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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    Lightning donate $2 million to Hurricane Ian relief efforts

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    TAMPA, Fla. — The Tampa Bay Lightning and team owner Jeff Vinik are donating $2 million toward Hurricane Ian relief efforts.

    The NHL team announced Friday that $1 million each will be donated by the Tampa Bay Lightning Foundation and the Vinik Family Foundation.

    “This is a tragic situation for many families and communities across the state of Florida, but especially so in the southwest region of the state,” Vinik said in a statement released by the team. “In times like these the most important thing we can do is support one another, and we hope this donation will help families recover and rebuild in the months to come.”

    Ian made landfall Wednesday on Florida’s Gulf Coast, south of the Tampa Bay area. The Lightning postponed two home preseason games and moved the club’s training camp to Nashville, Tennessee, during the storm.

    Maple Leafs sign defenseman Rasmus Sandin to 2-year deal

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    TORONTO — Rasmus Sandin has signed a two-year, $2.8 million contract with the Toronto Maple Leafs, the club announced on Thursday.

    The 22-year-old from Sweden was the 29th overall selection in the 2018 draft. Sandin had 16 points in 51 games with Toronto last season. He’s played in 88 career regular-season games, with six goals and 22 assists, and has one goal in five playoff games.

    “Got a great set of tools,” fellow defenseman Jake Muzzin said. “With experience, I think they’re only going to get better.”

    The signing comes as the Leafs’ blueliners been hit hard by injuries. Muzzin has been dealing with a back issue, and Timothy Liljegren recently had surgery for a hernia.

    Toronto then lost Jamie Benn (groin) and Carl Dahlstrom (shoulder) in Wednesday’s 3-0 preseason victory over the Montreal Canadiens, pressing forwards Calle Jarnkrok and Alexander Kerfoot into defensive roles for two periods.

    Back with Wild, Fleury welcomes big workload as clear No. 1

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    ST. PAUL, Minn. — With his ever-present smile, tireless approach and long list of accomplishments in the net, Marc-Andre Fleury has always embraced a heavy workload.

    The Minnesota Wild sure haven’t shied away from leaning hard on their new – and 37-year-old – goalie. After arriving in a deadline-day trade in March and re-signing with the Wild in July, the guy everyone calls “Flower” is still fully abloom as he begins his 19th season in the NHL.

    “They say, `You play,’ I play, unless maybe I’m hurt or something,” Fleury said. “But other than that, I like playing.”

    Wild general manager Bill Guerin initially planned to bring back both Fleury and Cam Talbot, who made the All-Star team and went 13-0-3 in his last 16 regular season starts before being benched in favor of Fleury for the first-round playoff series against St. Louis. The Wild lost in six games, after Talbot got the cold start in the elimination game and gave up four goals on 26 shots.

    Guerin changed his mind, though, after signing Fleury to a two-year, $7 million contract. Realizing Talbot’s frustration from the lack of postseason action, he didn’t want to risk any tension or discontent. Talbot was traded to Ottawa for Filip Gustavsson, who will be the No. 2 goalie while top prospect Jesper Wallstedt gets more development in the AHL.

    Gustavsson has only 23 career regular-season starts, nearly 200 fewer than Talbot, so it’s a good bet that Fleury will get the majority of the games.

    “I was ready to share the load with him, but things didn’t work out and happy to be having the chance to play maybe a bit more. It’s fun to play. It’s more fun than sitting on the bench,” said Fleury, who went 28-23-5 in 56 combined starts for Chicago and Minnesota last season with a 2.90 goals against average and a .908 save percentage.

    The Wild reconvened for training camp last week, beginning their quest to recapture the mojo they enjoyed last season while setting franchise records for points (113), wins (53) and goals (305). The only team that finished ahead of them in the Western Conference was Colorado, which went on to win the Stanley Cup, but they never met the Avs in the playoffs because the Blues got to them first.

    There’s a strong chemistry in place, at least, to build upon.

    “We still have a lot of guys here who were here last year. We’re just trying to make it even better, just trying to listen to everybody,” center Joel Eriksson Ek said. “We want to set a standard and a way for how hard this team’s going to work.”

    The Wild start the regular season by hosting the New York Rangers on Oct. 13.

