Winnipeg Jets: 2021-22 NHL Season Preview

Winnipeg Jets: 2021-22 NHL Season Preview
Darcy Finley/NHLI via Getty Images

The 2021-22 NHL season is coming and it’s time to take a look at all 32 teams. We’ll examine best- and worst-case scenarios, looking at the biggest questions, breakout candidates, and more for each franchise. Today, we preview the Winnipeg Jets.

2020-21 Season Review

• Record: 30-23-3 (63 points), finished third in North.
• Postseason: Swept in second round by Canadiens (after Jets swept Oilers).
• Offensive leaders: Mark Scheifele (21 goals, 42 assists for 63 points in 56 games).

• Free Agent Additions: Nate Schmidt (trade from Canucks), Brenden Dillon (trade from Capitals), Riley Nash.
• Free Agent Subtractions: Laurent Brossoit (Golden Knights), Mathieu Perreault (Canadiens), Mason Appleton (Kraken expansion draft), Trevor Lewis (Flames), Derek Forbort (Bruins), Nate Thompson (Flyers), Tucker Poolman (Canucks).

Biggest question for Jets

• Will an improved defense on paper translate to a better one on the ice?

Since losing Dustin Byfuglien and Jacob Trouba, the Jets defense sunk like a stone. Sometimes, their defense boiled down to hoping Connor Hellebuyck fixed things.

During this offseason, the Jets made substantial moves to turn that around. They traded for a steady defenseman in Brenden Dillon. The Jets hope they get Golden Knights Nate Schmidt, instead of the failed Canucks version.

It’s not nice to say that waving goodbye to Tucker Poolman and Derek Forbort is “addition by subtraction.” It could be accurate, though.

Speaking of additions and subtractions, the Jets also dodged a bullet at the expansion draft. To the Jets’ relief, they avoided losing underrated blueliner Dylan DeMelo.

[PHT’s offseason trade tracker]

So, yeah, the 2021-22 Jets look better on defense. At least, they do on paper.

Truly, the 2021-22 season could be quite the test for longtime Jets coach Paul Maurice. Credit it acumen, a gift for gab, or other factors, but the fellow has a knack for hanging around.

Of course, one of the common defenses of Maurice’s longevity is that he’s lacked proper personnel. That argument could ring hollow with the 2021-22 Jets.

Much could hinge on a holdover, and a new face.

Since Jacob Trouba left town, Josh Morrissey simply hasn’t been the same. Morrissey’s descent parallels the Jets’ defensive dropoff, overall. Consider this SPAR (Standing Points Above Replacement) chart for his career, via Evolving Hockey:

Winnipeg Jets: 2021-22 NHL Season Preview Morrissey SPAR Evo
via Evolving Hockey

And, while one can imagine Nate Schmidt being a shot in the arm, it’s not a guarantee.

Recent renditions of the Canucks boasted the sort of lousy team defense the 2021-22 Jets hope to avoid. What if Schmidt fares no better with Winnipeg than he did with Vancouver?

It’s also fair to mention that the 2021-22 Jets’ defense faces some losses.

Avoiding losing DeMelo was worth it, but Mason Appleton could be missed. And, while Mathieu Perreault’s getting older, he’s still an analytics darling.

The biggest worry might be that the Jets lost a Connor Hellebuyck insurance plan in Laurent Brossoit. What if, right as the Jets get better on defense, Hellebuyck hits a wall in 2021-22?

[Jets bet on defense making life easier for Hellebuyck]

Since 2017-18, Connor Hellebuyck played by-far the most games of any goalie (233). Andrei Vasilevskiy ranks second at 212, and only six goalies played 200+ games. Those weren’t leisurely strolls, either. Hellebuyck easily faced the most shots (7,230), with Vasilevskiy again a distant second (6,630). Only six goalies faced 6,000+ shots since 2017-18, too.

Ideally, the Jets make life easier for Hellebuyck, who remains dominant in 2021-22. (After all, he’s just 28. And, worries or not, he’s my Vezina pick.)

Overall, the Jets do look improved on defense in 2021-22. There’s plenty of work to do, however.

What’s the salary cap situation?

The Jets enter 2021-22 as a team nudging against the salary cap ceiling. Looking at their roster, there’s an interesting mix of good and bad.

