
  • They lack urgency and can’t match the intensity of their opponents
  • Their power play has fallen off the face of the earth.
  • Swiss cheese would be jealous of how many holes they’ve developed in their defense.
  • Patrik Laine left his game in November.
  • Discipline has gone out the window
  • Paul Maurice’s stubbornness has led to sub-optimal lines being trotted out game after game with predictable results.

Both wells have certainly run dry.

So how can a team sitting in first place, in what’s thought of as the toughest division in hockey, have so many issues? Like a bad infection, it’s had time to develop.

The Jets have slid seven spots from the eighth-best possession team last season to 15th this year. Their high-danger shots-for has gone from seventh to 22nd. Their goals-for/60 has plummeted from third to 14th.

In essence, the team has regressed. And without the benefit of that elite power play recently, Winnipeg hasn’t been able to outscore the issues they’re experiencing five-on-five.

If not for the excellent play of their goaltenders this year, they’d be in worse shape.

Connor Hellebuyck had a slow start to the season, but the Jets managed to outscore some of his woes. Laurent Brossoit has been a godsend as a backup, and they haven’t really needed to outscore anything with him in net because he barely gives up goals and has one of the best goals saved above average (GSAA) numbers in the entire NHL.

Hellebuyck has regained some of that form that saw him become a Vezina runner-up last season, but even his recent stellar play couldn’t help when seven flew past him on Wednesday night. Hellebuyck, quite frankly, was the only reason why that number wasn’t doubled.

“We were f—ing awful,” Jets forward Adam Lowry said in a candid meeting with reporters in Denver following the game. (The entire scrum is well worth the watch).

Jets captain Blake Wheeler said his team gave up, the first he’s seen such an occurrence during his time in Winnipeg — even through the seasons where they had nothing to play for.

There wasn’t much else to be said following Wednesday’s display. Both were raw. And both were true.

Fixing what is ailing the Jets is a question with no answer at the moment, but it has to begin with trying to find optimal placement for some of its pieces.

Laine’s slump is by no means the reason why the Jets are where they are. He’s far from the biggest issue with the team. But getting him going again is part of the solution, and finding suitable linemates to do so is a must.

Maurice brought the blender out on Wednesday but it was no use in a game as terrible as the one the Jets played.

Laine needs a driver at the moment, so moving a guy like Mathieu Perreault to his opposite wing would be a good start (it’s shown well in a limited fashion in the past). Perhaps putting Andrew Copp in between those two should be explored as well.

Putting Copp back with Lowry and Brandon Tanev would be another option. That line was elite last season in terms of possession and the Jets sorely need some sustained offensive zone time five-on-five.

The return of Ehlers will eventually help, but his timetable is still murky.

Maurice’s biggest task is sorting it out now, something he’s acknowledged but has struggled to find the proper diagnosis.

“We are concerned,” Maurice said last weekend following their second loss to the Senators in a week.

Asked to elaborate on those concerns, Maurice mentioned pretty much everything.

“Just our game,” he said. “There’s not a lot going for us. We’re struggling in all pieces of it. It’s how we generate our offense, how we defend, our special teams. Probably not our goaltending, our goaltending has been good.”

After Wednesday’s game, Maurice had far fewer words, spending just 40 seconds with reporters.

The man with 1,500-plus NHL games as a bench boss needs to figure out how to extract the same formidable Winnipeg Jets that were considered a Stanley Cup contender not long ago.

The last two weeks — and really, the past couple of months — have brought that into question.

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

Capitals re-sign Vrana for two years, $6.7 million

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Washington Capitals general manager Brian MacLellan took care of his biggest remaining offseason task on Tuesday afternoon when he re-signed restricted free agent forward Jakub Vrana to a two-year contract.

The deal will pay Vrana $6.7 million and carry an average annual salary cap hit of $3.35 million per season.

“Jakub is a highly skilled player with a tremendous upside and is a big part of our future,” said MacLellan in a statement released by the team. “We are pleased with his development the past two seasons and are looking forward for him to continue to develop and reach his full potential with our organization.”

