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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    Golden Knights reach second Stanley Cup Final after Game 6 win over Stars

    Stephen R. Sylvanie-USA TODAY Sports

    DALLAS – William Karlsson, William Carrier and Jonathan Marchessault are finally getting another chance in the Stanley Cup Final, after the first one that came so quick for the Vegas Golden Knights.

    They are going back after making sure they didn’t need another game against the Dallas Stars in the Western Conference Final.

    Karlsson scored two goals and had an assist while Carrier and Marchessault also scored for the Knights in a 6-0 rout Monday night over the Stars, who had extended the West final to six games after losing the first three.

    “We’ve worked hard as a group. That was the goal since year one, to come back here,” Marchessault said. “Our best game is yet to come. That’s the mentality we need to have.”

    Reilly Smith, Brayden McNabb and Shea Theodore were also part of that inaugural 2017-18 Knights season that ended in a Cup Final, when they won Game 1 against the Washington Capitals before losing four in a row.

    “That first year was a whirlwind and we maybe took it for granted,” said Karlsson, who like Marchessault and Smith has played in all 83 playoff games for the franchise.

    Keegan Kolesar and Michael Amadio each had a goal and an assist for Vegas, which hosts Game 1 of the Stanley Cup Final against Florida on Saturday night.

    The Knights led the Western Conference in the regular season with 51 wins and 111 points. The Panthers completed a four-game sweep of Carolina in the East final last Wednesday, but their 40 wins and 92 points in the regular season were the fewest among the 16 teams that began these NHL playoffs.

    Adin Hill stopped 23 shots for his second career playoff shutout – both against the Stars. The other was 4-0 in Game 3 last Tuesday, when the Knights were already within one win of clinching the series before Dallas overcame 1-0 and 2-1 deficits in both Games 4 and 5.

    “We kept them to the outside almost all night,” Hill said. “It was probably my easiest game of the playoffs so far tonight.”

    Instead of having to face a do-or-die Game 7 at home against the Stars, coach Bruce Cassidy and the Knights got off to another fast start and never left any doubt about the outcome of this series that included three overtime games. They already had 16 of their 29 shots and a 3-0 lead after the first period.

    “It was definitely our best game of the playoffs and it came at the right time,” Cassidy said. “You don’t want to let a team off the mat. After getting a 3-0 lead, there was some chatter about that.”

    It was the most lopsided playoff loss for the Stars since the franchise moved south from Minnesota before the 1993-94 season.

    “You just expect more from yourself in a game like this,” said Stars forward Joe Pavelski, the 38-year-old veteran still without a Stanley Cup after 17 seasons.

    The Stars got captain Jamie Benn back after his two-game suspension for a cross-check to the neck area of Vegas captain Mark Stone early in Game 3. But Benn got only one shot on net in his 12 1/2 minutes and was on the ice for two of Vegas’ first three goals.

    The Knights led for good when Carrier scored 3:41 into the game after a puck poked from behind the net in the vicinity of three Dallas players. Carrier skated across the front of the crease and put a backhander in the net, the ninth time this postseason the Knights scored in the first five minutes of a game.

    Karlsson’s power-play goal came midway through the first period made it 2-0, and after a penalty that likely had prevented him from scoring.

    Nicolas Roy took a shot that deflected off Jake Oettinger’s glove and popped up in the air behind the goalie. Karlsson was charging into the crease when Stars defenseman Esa Lindell raised his stick and swatted the puck out of play, drawing a delay of game penalty.

    With the man advantage, Smith took a shot from the circle to the left, which was deflected in front by Roy and then off Oettinger’s extended skate before Karlsson knocked in the rebound. Karlsson’s franchise record 10th goal for a playoff series extended the lead to 5-0 only two minutes into the third period.

    “Real disappointed for our group for the way our season ended,” Stars coach Pete DeBoer said. “It was a case of Vegas going to another level.”

    Notes: Oettinger had been 3-0 when the Stars were facing elimination this postseason, including Game 7 in the second round against Seattle before stopping 64 of 68 shots the past two games against the Knights. That was after Vegas had scored three goals on five shots in the first 7:10 to chase him from Game 3. … Dallas was only the fifth team to force a Game 6 in an conference final or NHL semifinal after being down 0-3, and the first since the Stars lost to Detroit in a sixth game in 2008. Only two teams got to a Game 7, which both lost – the New York Islanders to Philadelphia in 1975; and the New York Rangers to Boston in 1939.

    Dellandrea scores twice in 3rd, Stars stay alive with 4-2 victory over Golden Knights

    Stephen R. Sylvanie-USA TODAY Sports

    LAS VEGAS — With Dallas’ season on the line, the Stars got two critical goals from a player who was a healthy scratch the first two games of the Western Conference Final.