The good

  • Some core forwards are on very nice deals — especially Nikolaj Ehlers and Kyle Connor, but also Mark Scheifele.
  • All above quibbles about workload aside, Hellebuyck is a steal at $6.1667M. Honestly, it probably deserves more mentions among the NHL’s best contracts. (Also, uh, $6,166,666 sure is an … interesting number.)

The bad

  • At 35, Blake Wheeler‘s $8.25M cap hit isn’t ideal, and it runs through 2023-24.
  • Morrissey can turn things around; he’s merely 26. Until then, his long-term deal evokes cringe emojis.
  • Bryan Little‘s contract looked bad in 2017, and keeps getting worse.

The unclear

  • Between Morrissey, Schmidt, DeMelo, Neal Pionk, and Dillon, the Jets are investing almost $25M in cap space on defensemen. None of those five contracts are shorter than three seasons. Overall, it’s an upgrade — but could we be getting lured in by any hint of an improvement, based on just how bad they’ve been? Those investments could look far less impressive if the group trends closer to “meh.”
  • How good is Pierre-Luc Dubois, really? The Jets seek answers in 2021-22, as his $5M salary cap hit expires. He’s a pending RFA, and arbitration eligible. That could become a tricky situation.

[PHT’s 2021 NHL Free Agent Tracker]

Credit the Jets for constructing a competitive roster in a market that’s not exactly Bryzgalov-approved. Lesser front offices would ice a roster full of desperate, ugly contracts.

Still, a lot of this team is locked-in. If the Jets underwhelm in 2021-22, that oulook won’t be as sunny.

Here’s to the Jets rebounding in 2021-22, instead. Wouldn’t it be nice if a team once on the rise found its wings once more?

Breakout Candidate

• Nikolaj Ehlers

Typically, this is a spot for a younger, less-proven player. But, in Ehlers’ case, we celebrate that critically acclaimed indie band finally topping the charts and selling out arenas.

The charts don’t just explain that hipster-style love. Frankly, just watch Nikolaj Ehlers. Chances are, his speed and daring will leave you entranced. He aces “the eye test” as much as he racks up robust fancy stats.

Now we just need the Jets to believe their eyes.

Last season, he only ranked fifth among Jets forwards in power-play ice time. Even worse, Ehlers only managed the sixth-highest average for ice time overall (16:55). Honestly, some of the Paul Maurice doubt lingers because of a relative reluctance to truly embrace Ehlers.

Expect those rumblings to turn into a roar. In 2021-22, the Jets and the rest of the hockey world can finally realize just how special Ehlers is.

(Cole Perfetti would be the more traditional breakout choice, but he may not be a full-time member of the 2021-22 Jets.)

Best-Case Scenario for 2021-22 Jets

All of those defensive improvements don’t just boost the Jets in their own zone. Suddenly, Jets forwards don’t have to do so much legwork, and their all-around play improves. Behind a sturdier defense, Hellebuyck removes all doubt that he is the best goalie in the world. With a strong playoff push, the Jets regain their status as a team on the rise.

Worst-Case Scenario for 2021-22 Jets

Those defensive changes don’t amount to much. And, this time, Hellebuyck can’t save the day. Years of red flags about all-around play end up being grim, accurate prophecies. Worse yet, a long-standing front office faces no real consequences, and doesn’t learn any meaningful lessons. The Jets miss the playoffs, and don’t even get a high first-rounder for their trouble.

PointsbetWinnipeg Jets Stanley Cup odds

+4000 (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.)

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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    Kuzmenko signs 2-year extension with Canucks

    Andrei Kuzmenko
    Bob Frid/USA TODAY Sports
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    VANCOUVER, British Columbia — Forward Andrei Kuzmenko signed a two-year contract extension with the Vancouver Canucks on Thursday.

    The deal has an average annual value of $5.5 million.

    The 26-year-old Kuzmenko has played in 47 games for the Canucks this season with 21 goals and 22 assists, four penalty minutes and a plus-4 defensive ranking.

    Kuzmenko ranks second on the team in goals and power-play goals (nine) this season.

    His 43 points are also tied for third on the team in overall scoring, while his 32 even-strength points (12 goals, 20 assists) are second on the Canucks.