[ProHockeyTalk’s 2019 NHL free agency tracker]

Vrana was the Capitals’ first-round pick in 2014 and has already shown top-line potential in the NHL. He took a huge step forward in his development during the 2018-19 season, scoring 24 goals to go with 23 assists while also posting strong underlying numbers. He is one of the Capitals’ best young players and quickly starting to become one of their core players moving forward.

It is obviously a bridge contract that will keep him as a restricted free agent when it expires following the 2020-21 season. If he continues on his current path he would be in line for a significant long-term contract that summer.

With Vrana signed the Capitals have under $1 million in salary cap space remaining. They still have to work out new contracts with restricted free agents Christian Djoos and Chandler Stephenson. Both players filed for salary arbitration. Djoos’ hearing is scheduled for July 22, while Stephenson has his scheduled for August 1. If the Capitals want to keep both on the NHL roster on opening night they may have to make another minor move at some point before the start of the regular season.

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.

Donato gets two-year, $3.8 million extension from Wild

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Ryan Donato took advantage of a bigger opportunity with the Minnesota Wild and earned himself a raise on Tuesday.

The Wild announced that they have extended the 23-year-old Donato with a two-year, $3.8 million contract. That $1.9 million annual salary will be a bump from the $925,000 he made during the 2018-19 NHL season.

Following a February trade that sent Charlie Coyle to the Boston Bruins, Donato saw his ice time rise over three minutes under Bruce Boudreau and that resulted in four goals and 16 points in 22 games with Minnesota. Unable to carve out his own role in Boston, Donato struggled offensively with six goals and nine points in 34 games before moving.

“I definitely learned the business side of it, for sure,” Donato said in April. “One thing I learned, in Boston and here, it’s a game of ups and downs. More than college, more than any level, there’s a lot of ups and downs. It’s been an emotional roller coaster the whole year, but definitely over the last couple months it’s settled down quite a bit.”

[ProHockeyTalk’s 2019 NHL free agency tracker]

Donato, who was a restricted free agent and will remain one when his contract expires after the 2020-21 season, continued his production in the American Hockey League’s notching 11 points in 14 games between the end of the Iowa Wild’s regular season and the Calder Cup playoffs.

“It’s all about opportunity in this league,” Donato said. “If I can get myself into scoring positions playing with the high-end veteran players we have here, that have been known to find guys in scoring positions, then I’m a guy that can bury it.”

The Wild have high hopes for next season as they expect to be a playoff team coming out of what will be a very, very competitive Central Division. General manager Paul Fenton added Ryan Hartman and Mats Zuccarello to boost the team’s offense which finished fourth-worst in the NHL in goals per game (2.56). Donato will be expected to be a key contributor.

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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.

Trade: Blackhawks send Anisimov to Senators for Zack Smith

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Artem Anisimov‘s name has been floating in trade speculation for more than a year now, and on Tuesday afternoon the Chicago Blackhawks finally moved him.

The Blackhawks announced they have traded Anisimov to the Ottawa Senators in exchange for forward Zack Smith. It is a one-for-one deal that will probably make a bigger impact on both team’s financial situations than on the ice.

Both players are 31 years old, have two years remaining on their current contracts, and are coming off of somewhat similar seasons in terms of their performance. Anisimov scored 15 goals and 37 points in 78 games for the Blackhawks this past season, while Smith had nine goals and 28 points in 70 games for the Senators.

[ProHockeyTalk’s 2019 NHL free agency tracker]

So what is important here for both teams? Money, obviously.

For the Blackhawks, the Anisimov-for-Smith swap saves them a little more than $1 million against the salary cap as they go from Anisimov’s $4.5 salary cap hit to Smith’s $3.25 number. For a team that is consistently pressed against the cap and still has a ton of big-money players, every little bit of extra space helps. Especially as they have to work out new deals for Alex DeBrincat and Dylan Strome over the next year.

The Senators, meanwhile, had a different set of problems.

They were still sitting under the league’s salary floor before the trade and are now finally above it.

Anisimov’s contract not only gets them over the floor, but because the Blackhawks have already paid Anisimov’s signing bonus for this season the Senators actually owe him less in terms of actual salary, which is also probably an important factor for a team that is seemingly always in a cost-cutting and money-saving mode.