    Ty Dellandrea‘s goals came within a 1:27 span midway through the third period, and the Stars beat the Vegas Golden Knights 4-2 to keep alive their hopes of advancing to the Stanley Cup Final to face the Florida Panthers.

    “He’s one of the best guys I’ve ever played with,” said Stars goalie Jake Oettinger, who made 27 saves. “He deserves every opportunity he gets, and there’s no one happier for him than the guys in this room. It shows how special you are when you get taken out. He didn’t make it about him. He needed the opportunity to step up, and that’s what he did.”

    The Stars escaped elimination for the second game in a row and head to Dallas for Game 6 down 3-2. Dallas is attempting to become the fifth team in NHL history to win a series after being down 3-0.

    And look who’s back for the Stars? Captain Jamie Benn returns after a two-game suspension for his cross-check to the neck of Vegas captain Mark Stone in Game 3. That was the only game in this series that was decided early, and the Stars hadn’t even had a multigoal lead.

    “I know our group, and we weren’t happy about being in the hole we were in, and they decided to do something about it,” Stars coach Pete DeBoer said. “And now we’re rolling.”

    The only problem for DeBoer was waiting two days to play Game 6.

    “Drop the puck,” he said.

    DeBoer said before the game if his team won, the pressure would shift to the Knights. Now it’s up to them to respond after twice being a period away from playing in the Stanley Cup Final and letting both opportunities slip away.

    “I don’t think we brought our best the last two games,” Stone said. “We were still in a good spot to win the game. We’ve got to bring a little bit better effort and start playing a little more desperate.”

    Vegas coach Bruce Cassidy said “it’s a very good question” why his team didn’t play with more desperation, but he also wasn’t thrilled with the Knights’ execution.

    “We had 24 giveaways,” Cassidy said. “I’m not sure you’re beating the Arizona Coyotes in January with 24 giveaways. That’s no disrespect to Arizona, but it’s not the right way to play.”

    Dellandrea found the right way to play and put together the first multigoal playoff game of his career. Jason Robertson and Luke Glendening also scored, and Thomas Harley had two assists.

    Chandler Stephenson and Ivan Barbashev scored for the Knights, and Jonathan Marchessault had two assists to extend his points streak to four games. Adin Hill made 30 saves.

    Dellandrea scored from the right circle to put Dallas ahead, the puck deflecting off Vegas defenseman Alex Pietrangelo with 9:25 left for a 3-2 lead. Then, Dellandrea scored from the slot with 7:58 remaining.

    Dellandrea said the older players kept him motivated when he was temporarily sidelined.

    “There’s no denying it’s hard,” he said. “I’m thankful for a good group of character guys, and you’ve just got to stay ready.”

    The teams traded goals in the first two periods.

    Jack Eichel battled two Stars players for the puck in Vegas’ offensive zone, and then Barbashev swooped in and made a fantastic move to glide past Oettinger and score with 6:24 left in the first period. The Stars wasted little time in answering when Glendening scored on a deflection less than two minutes later.

    Dallas was robbed of what looked like a sure goal when Hill snagged a point-blank shot from Roope Hintz, who then threw his back in disbelief.

    Like in the first period, the Knights had a goal in the second quickly answered by one from the Stars. Stephenson scored from the left circle at 16:40 of the period, and Robertson knocked his own rebounds 2:09 later to make it 2-2. Stephenson tied the Knights’ record with his eight playoff goal this year, and Robertson had his fifth of the series.

    Sabres sign Minnesota defenseman Ryan Johnston to 2-year rookie contract

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    BUFFALO, N.Y. — The Buffalo Sabres ended a lengthy wait by signing Ryan Johnston to a two-year, entry level contract more than a month after the defenseman completed his senior college season at Minnesota.

    Johnston will report immediately to the Sabres’ American Hockey League affiliate in Rochester, whose best-of-seven Eastern Conference final playoff series against Hershey is tied at 1.

    From Southern California, Johnston is listed at 6-feet and 170 pounds and was selected 31st in 2019 draft.

    His puck-moving skills fit Buffalo’s style of play, Johnston finished his college career with nine goals and 59 points in 143 career games, including four goals and 18 points in 40 games this year. He reached the NCAA’s Frozen Four in each of his final two seasons, with the Gophers losing in the semifinals last year, followed by a 3-2 overtime loss to Quinnipiac in the championship game last month.

    He also had a goal and three assists in seven games representing the U.S. team that won gold at the 2021 world junior championships.

    Johnston, who turns 22 in July, had the option to wait until August when he would’ve become an unrestricted free agent and eligible to sign with any team. Because Johnston was first-round pick, the Sabres would’ve been compensated with a 2024 second-round selection had he signed elsewhere.

