Long-standing problems doomed Jets in 2021-22; What can they fix?

Long-standing problems doomed Jets in 2021-22; What can they fix?
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PHT’s “What Went Wrong?” series asks that question about teams who’ve been eliminated from the 2022 Stanley Cup Playoffs. Why did this team fall short, and how surprising was that fall? Are there signs that things might go right next season? This series tackles those questions, and more. In the latest edition of “What Went Wrong?,” PHT breaks down the 2021-22 Winnipeg Jets

After making it to the 2018 Western Conference Final, it seemed like the Winnipeg Jets were a team with one of the brightest futures in all of the NHL. Considering the younger parts of that roster, it looked like they were set up for even bigger successes down the line. The 2021-22 season may be the bleakest reminder that the Jets haven’t hit that mark, but this franchise’s foundation has been wobbly for much longer.

After this painful 2021-22 season, the Jets are forced to reckon with a question many of us have been asking on and off since 2018-19.  How much of their failures fall on coaching vs. players who may simply be flawed defensively?

As with many debates in life, the truest answer could be somewhere in the middle. There are also other areas to consider, such as how the Jets develop prospects.

That said, there’s only so much you can improve during on offseason, particularly with limited cap space and a market that’s not exactly beloved by free agents. It’s crucial for the Jets to learn as much as they can from the 2021-22 season, as there’s still at least some room to dream about getting that aircraft back on its once-promising trajectory.

Jets defense didn’t get much better in 2021-22

By adding a competent defenseman like Brenden Dillon and hoping for a Nate Schmidt redemption, the Jets approached 2021-22 with hope for an improved blueline.

To some degree, you could argue that Winnipeg improved a bit on defense. Unfortunately, you’d measure the upgrades by baby steps instead of leaps. Check their 5-on-5 defensive Hockey Viz charts side by side:

 

Fundamentally, the 2021-22 Jets were left relying on a familiar, failing formula. Hope your skilled players outscore their mistakes, and ask Connor Hellebuyck to clean up far too many messes.

Blake Wheelers’ two-way flaws have been fodder for a while now. There have also been rumblings about Mark Scheifele‘s mix of terrific offense and arguably terrible defense. It’s jarring, though, to ponder Wheeler, Scheifele, Kyle Connor, and even Nikolaj Ehlers struggling to such extremes.

Don’t take that as a total condemnation, mind you. Generally speaking, Connor, Ehlers, and Scheifele bring more to the table than they take away. The Athletic’s Player Cards capture the overall gains from that push-and-pull.

Winnipeg must hope that it’s the system

If nothing else, the 2021-22 Jets and other recent iterations already emphasized sheltering Connor, Scheifele, and others defensively. At least this isn’t a case of Paul Maurice (and then Dave Lowry) deploying poor two-way players as if they were Selke candidates.

So, it circles back to a question of structure. Maybe there’s only so much you can do with the likes of Connor, Ehlers, Wheeler, Scheifele, and a similarly-performing Pierre-Luc Dubois. But it’s troubling to see a decline for a supporting cast member like Brenden Dillon.

Can a coach turn that around? Will they find the right balance between improving that defense without stifling some skilled forwards too much? Some hope for another Darryl Sutter-type turnaround, but for all we know, Sutter might’ve struggled with this collection of players.

Jets only have so much room for offseason movement

Finding a coach to install a sturdier system is the overarching dream for the Jets after the 2021-22 season.

There’s also a pragmatic element to emphasizing coaching as an area of improvement. At the moment, it doesn’t look like the Jets have a lot of wiggle room to get better via trades or free agency.

Via Cap Friendly, the Jets approach the offseason with about $16.2M in salary cap space. That number is deceptive, however.

For one thing, that projected $66.3M in cap spending is only penciled in for 15 roster spots. Pierre-Luc Dubois accounted for a $5M cap hit this season, and he’s a pending RFA with arbitration rights. The Jets will either need to pay up in some form for a new contract, or possibly trade Dubois. They also might want to bring back steady 36-year-old forward Paul Stastny on another 35+ contract.

Trades may be the easiest option, but not easy, either

Improving their defensive personnel might come down to trading someone.

At the moment, the Jets have the same $26.8M earmarked for defensemen that they handed out in 2021-22. Would they part ways with someone like Nate Schmidt ($5.95M), Neal Pionk ($5.875M), Brenden Dillon ($3.9M), or Dylan DeMelo ($3M)? For what it’s worth, Schmidt’s the only defenseman in that group with any sort of trade clause.