    Kuzmenko leads all Vancouver skaters in shooting rate (24.7%) and ranks third in the NHL in that category (minimum of 20 games).

    He leads all first-year NHLers in almost every offensive category, including goals, assists, points, points per game (0.91), power-play goals, and power-play points.

    He has also had 14 multi-point games so far this season (second most on the Canucks), highlighted by his first-career NHL hat trick and season-high four-point game against Anaheim on Nov. 3.

    A native of Yakutsk, Russia, Kuzmenko spent his first eight professional seasons in the Kontinental Hockey League (KHL) with CSKA Moscow and SKA St. Petersburg, getting 200 points (85-115-200) in 315 regular-season games. He set career highs in goals (20), assists (33), and points (53) last season, ranking second in the league in scoring.

    Kuzmenko has also represented his country on the international stage on multiple occasions, totaling 16 points (10-6-16) and six penalty minutes in 37 games played. He was originally signed by Vancouver to a one-year, entry-level contract on July 13, 2022.

    Hurricanes top Stars in OT to win matchup of 1st-place teams

    Jerome Miron-USA TODAY Sports
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    DALLAS – Martin Necas scored 1:34 into overtime to give the Carolina Hurricanes a 3-2 win over the Dallas Stars in a matchup of division leaders Wednesday night.

    Sebastian Aho had a short-handed goal and Brent Burns also scored for the Hurricanes, who lead the Metropolitan Division in the Eastern Conference. The game-winner was Necas’ 19th goal this season.

    Dallas is still atop the Western Conference, and the Central Division, after its second consecutive 3-2 overtime loss at home. Jason Robertson scored his 33rd goal for the Stars, and 19-year-old rookie Wyatt Johnston got his 13th.

    Carolina goalie Frederik Andersen didn’t return after the first intermission because of an upper-body injury, soon after a strange sequence that ended with Robertson scoring on a shot from what seemed to be an impossible angle.

    The puck was bouncing on the ice behind Andersen and settled against the post after Tyler Seguin‘s shot before the goalie was able to swipe it away to his right. Robertson then shot from behind Andersen, and the puck apparently ricocheted off him and into the net for a 2-1 Dallas lead. Robertson’s 33rd goal matched his assists total.

    Antti Raanta replaced Andersen and stopped all 15 shots he faced – none in overtime – after the starter had four saves. Raanta had to shake off getting struck in the head by Mason Marchment‘s stick when the Stars forward was behind the net fighting for the puck midway through the third period.

    Stars goalie Jake Oettinger stopped 22 shots, including a glove save of Andrei Svechnikov‘s wrister with just more than five minutes left in regulation.

    Aho’s 200th career goal put Carolina up 1-0 midway through the first period. The Stars got even just more than two minutes later when Johnston scored unassisted after a faceoff.

    Johnston also had a shot ricochet off the post with just under six minutes left.

    In between the first two goals, Oettinger went into a fully extended split, with his right skate against the post, to deny Paul Stastny‘s attempt to knock in a loose puck.

    Burns tied the game at 2 in the second period, getting the puck after a faceoff, then skating over the top of the circle and scoring top shelf over Oettinger’s left shoulder.

    NOTES: Marchment was coming out of the penalty box at the same time Carolina made an errant pass in the second period. He had a breakaway attempt, but couldn’t get enough control of the puck to get off a quality shot. … Hurricanes defenseman Brett Pesce and Stars center Luke Glendening both got five-minute penalties for fighting in the second period.

    UP NEXT

    Hurricanes: Will play San Jose on Friday night in the first of three consecutive home games.

    Stars: Host the New Jersey Devils on Friday night in their last game before the All-Star break.

    Penguins goaltender Tristan Jarry out until after the All-Star break

    Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports
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    PITTSBURGH — Pittsburgh Penguins goaltender Tristan Jarry‘s on-again, off-again season is now off again.

    Coach Mike Sullivan said that the two-time All-Star will miss at least two games with an upper-body injury.

    Jarry was scheduled to start against Florida but reported an upper-body issue when he arrived at PPG Paints Arena. Casey DeSmith got the last-second start as the Penguins pulled out a wild 7-6 victory over the Panthers.

