Winnipeg Jets 2020-21 NHL season preview

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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.

Additions

Paul Stastny (trade), Nate Thompson (free agent)

Subtractions

Carl Dahlstrom (trade), Dmitry Kulikov (free agency, signed with New Jersey Devils)

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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.

Best-Case Scenario

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.

Worst-Case Scenario

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

Jets +3500 (PointsBet is our Official Sports Betting Partner and we may receive compensation if you place a bet on PointsBet for the first time after clicking our links.)

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.”