It’s fair to at least ask if the Jets might broach the subject of a change of scenery for Blake Wheeler, too. Wheeler, 35, has significant trade protection on a deal that carries an $8.25M cap hit through 2023-24. Considering his season-ending comments, maybe Wheeler would be on board with a trade, and open up to more than five teams?

In some — if not all — of those cases, the Jets may struggle to gain much value in return. To trade Wheeler, they may need to bribe someone in hopes of merely gaining cap space.

Barring something bold like a Jakob Chychrun trade, there are only so many moves that would really make a positive difference. The dream once again returns to a coach waving a magic wand and installing a better system.

Not a ton of answers for Jets in free agency

Let’s say the Jets either gain some cap space via trade, or set things up for a single free agent splurge. Would that even be a wise decision?

  • A desperate Jets team might take a swing at John Klingberg. Yet, at this point in his career, you could argue that Klingberg profiles as a microcosm of the Jets themselves. Generally, Klingberg still provides offensive skill, but his defensive game is lacking. Perhaps the Jets could just really go for broke, hoping they can replicate some of the Florida Panthers spirit. But would that plan too easily dismiss what Florida does well?
  • Out of context, Nazem Kadri is the sort of efficient player who could tie the Jets’ roster together in a more cohesive way. In the context of Kadri’s incredible All-Star season, he’s likely to drive his price up to the point where whatever team who signs him will then ask him to do far too much.

Now, there are scenarios where a free agent splash might make sense for the Jets. If the price isn’t too steep for Claude Giroux, he could conceivably help this team with his sharp two-way acumen. And if you’re just throwing a Hail Mary, Johnny Gaudreau‘s a legit star who has some chance of hitting the free agent market.

Realistically, the Jets should try to patch up weak depth by making savvy moves in the bargain bin. (One of the many areas where it’s fair to wonder if GM Kevin Cheveldayoff is the right person for the job.)

While there’s room to work on the fringes, the central discussion remains the same. The Jets need to improve from within, by getting better results from players up and down their roster. Ideally, they’d pull that off while Connor Hellebuyck still ranks among the NHL’s best goalies.

The best way to do that is to find a coach to stitch it all together. Frankly, it’s fair to wonder if the Jets have ever had that going for them.

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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    Penguins plot a way forward as Letang recovers from stroke

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    Kyle Ross/USA TODAY Sports
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    PITTSBURGH — Kris Letang returned to the ice on Thursday, just three days after suffering the second stroke of his career.

    The “twirl” the longtime Pittsburgh Penguins defenseman took at the club’s practice facility was approved by team doctors, a spin designed to help Letang’s mental health and nothing else. While the 35-year-old remains upbeat, it remains far too early to put a timeline on when his familiar No. 58 will return to the lineup.

    Though Pittsburgh general manager Ron Hextall indicated this stroke isn’t as severe as the one Letang endured in 2014 – when a hole in the wall of his heart led to a stroke that forced him to miss two months – the six-time All-Star is continuing to undergo tests.

    There are no plans for Letang to participate in any sort of hockey-specific drills anytime soon, with coach Mike Sullivan stressing the club will “err on the side of caution” when it comes to whatever rehab Letang might need.

    While Letang – one of the most well-conditioned players in the NHL – essentially went through the motions by himself, his teammates were 30 minutes south at PPG Paints Arena getting ready for a visit from Vegas and trying to plot a way forward without one of the franchise cornerstones, at least in the short term.

    Letang made it a point to help break the news to the rest of the Penguins following a 3-2 overtime loss to Carolina on Tuesday. Pittsburgh scratched Letang from the lineup with an unspecified illness and he spent a portion of the game watching from the press box next to Hextall.

    Afterward, Letang informed a somber locker room about his condition, a revelation that came as a shock even as he did his best to reassure those around him that he was and is OK.

    “It’s very serious health stuff,” defenseman Chad Ruhwedel said. “You hear about strokes and it’s never really good so we’re just glad to see he’s doing well and everything is good with him.”

    Sullivan understands it would be practically impossible for any of the other defensemen on the roster to replicate what Letang brings to the ice, so he’s not going to ask any one player to try. There are few players at the position in the NHL who have Letang’s mix of speed, skill and almost bottomless energy.

    The highest-scoring defenseman in franchise history is averaging a team-best 23:54 of ice time and has long been a fixture on the power play and in just about every crucial late-game situation.

    “I just think Tanger is not an easy guy to replace,” Sullivan said. “I don’t think from a tactical standpoint things change drastically. It’s just personnel based. But as you know, personnel can mean a lot in those types of situations.”

    It’s more than that, however. This isn’t a routine injury. There’s an emotional component and an unknown element to Letang’s status even as the Penguins insist they don’t believe his condition is career-threatening.

