Hellebuyck, top forwards give Jets hope but defense is still concern

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Every year in the NHL there is always at least one team that goes on a deep playoff run (second round or later) after not making the playoffs the previous season. We are going to spend some time looking at some potential candidates for such a turnaround. Today we look at the Winnipeg Jets. Read more here.

It was just a couple of years ago that the Winnipeg Jets were the team making the big jump in the NHL standings and going on a shocking postseason run.

They finished the 2017-18 season with a 114-point mark (a 27-point improvement from the previous season!) and a trip to the Western Conference Final. Because of that, and the makeup of their roster, there was every reason to believe they were going to be set up for a run of consistent success and be an annual contender in the Western Conference.

The next two seasons did not go as well as hoped.

They dropped 15 points in the standings in 2019 and lost in the first round of the Stanley Cup Playoffs.

They entered this past season with a decimated defense, were on pace to drop seven points in the standings, finished the shortened regular season just outside of the top-eight in the Western Conference, then lost a qualifying round matchup to the Calgary Flames.

Is this team capable of bouncing back this season and reversing its current trend? Let’s take a look!

What to like about the Jets chances

Connor Hellebuyck is an elite goalie

Nothing masks a team’s flaws and shortcomings like an elite goalie. Hellebuyck is not only the reigning Vezina Trophy winner (the second time in three years he has finished in the top-two of the voting), he was biggest reason the Jets were even remotely competitive. He earned that award, and he absolutely deserved serious Hart Trophy consideration.

He has not only been great, he has also been insanely durable.

Over the past three seasons Hellebuyck has played 10 more games than any other goalie in the league, faced the most shots, made the most saves, has the third-most shutouts, and is fifth in all situations save percentage, and eight in even-strength and penalty kill save percentage.

Elite production at a game-changing position while starting close to 80 percent of the team’s games makes him one of the most impactful players in the league. That is always going to give your team a chance.

• Impact players at forward

While Hellebuyck is the most important player on the team, the Jets do have some major impact talent at forward.

They still have Patrik Laine (for now) and can count on him to score 35 goals in an average year and push 45 or 50 in a great year. How long he remains in Winnipeg certainly seems to be up for some debate, but as long as he is there they are going to have a top goal-scoring threat.

But he’s not the only impact forward on the roster. And he is not even the best forward on the roster.

Between Laine, Kyle Connor and Mark Scheifele the Jets have three of the NHL’s top-20 goal scorers over the past three seasons, all of whom are still in what should be their peak years. Connor and Scheifele are both fantastic all-around players and should be the cornerstones of the team long-term.

Blake Wheeler is entering his age 34 season but remains a bonafide top-line producer, while Nikolaj Ehlers keeps on quietly putting up 25-goal seasons.

If there was a flaw at forward entering the offseason it was a lack of quality depth at center, and they addressed that with the addition of Paul Stastny. The depth beyond the top-six is weak, but the top-half of the lineup is legit.

The concerns

• The defense is the clear weak link

The biggest reason the Jets needed to lean on Hellebuyck so much a year ago, and will most likely have to again this season, is that the defense is simply not very good. Not on paper. Not on the ice.

The bright spots on the defense right now are Josh Morrissey, Neal Pionk, and Dylan DeMelo.

Morrissey is a fine player, but he’s not somebody that is going to be the No. 1 blueliner on a Stanley Cup contender.

Pionk had a very strong year and outperformed the player he was traded for (Jacob Trouba).

DeMelo was re-signed after being acquired at the trade deadline and gives them a solid, if unspectacular defensive presence at the top of their blue line.

After that, things get thin. Fast. The rest of the blue line is a patchwork group that is going to put a lot of pressure on their goalie.

The Jets’ defensive performance a year ago placed them in the bottom-10 of most defensive metrics, including shots against, scoring chances against, and expected goals against. Even with a Vezina Trophy winning goalie they were still only 10th in the league in goals against per game. Not a bad number, but not as good as you would expect with a goalie that great.

• How can they improve?

They have clear weaknesses (forward depth and defense) and little wiggle room under the salary cap to fix it. At the moment, they are pressed right against the $81.5 million salary cap, but will get a little relief when Bryan Little and his $5.2 million salary cap hit goes on LTIR.

Laine’s name continues to be floated in trade speculation to help address some of those flaws, but that idea seems to be counterproductive (we explained why here).

Ville Heinola and Dylan Samberg are strong prospects at defense, but are probably still a year or two away from making a noticeable impact at the NHL level.

The outlook

The wild card here is what the NHL’s divisional and playoff format looks like this season in a shortened season. How do they compare with the other six Canadian teams? Toronto is better. Edmonton is probably better. They are clearly better than Ottawa. It would then come down to how Vancouver, Calgary, and Winnipeg fighting amongst themselves.

They would probably be a bubble playoff team either way.

If they do get in, though, they will be a team that goes as far as their All-Star goalie can take them. As we have seen time and time again in the playoffs, great goaltending can take an otherwise ordinary team much further than anyone expects.

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.

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