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

Long-standing problems doomed Jets in 2021-22; What can they fix?
Jonathan Kozub/NHLI via Getty Images

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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