    COMINGS AND GOINGS

    The most significant roster move of the summer amongst the skaters was the inevitable salary-cap-driven trade of second-leading scorer Kevin Fiala to Los Angeles. Fiala had a career-high 33 goals and 52 assists last season. Guerin otherwise dabbled mostly in two-way contracts in free agency for depth. Former Anaheim center Sam Steel signed with Minnesota last month, one day after defenseman Dimitry Kulikov was dealt to the Ducks.

    MORE POWER

    The Wild were done in during the playoffs by abysmal special teams. They went just 4 for 24 on the power play against the Blues, and head coach Dean Evason had the team working on that on the first day on the ice. The penalty kill that lagged last season was a focus of the second practice.

    “It has to get better, no question,” Evason said.

    BLUE LINE SHUFFLE

    Captain Jared Spurgeon has been placed with Jonas Brodin on the first pair on defense, and Jake Middleton has joined Matt Dumba on the second unit. Dumba and Brodin are close friends who’ve been paired together for several seasons.

    “Dumbs is a shooter too,” said Middleton, who re-signed for three years and $7.35 million. “It’s pretty exciting. I can get some cookies passing him the puck. That’d be a big plus. I think it’ll work well. He loves hitting guys too. He plays a gritty game as well so I think we’ll be a good combo.”

    UP FRONT

    With Jordan Greenway recovering from offseason surgeries, Tyson Jost will get the first chance to skate with Eriksson Ek and Marcus Foligno. The departure of Fiala has opened at least one spot for a rookie to make the team, with 2020 first-round draft pick Marco Rossi in line for it.

    ON THE SLATE

    This is the first time in eight years the Wild will play their regular-season opener at home. After three more games at Xcel Energy Center, they don’t hit the road until a five-game trip that starts Oct. 22 at Boston. The Wild have a season-long nine-game homestand from Feb. 9-21.

    Stars expect to open camp without unsigned scorer Jason Robertson

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    FRISCO, Texas — Young 40-goal scorer Jason Robertson is expected to miss the start of training camp for the Dallas Stars because the team and the restricted free agent haven’t agreed on a new contract.

    General manager Jim Nill said there’s been steady, ongoing negotiations over the last couple of weeks with Robertson and his representatives. Nill wouldn’t say what has kept the two sides from reaching a deal, adding there have been “very good discussions.”

    The Stars, with new coach Pete DeBoer, open camp Thursday in Cedar Park, Texas, at the home of their AHL team. They have three days of work there before returning to North Texas for their exhibition opener at home on Monday night. They open the regular season Oct. 13 at Nashville.

    “I think he’s disappointed he’s not at camp, we are too,” Nill said before the team departed for the Austin area. “I think it’s very important for a younger player and as you mentioned, the (new) coaching staff. … We do have some time on our side, but we wish he gets here as soon as he can.”

    Robertson had a base salary of $750,000 last season, the end of a $2.775 million, three-year contract. He still has five more years before he has the opportunity to become an unrestricted free agent.

    The left wing turned 23 soon after the end of last season, when he had 41 goals and 38 assists for 79 points in his 74 games. Robertson joined Hockey Hall of Famer Mike Modano, Jamie Benn and Tyler Seguin as the only 40-goal scorers since the franchise moved to Dallas in 1993.

    A second-round draft pick by the Stars in 2017, Robertson has 125 points (58 goals, 67 assists) in his 128 NHL games. He had one goal and three assists in his first postseason action last season, when Dallas lost its first-round playoff series in seven games against Calgary.

    DeBoer said he looks forward to coaching Robertson, but that the forward’s absence won’t change his plans for camp.

    “It doesn’t impact what I’m doing,” DeBoer said. “Listen, I laid awake at night with the excitement of coaching Jason Robertson, 40-plus goals, but he’s not here. So, you know, until he gets here, I can’t spend any energy on that.”

    Nill said the Stars are open to a long-term extension or a bridge contract for Robertson, who was part of the team’s top line last season with veteran Joe Pavelski and Roope Hintz. They combined for 232 points, the second-most in franchise history for a trio.

    “We’re open to anything. But other than that … I’m not going to negotiate through the media,” Nill said. “As I said, we’ve had good conversations. We’ll see where it goes.”