    “This is a whole different circumstance than an ankle injury or a shoulder injury,” Sullivan said. “This is a very different circumstance.”

    Letang’s on-ice presence is just one aspect of his importance to a team that has never missed the playoffs since he made his debut in 2007. He’s become a mentor to younger teammates like 23-year-old defenseman Pierre-Olivier Joseph, who like Letang is French-Canadian and who, like Letang, plays with a graceful fluidity.

    Joseph, who declined to get into specifics about Letang’s message to the team on Tuesday night, believes the best thing the Penguins can do during Letang’s absence is attack the game with the same passion he’s shown for 17 seasons and counting.

    “The way he plays for the team every single night and the way he puts his heart and soul into the game on the ice, it’s the least we can do is have our thoughts of him whenever we get on the ice,” Joseph said.

    Sullivan shuffled the lineup on Tuesday, elevating veteran Jeff Petry and Brian Dumoulin to the top defensive pair. Petry possesses a skillset that’s not too far removed from Letang’s, but it’s also his first year in Pittsburgh. Asking him to provide the leadership that’s innate to Letang is unfair. It’s one of the reasons Sullivan is insistent that it will take a group effort to fill in for a singular presence.

    “We have some diversity on our blue line right now,” Sullivan said. “We feel like we have guys capable of stepping in and getting the job done for us and we’re going to try and do that.”

    LA Kings put goaltender Cal Petersen on waivers

    Perry Nelson-USA TODAY Sports
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    LOS ANGELES — The Los Angeles Kings put goaltender Cal Petersen on waivers, a surprising move for a player once considered the successor in net to two-time Stanley Cup winner Jonathan Quick.

    Petersen, 28, went on waivers the day after allowing four goals on 16 shots in relief of Quick during a 9-8 overtime loss to the Seattle Kraken. Quick was pulled after giving up five goals on 14 shots.

    Only one NHL goalie has a save percentage lower than Petersen’s .868 this season, Elvis Merzlikins of the Columbus Blue Jackets with .864. Petersen is 5-3-2 in 10 games with a 3.75 goals-against average in his third full season with the Kings and fifth overall.

    L.A. signed Petersen to a three-year, $15 million contract in September 2021, and he figured to take the starting job from Quick, who turns 37 in January and is set to be a free agent after the season. Petersen has two years left on that deal after this one at an annual salary cap hit of $5 million.

    Penguins’ Kris Letang out indefinitely after 2nd stroke

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    PITTSBURGH — Kris Letang plays hockey with a grace and inexhaustible fluidity seemingly impervious to the rigors of spending nearly half his life in the NHL.

    For the second time in less than a decade, however, a major health scare has brought Letang’s career to a halt.

    The 35-year-old Letang is out indefinitely after suffering a stroke for a second time. Letang reported feeling ill and was taken to the hospital, where tests confirmed the stroke.

    While general manager Ron Hextall said Wednesday this stroke doesn’t appear to be as serious as the one Letang sustained in 2014, the Penguins will have to find a way forward at least in the short term without one of their franchise pillars.

    “I am fortunate to know my body well enough to recognize when something isn’t right,” Letang said in a release. “While it is difficult to navigate this issue publicly, I am hopeful it can raise awareness. … I am optimistic that I will be back on the ice soon.”

    The three-time Stanley Cup champion missed more than two months in 2014 after a stroke, which doctors determined was caused by a small hole in the wall of his heart. He spent Monday feeling off and told team trainers he was dealing with what Hextall described as a migraine headache.

    Penguins team physician Dr. Dhamesh Vyas recommended Letang go to the hospital, where tests confirmed the stroke.

    “He didn’t know (he had a stroke),” Hextall said. “He just knew something wasn’t right.”

    Letang is continuing to undergo tests but felt well enough on Tuesday to be at the arena for Pittsburgh’s 3-2 overtime loss to Carolina. He spent the second period chatting with Hextall then addressed his teammates in the locker room afterward in an effort to help allay their concerns.

    “I think it was important for Kris to be there because his teammates got to see him in good spirits and that he’s doing well,” Penguins coach Mike Sullivan said.

    Sullivan added initial test results on Letang have been “very encouraging.” Letang will continue to undergo testing throughout the week, though he felt good enough in the aftermath to ask Sullivan and Hextall if he could skate, an activity that is off the table for now.

    Hextall said he “couldn’t even guess” how long the Penguins may be without the married father of two, adding hockey is low on the team’s list of concerns about a player who, along with Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin, has helped the franchise to three Stanley Cups during his 17-year career.

