Pondering Winnipeg Jets’ chances with healthy Scheifele, quiet offseason

Barring a perpetually rumored Patrik Laine trade, the Winnipeg Jets made their biggest offseason move when they brought back Paul Stastny. If you’re an optimistic Jets fan, you picture Stastny and a healthy Mark Scheifele once again giving Winnipeg a deadly one-two punch at center, thus propelling back to the heights the team enjoyed during Stastny’s last Jets run.

Mark Scheifele says he’s “100 percent” for Jets

Whether a given Jets fan is optimistic or glass-half-empty, they’d all likely love to hear that Scheifele is healthy. That appears to be the case, at least according to the star center himself.

“I’m 100 percent, no question,” Scheifele told NHL.com’s Tim Campbell on Tuesday. “Skating every day. I don’t know anyone who skates more than I do. I love being on the ice. That’s my No. 1 thing. I get on the ice as much as I can.”

As mad as Jets coach Paul Maurice was about the Matthew Tkachuk hit, it sure looked like a freak accident. (Scheifele, himself, seemed to lean in that direction.)

Either way, it’s great to hear that Scheifele believes he’ll be at full-strength for 2020-21.

While Scheifele’s possession impacts have been hit-or-miss, he just flat-out produces. Like usual, Scheifele hovered around a point-per-game clip in 2020-21 (29 goals, 73 points in 71 games). That’s more or less been Scheifele’s pace since 2016-17.

Beyond scoring, Scheifele’s been logging big minutes, finishing just under 22 minutes per night during the past two seasons.

Long story short, the Jets lean heavily on top players like Scheifele. So it’s comforting for that top-heavy team to realize that Scheifele is feeling healthy.

Largely the same Jets team as last season

In 2019-20, the Jets leaned most heavily of all on goalie Connor Hellebuyck. (In fact, he would’ve been my pick for the Hart Trophy winner, not just a Vezina no-brainer.)

While a casual observer might believe that the Jets did a tremendous job of handling a huge defensive exodus of Dustin Byfuglien, Jacob Trouba, and Tyler Myers, the truth is that Winnipeg got cratered at five-on-five. This team relied on its goalie more than any other would-be contender, and there’s not much evidence that anything changed.

Considering that the 2020-21 season may prompt a compressed schedule, the Jets’ reliance on Hellebuyck is discouraging.

For one thing, in the modern NHL, it’s simply not common for a goalie to put up enormously elite production, season-in and season-out. That’s especially dicey if you’re asking that netminder to play a lot of games in a shorter period of time.

Luckily, Laurent Brossoit‘s shown some flashes of being an above-average backup. Frankly, the Jets may need a lot from both of their goalies in 2020-21.

On one hand, it’s low-key-crucial that the Jets brought back Dylan DeMelo. Considering that Josh Morrissey struggled mightily in 2020-21 (it seems like Morrissey and Jacob Trouba both miss each other), getting some competent play from DeMelo was huge.

Adding Paul Stastny could provide a subtle boost to the team’s overall even-strength play. Even with a lot of negative sentiments floating around about Stastny being on the decline, he tends to drive play. The Jets need more of that up and down their lineup, so Stastny could be a boon even if he’s not quite the offensive contributor he once was.

It’s disappointing that GM Kevin Cheveldayoff didn’t push harder to improve this team’s porous defense, though.

Tweaks from Maurice?

Ultimately, improvement mostly must come from within.

Maybe that will mean young defensemen like Villie Heinola can step up?

Most importantly, though, Paul Maurice must make adjustments. Frankly, I’ve marvelled over the years at Maurice’s staggering job security. While other, more dynamic coaches come and go, he’s been a regular bench boss for decades.

Yet, how much of a positive impact does Maurice really make? Take, for instance, Hockey Viz’s attempt at isolating a coach’s influence on a team’s results. Maurice’s history shows … just a bit above replacement-level work. Hmm.

Pondering Winnipeg Jets' chances with healthy Scheifele, quiet offseason Maurice coaching Viz
via Hockey Viz

When it comes to Patrik Laine’s development, I can’t help but wonder: is he being truly optimized? Would a more innovative coach possibly use players like Laine and Nikolaj Ehlers more effectively?

But beyond that, can Maurice adapt and at least help his overmatched defense get their heads back above water?

Perhaps Maurice can find answers from adopting the innovations of others, like an inferior version of Andy Reid constantly adapting his NFL strategies? In a recent Q & A at The Athletic (sub required), Murat Ates described Maurice as “an excellent ideas thief.”

While it would’ve been nice if Maurice stole some better ideas earlier, better late than never, right?

If he can’t find answers, then either Hellebuyck needs to repeat a very difficult-to-sustain run of elite goaltending, or Scheifele & Co. need to score in bunches. For all we know, maybe the Jets would need both?

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.

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