The 2020-21 NHL season is almost here so it’s time to preview all 31 teams. Over the next few weeks we’ll be looking at how the offseason affected each team, the most interesting people in the organization, and the best- and worst-case scenarios. Today, we look at the Winnipeg Jets.
Winnipeg Jets 2019-20 Rewind
Record: 37-28-6 (80 points); fifth in Central Division; ninth in Western Conference
Leading scorers: Kyle Connor (38 goals, 73 points); Mark Scheifele (73 points)
Expectations were low for the Jets entering the 2019-20 season, mainly due to the unsettled nature of their defense. It was thin. Very thin. But thanks to a Vezina Trophy season from Connor Hellebuyck in goal, and some big performances from their top forwards, the Jets were able to stay in the playoff race all year. They were one of the 24 teams that went to the bubble for the 2020 postseason, where they would lose the play-in round to the Calgary Flames in four games. Injuries certainly took their toll in that series as they lost both Patrik Laine and Scheifele after just one game of the series. That was too much to overcome.
Paul Stastny (trade), Nate Thompson (free agent)
Carl Dahlstrom (trade), Dmitry Kulikov (free agency, signed with New Jersey Devils)
3 Most Interesting Winnipeg Jets
• Patrik Laine: The intrigue is largely based on what exactly is going to happen between him and the team. He is entering the final year of his current contract and is once again set to become a restricted free agent. His name keeps getting mentioned in trade speculation and there is enough smoke to make you think they might actually move on from him. That seems shortsighted, and the best course of action here is to figure out a way to make this relationship work.
Even in a “down” year you can pencil him in for 30-35 goals. In a good year he has a shot at 45 or 50. Those players do not grow on trees and trading them does not tend to work out in your favor.
[MORE: 2021 NHL schedule notes: Stats, oddities, fuel for nasty rivalries]
• Connor Hellebuyck: Almost no team in the league has leaned on a goalie more than the Jets have with Hellebuyck over the past three seasons. During that stretch he leads the league in games played (188), minutes played (10,938), and shots faced (5,895). He is the leader in all three categories by a significant margin. Only four other goalies in the league have played 170 games during that stretch, and no one else is over 180. Only two goalies are within 800 minutes of him, and nobody is within 500 minutes. There is only one goalie within 500 shots.
The good news for the Jets is that he has handled those minutes like a star and been one of the league’s best goalies, winning the Vezina Trophy once and finishing as a finalist one other time. That type of goaltending performance (both the quality and quantity of the games) can mask a heck of a lot of flaws on a team.
• Kyle Connor: Connor has played three full seasons in the NHL and has shown improvement across the board in every single one of them. Can he do it again? He is entering his age 24 season, which is usually around the point where players hit their peak production in the NHL.
He was on a 45-goal pace before the season was paused and was doing so without the benefit of an abnormally high shooting percentage. It was right in line with his normal career numbers. The Jets need to rely on their forwards at the top to help carry them, and Connor is quickly becoming one of their best all-around players.
It is pretty simple, really. Hellebuyck plays at a Vezina Trophy level again to help mask the shortcomings on defense, while the forwards at the top of the lineup (Laine, Connor, Scheifele, Blake Wheeler, Nikolaj Ehlers, Paul Stastny) carry the offense. They are also playing in the North Division (the Canadian Division) this season where most of the teams are bunched together without much separating them.
Toronto and Edmonton are probably the clear favorites, but neither one is head-and-shoulders above everyone else. There is a path there to make some noise, especially since the Jets have the best goalie in the division.
The problem with most of the teams in the division being so close to each other, and playing against each other every night, is that it could make the whole thing a coin flip for those top-four spots. The other concern here is what happens if Hellebuyck does not play at that same Vezina Trophy level?
They are going to need him to play a lot of games (again) after taking on the league’s heaviest workload for three years. Does that eventually catch up to him? Or what if his production just simply regresses? Even with his Vezina Trophy season the Jets were still facing the possibility of missing the playoffs in a normal season. If his level of play regresses, winning becomes a lot more difficult in Winnipeg.
Pointsbet – Winnipeg Jets Stanley Cup odds
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Adam Gretz is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him on Twitter @AGretz.