    “First and foremost this is about the person and I told Tanger about that last night,” Hextall said. “This is Kris Letang, the father and family guy, the Pittsburgh Penguins, that’s second.”

    Letang, a six-time All-Star, has been one of the most durable players in the NHL. His 662 career points (145 goals, 517 assists) are a franchise record for a defenseman. He’s averaged well over 24 minutes of playing time over the course of his career, a number that’s ticked above 25 minutes per game seven times in eight-plus seasons since he returned from the initial stroke.

    The Penguins felt so confident in Letang’s durability that they signed him to a six-year contract over the summer rather than let him test free agency for the first time.

    “The level of hockey he’s played for as long as he’s played is absolutely incredible,” Hextall said. “The level he’s continued to play at at his age, the type of shape he’s in … he’s a warrior.”

    Letang has one goal and 11 assists in 21 games so far this season for Pittsburgh, which hosts Vegas on Thursday night. The Penguins are pretty deep along the blue line, but Sullivan knows he can’t try to replace Letang with any one player.

    “It’s not anything we haven’t been faced with in the past and the reality is we have what we have, and we’ll figure it out,” Sullivan said, adding “it’ll be by committee, as it usually is when you replace a player of that stature.”

    Ovechkin tops Gretzky for most road goals, Capitals beat Canucks

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    VANCOUVER, British Columbia – Alex Ovechkin scored twice, passing Wayne Gretzky for the most road goals in NHL history, and the Washington Capitals beat the Vancouver Canucks 5-1 on Tuesday night.

    Ovechkin has scored 403 of his 793 career goals away from home. Gretzky holds the overall record with 894.

    “It’s always nice when you beat the Great One,” Ovechkin said. “It doesn’t matter what kind of milestone it is. It’s history.”

    Anthony Mantha added a goal and an assist for the Capitals (10-11-3). John Carlson and Martin Fehervary also scored, and Darcy Kuemper stopped 31 shots.

    Nils Hoglander scored for the Canucks (9-11-3), who had won three in a row. Spencer Martin made 23 saves.

    “Spencer’s been great for us. He’s probably a bit like the other players tonight. They weren’t ready to play and it showed on the scoreboard,” Vancouver coach Bruce Boudreau said.

    The 37-year-old Ovechkin nearly netted a hat trick when Vancouver pulled Martin for an extra skater with just over six minutes left, but his rocket of a shot skimmed the outside of the post.

    “I think he has 13 goals this year and I want to say like eight or nine have been like a new record. So it’s been cool,” Washington center Dylan Strome said. “Any time you pass Wayne Gretzky in anything, it deserves a standing ovation, which he got.”

    Fehervary was the one who sealed it, flipping the puck high into the Canucks zone and into the empty net at 15:57 of the third period.

    Ovechkin topped Gretzky 11:52 into the first, firing a one-timer from the left circle past Martin to give the Capitals a 2-0 lead with his 13th goal of the season.

    “On his second goal, it looks like, `Oh, maybe (Martin) should have had it.’ But I’ve seen (Ovechkin) score 100 goals like that,” said Boudreau, who coached the Capitals from 2007-11. “He’s got a shot that finds its way in.”

    The star forward from Russia got his first of the night 5:35 in, taking the puck off the stick of Vancouver defenseman Quinn Hughes near the net and batting in a quick shot.

    “It could have been 6-1 after the first period, quite frankly, with the amount of chances (Washington) had,” Boudreau said.

    It was Ovechkin’s 135th game-opening goal, tying Jaromir Jagr for the most in NHL history.

    “(Ovechkin) was really good in the first and I thought we were really good in the first so it was nice to get out and get a jump like that,” Capitals coach Peter Laviolette said. “He certainly led. We knew we needed to have a good first period, have a good game, and you need your best players to do that.”

    Carlson scored the lone goal of the second, chipping in a loose puck from the low hash marks at 18:47 to give Washington a 4-1 cushion.

    “It’s frustrating. Because when you lose games, it should never be about your compete level and battle level,” Canucks center J.T. Miller said. “It’s frustrating because they didn’t out-skill us today, they didn’t out-system us. They literally just outbattled us and created their own chances.”

    NOTES: Washington’s Lars Eller got his 200th career assist. … Miller had an assist, extending his point streak to nine games (four goals, seven assists). … The Capitals swept the two-game season series. … Vancouver assigned winger Vasily Podkolzin and defenseman Jack Rathbone to the Abbotsford Canucks on Monday, then recalled forward Phillip Di Giuseppe from the American Hockey League club on Tuesday.

    UP NEXT

    Washington: At Seattle on Thursday in the second of a five-game trip.

    Vancouver: Host Florida on Thursday in the second of a four-game homestand.