The Blackhawks have been extremely busy this offseason making multiple changes to their roster after a second straight non-playoff season. Along with acquiring Olli Maatta and Calvin de Haan in trades to try and upgrade their defense, they also signed goalie Robin Lehner in free agency and brought back veteran forward Andrew Shaw.

This past week they traded former first-round pick defender Henri Jokiharju to the Buffalo Sabres for Alex Nylander.

Related: Blackhawks shaping up as NHL’s biggest wild card

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.

Werenski, McAvoy should be in line for huge contracts

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When it comes to the NHL’s restricted free agent market this summer most of the attention has been directed at forwards Mitch Marner, Mikko Rantanen, and Sebastian Aho. They are the stars, the big point-producers, and in the case of Aho, the rare player that actually received — and signed — an offer sheet from another team, only to have the Carolina Hurricanes quickly move to match it. For now, though, let’s shift the focus to the blue line where there are a few more big contracts still to be settled this summer with Jacob Trouba, Charlie McAvoy, Zach Werenski, and Ivan Provorov all waiting on new deals from their respective teams.

The two most intriguing players out of this group are Columbus’ Werenski and Boston’s McAvoy because they are already playing at an elite level among NHL defenders.

Just how good have they been?

Both are coming off of their age 21 seasons and have already demonstrated an ability to play at a top-pairing level on playoff caliber teams.

Since the start of the 2007-08 season there have only been four defenders that have hit all of the following marks through their age 21 season:

  • At least 100 games played
  • Averaged at least .50 points per game
  • And had a Corsi Percentage (shot-attempt differential) of greater than 52 percent at that point in their careers.

Those players have been Erik Karlsson, Drew Doughty, Werenski, and McAvoy.

That is it.

Pretty elite company.

Based on that, it seems at least somewhat reasonable to look at the contracts Karlsson and Doughty received at the same point in their careers when they were coming off of their entry-level deals.

They were massive.

Karlsson signed a seven-year, $45.5 million deal with the Ottawa Senators, while Doughty signed an eight-year, $56 million contract. At the time, those contracts were worth around 10 percent of the league’s salary cap. A similarly constructed contract under today’s cap would come out to an annual cap hit of around $8 million dollars, which would be among the five highest paid defenders in the league.

[ProHockeyTalk’s 2019 NHL free agency tracker]

Are Werenski and McAvoy worth similar contracts right now? They just might be.

The argument against it would be that while the overall performances are in the same ballpark, there are still some significant differences at play. Karlsson, for example, was coming off of a Norris Trophy winning season when he signed his long-term deal in Ottawa and was already on track to being one of the best offensive defensemen ever (he was already up to .68 points per game!). Doughty, meanwhile, was a significantly better defensive player than the other three and had already been a finalist for the Norris Trophy.

Neither Werenski or McAvoy has reached that level yet, while Werenski also sees a pretty significant drop in his performance when he is not paired next to Seth Jones, which could be a concern depending on how much value you put into such a comparison. It’s also worth pointing out that Jones sees a similar drop when he is not paired next to Werenski, and that the two are absolutely dominant when they are together.

But do those points outweigh the production and impact that Werenski and McAvoy have made, and the potential that they still possess in future years?

What they have already accomplished from a performance standpoint is almost unheard of for defenders of their age in this era of the league. It is also rare for any player of any level of experience.

Over the past three years only 15 other defenders have topped the 0.50 points per game and a 52 percent Corsi mark. On average, those players make $7 million per season under the cap, while only three of them — Roman Josi, Shayne Gostisbehere, and Erik Gustafsson — make less than $5 million per year. Josi is also due for a huge raise over the next year that will almost certainly move him into the $7-plus million range as well.

Bottom line is that the Blue Jackets and Bruins have top-pairing defenders on their hands that still have their best days in the NHL ahead of them. There is every reason to believe they are on track to be consistent All-Star level players and signing them to big deals right now, this summer, will probably turn out to be worth every penny.

Related: Bruins face salary cap juggling act with McAvoy, Carlo

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.