    Both sides are banking on the player’s age and college experience to enable Johnston to make the jump to the NHL within the next two seasons. The Sabres will still control Johnston’s rights as a restricted free agent once his entry-level contract expires.

    Joe Pavelski scores on OT power play, Stars beat Golden Knights 3-2 to avoid West sweep

    stars golden knights
    Jerome Miron/USA TODAY Sports

    DALLAS — Joe Pavelski admits that he probably appreciates the big playoff goals more the later he gets in his career. But they all still feel just as good, and his latest kept the season alive for the Dallas Stars.

    “Just really living in the moment,” Pavelski said. “A tremendous feeling for sure, and glad we could play another game, and go from there and try to extend it.”

    The 38-year-old Pavelski scored on a power play at 3:18 of overtime – a one-timer from the middle of the left circle to the far post – and the Stars avoided a sweep in the Western Conference Final with a 3-2 victory over the Vegas Golden Knights.

    Jason Robertson scored twice for his first career multigoal playoff game for Dallas, which played without suspended captain Jamie Benn.

    “We’re looking for goals and that’s kind of my responsibility I put on myself,” Robertson said. “I know these playoffs have been tough. … I was able to get the bounces that we needed tonight.”

    Jake Oettinger had 37 saves, two nights after the 24-year-old Stars goalie was pulled 7:10 into Game 3 after allowing three goals on five shots.

    The Stars had the man advantage in overtime after Brayden McNabb‘s high-sticking penalty on Ty Dellandrea. Fifty seconds into the power play, Pavelski scored on a pass from Miro Heiskanen. They won for the first time in their five OT games this postseason – Vegas won the first two games of this series past regulation.

    It was only the second Vegas penalty of the game, both high-sticking calls against McNabb. His penalty on Pavelski late in the first period set up the power play when Robertson scored his first goal with some nifty stickwork.

    Pavelski, in his 15th NHL season and still looking for his first Stanley Cup, scored his ninth goal in 12 games this postseason, but his first in five games. He has 73 career postseason goals – the most for U.S.-born players and the most among all active players.

    “He’s ageless. … I’ve seen that movie over and over again. Never gets old,” Stars coach Pete DeBoer said. “He lives for those moments and he wants to be in those situations. Always has, and delivers almost every time.”

    Benn was suspended two games by the NHL on Wednesday for his cross-check with his stick landing near the neck of Vegas captain Mark Stone in the first two minutes of Game 3 on Tuesday night. Benn also will miss Game 5 on Saturday night in Las Vegas.

    William Karlsson and Jonathan Marchessault scored for Vegas. Adin Hill had his five-game winning streak snapped. He made 39 saves, including a game-saver with his extended left leg without about two minutes left in regulation on rookie Fredrik Olofsson’s swiping try in his first career playoff game.

    “Our effort wasn’t good enough. Closing a series is probably the hardest game in a series, right, so it just wasn’t good enough from our group,” Marchessault said. “It was still a one-goal game in overtime. It was right there for us.”

    Karlsson and Marchessault are among six of the original Vegas players still on the team from the inaugural 2017-18 season that ended with the Knights playing for the Stanley Cup, though they lost in five games to the Washington Capitals after winning the first game.

    Vegas missed a chance to complete a sweep, a night after the Florida Panthers finished off a sweep of the Carolina Hurricanes in the Eastern Conference Final.

    Vegas took a 2-1 lead midway through the second period when Marchessault, after whacking his stick on the back of Ryan Suter in front of the net, scored on a pass between the Stars defenseman’s legs from McNabb, another original Golden Knight.

    Robertson’s tying goal late in that period came on a ricochet off the back board just seconds after he had another shot hit the post. That was the fourth goal of this series, and sixth in the playoffs, after this regular season becoming the first Dallas player with a 100-point season.

    On his first goal late in the first that tied it 1-1, Robertson deflected Heiskanen’s shot from just inside the blue line up into the air. As Hill was trying to secure the puck into his glove, Robertson knocked it free and then reached around and swiped the puck into the net with his stick parallel to the ice.

    With former heavyweight champion Mike Tyson and wrestling great Ric Flair both in the building wearing Stars jerseys Dallas was avoided being swept in the playoffs for the first time since 2001 against St. Louis in the second round. This was the Stars’ 21st playoff series since then.

    The Golden Knights scored first again – though not like those three quick goals in Game 3 that led to the earliest exit ever for Oettinger.

    Karlsson pushed the puck up and skated to the front of the net after passing to Nicolas Roy, whose pass through traffic went off a Dallas stick before Reilly Smith got it just inside the right circle and took a shot. Karlsson’s deflection past Oettinger only 4:17 into the game was his eighth goal this postseason.

    “There were a lot of rush chances,” said Smith, also with Vegas since the beginning. “I don’t think we did a good enough job of making it difficult on them. So we get another opportunity in two days.”