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

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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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