    Jarry is out through at least the All-Star break. Pittsburgh plays at Washington and then hosts San Jose before getting a full week off.

    The 27-year-old Jarry has played well when he’s been in the lineup, posting a 16-5-5 record with a 2.65 goals-against average in 27 games. His availability, however, has been an issue of late. He missed more than two weeks earlier this month after being injured against Boston in the Winter Classic on Jan. 2.

    The Penguins are not as sharp when Jarry is out. Pittsburgh is 8-10-3 with DeSmith or Dustin Tokarski in goal this season. The Penguins recalled Tokarski from their American Hockey League affiliate in Wilkes-Barre/Scranton to back up DeSmith during Jarry’s absence.

    Letang scores twice in return, Penguins beat Panthers 7-6 in OT

    Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports
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    PITTSBURGH – Amid a nightmarish season off the ice, Kris Letang has been searching for joy. A sense of normalcy.

    He found a little of both.

    The veteran Pittsburgh defenseman scored twice in his return from a lower-body injury, the second with 54 seconds left in overtime to give the Penguins a 7-6 victory over Florida.

    “I was just happy to be out there,” Letang said. “Be in the atmosphere of the team.”

    Letang’s 17th season with Pittsburgh has been pockmarked by health issues and a profound sense of loss. He missed two weeks after suffering the second stroke of his career shortly after Thanksgiving. He then tweaked something in a loss to Detroit on Dec. 28.

    His father died unexpectedly a few days later, and Letang spent an extended amount of time with his family in his native Montreal, with his teammates making an unexpected stop to join Letang for his father’s wake at the end of a West Coast swing earlier this month.

    The Penguins activated him off injured reserve on Tuesday afternoon. Letang responded with four points in a rollicking game that featured 13 goals, the last Letang’s one-timer from just above the left circle on the power play that gave Pittsburgh just its fourth win in 12 overtime games this season.

    “It was kind of surreal, you know?” Letang said. “I didn’t know what to think or how it was going to go. These guys supported me for the last month… it’s just great to be back.”

    The Penguins, currently in the eighth and final playoff spot in the Eastern Conference, opened up a small bit of breathing room over the ninth-place Panthers by beating Florida for the 18th time in its last 21 trips to Pittsburgh.

    Evgeni Malkin, Sidney Crosby and Danton Heinen each had a goal and two assists for The Penguins. Rickard Rakell and Drew O'Connor also scored for the Penguins.

    Casey DeSmith struggled in place of Tristan Jarry, a late scratch with an upper-body injury. DeSmith stopped 33 shots, including both he faced in overtime, to win for the third time in his last 10 starts.

    “That was a huge two points for us,” DeSmith said. “Obviously we’re battling with them in the standings. Character win at home.”

    Carter Verhaeghe scored twice for Florida, including a tying goal with 2:32 left in regulation. Aaron Ekblad had a goal and two assists. Matthew Tkachuk and Sam Reinhart each had a goal and an assist. Colin White‘s sixth goal of the season 4:10 into the third gave the Panthers the lead but Florida couldn’t hold it.

    Alex Lyon made 42 saves after getting the start when Spencer Knight was unavailable for reasons head coach Paul Maurice would not disclose. The Panthers are 7-3-2 since January 1 to surge back into the fringe of contention.

    “We’re so much more of a different hockey team than we were a month ago at this time,” Maurice said. “Rallied around each other, battled as hard as they could to get a point on the road in the circumstances that we’re in. I couldn’t be more proud.”

    Neither Lyon or DeSmith – who got the heads up he was playing less than an hour before the opening faceoff – appeared quite ready to play on short notice. They gave up a six goals – three by each team – during a frantic first period that included Letang’s first goal since Dec. 15 and Tkachuk’s 25th of the season.

    Things settled down in the second. Ekblad’s short-handed goal put the Panthers in front but Crosby knotted the game at 4-4 with a pretty backhand through Lyon’s legs with 40 seconds to go in the period to set up a hectic third in which both teams squandered one-goal leads.

    “It wasn’t pretty but you need to find ways to win sometimes,” Crosby said. “We did a good job of that here today.”

    UP NEXT

    Panthers: Host Angeles on Friday night.

    Penguins: At Washington on Thursday night.