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How Jets can continue to contend

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Right now, it’s probably almost all sadness and anger, but eventually, the Winnipeg Jets will look back at this season with mixed feelings.

[Golden Knights eliminate Jets in Game 5]

There are a ton of entries in the “Pros” column. After years of being betrayed by goaltending during the Ondrej Pavelec era, Connor Hellebuyck finished 2017-18 as a Vezina candidate and was mostly great during the 2018 Stanley Cup Playoffs. Winnipeg went from never winning a playoff game in its Thrashers – Jets iteration to making it to the third round. They finished the season with the second-best record in the NHL and dispatched the top-ranked Predators during the postseason. Budding stars like Patrik Laine and Mark Scheifele took their next steps, while Kyle Connor joined this team’s absolutely bursting list of impressive assets. The future is mostly bright, and so is the present, thanks in part to the patience of the past.

Still, it had to be gutting to lose to the Vegas Golden Knights as a considerable favorite, especially considering how frustrating it was to try – and mostly fail – to solve Marc-Andre Fleury.

It’s easy to assume that the Jets will be a fixture in the West’s top rankings for ages, yet the counterpoint is chilling: what if this was actually their best shot?

Overall, the Jets are in a great position to contend for years. That said, GM Kevin Cheveldayoff needs to churn out some more wins, and some breaks need to go their way. Let’s consider what the Jets need to do to contend next season and beyond, along with some of the bumps in the road that could derail such dreams.

Central casting

In 2017-18, the Central Division was the general pick as the toughest division in the NHL. It’s difficult to imagine it getting a lot easier.

The Nashville Predators pushed Winnipeg to seven games, and David Poile’s not shy about making bold moves to get better. The Stars and Blues have a strong chance to improve next season, while the Blackhawks could rebound. Colorado seems like a young, modern team while Minnesota is, if nothing else, scrappy enough to make playoff spots tougher to come by.

Even if Cheveldayoff makes all the right moves, the Jets may simply lose to some very tough competition in the opening two rounds as long as that’s the playoff format the NHL chooses.

The next steps

It’s up to the Jets to continue to cultivate this robust bounty of talented players.

Patrik Laine is already a deadly sniper; can he become a more well-rounded threat? Nikolaj Ehlers looks great, but he failed to score a single goal in the playoffs. Could Sami Niku round out Winnipeg’s defense and will Jack Roslovic be another breakthrough young forward?

Winnipeg players reaching the next level won’t be easy, but it’s crucial.

And if the Jets’ prospects and greener NHL players can really climb, they might be able to shrug off some of the biggest team-building conundrums …

Restrictions coming

The Jets possess one of the best bargain contracts in the league in Scheifele, a legitimate top-line center in the meat of his peak at 25, only carrying a cap hit a bit over $6 million through 2023-24. Despite postseason ups and downs, extending Ehlers at a precise cap hit of $6M through 2024-25 sure looks forward-thinking.

Cheveldayoff’s biggest tests are coming up during the next two summers. Will he be able to maintain this team’s deadly and versatile arsenal once bargains and entry-level contracts expire?

The most immediate tests come in two RFAs heading for big raises: Hellebuyck and underrated defenseman Jacob Trouba. Things seemed a little tense at times with Trouba, so don’t expect another cheap and strange structure for his next contract. (If the NHL wasn’t such a country club atmosphere, you’d almost wonder if someone might send an offer sheet to Trouba and/or Hellebuyck.)

Anyway, Hellebuyck and Trouba aren’t likely to be cheap. The key will be to find the right compromise, whether that means a shorter deal or lowering cap hits with riskier, longer terms.

July also represents the first opportunity to extend some very big names.

Patrik Laine and Kyle Connor will both see their rookie deals go away after 2018-19. Laine’s cap hit could very well reach the teens in millions, while Connor might not be easy to retain after coming off of a 30-goal rookie season.

Wheeler’s next deal

Maybe the most fascinating situation comes with a pending UFA in Blake Wheeler. The 31-year-old’s been an under-the-radar star at a manageable $5.6M cap hit for years now and should command a considerable raise. That could be a tricky situation, as he’ll be 33 when his next contract kicks in.

All of these factors make it tough to imagine the team bringing back soon-to-be free agent Paul Stastny, who was a seamless addition. That’s especially true as Bryan Little‘s extension could stand as regrettable.

Ultimately, Cheveldayoff must make the right calls. Can he leverage RFA statuses to keep the core together? Will Wheeler and other nice, veteran players be affordable? These questions are mostly a little off in the distance, yet sometimes teams feel the need to be proactive. Simply put, players getting raises means that the Jets will most likely be forced to make choices and tough cuts.

(On the bright side, there’s some cap relief on the horizon as well. Toby Enstrom‘s deal is done. Tyler Myers‘ contract ends after next season. It’s not all bad.)

Backup plan?

When the Jets signed Steve Mason, it seemed like they’d either install him as the starter or as a platoon mate for Hellebuyck. An injury-ravaged season essentially pushed Mason out of the picture, and it’s reasonable to wonder what happens considering that his $4.1M cap hit runs through 2018-19.

Do the Jets try to move Mason and shuffle in Michael Hutchinson or a different backup?

Hellebuyck, even a richer version, is likely to be “the guy.” The modern NHL’s shown how valuable a good backup can be, especially during the 82-game grind of the regular season.

***

Few, if any, NHL teams are constructed to compete in both the present and future as well as the Jets right now. They’re likely to get better merely as the likes of Laine come into their own. (Laine still can’t drink legally in the U.S. at 20 years old, after all.)

On the other hand, promising things can go splat in a hurry, especially in sports. Injuries can happen. Bad contracts can gum up the works. Marc-Andre Fleury could stand on his head again.

It’s up to the Jets to prove that this past run was the beginning of something great rather than their best swing at the fence. They have the power to do just that, but it won’t be an easy task.

MORE:
• Conference Finals schedule, TV info
• NBC’s Stanley Cup Playoff Hub

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.

Jets vent about Fleury ‘stealing’ another game

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Down 3-1 in their series against the somehow-always-surprising Vegas Golden Knights, can you really blame the Winnipeg Jets for being frustrated?

By just about every available metric, the Jets have dominated the Golden Knights for long stretches, especially in Games 3 and 4 (both wins for Vegas in Vegas). You really have to stretch things by hammering faceoffs or maybe stretching to criticize Connor Hellebuyck. While Hellebuyck’s endured some moments he likely regrets, his biggest sin is probably “not being Marc-Andre Fleury.”

Winnipeg generated more shots on goal than Vegas for five consecutive periods, sometimes to an extreme, but Fleury continues to stop just about everything. It’s all-too-fitting that even the Jets didn’t realize that Game 4’s 2-2 goal was a goal.

During a three-game winning streak, Fleury’s made 30 saves or more, often in spectacular fashion.

The Jets aired frustrations right after Friday’s Game 4 loss, generally expressing the belief that they should be winning these contests.

“We win that game nine times out of 10. Tonight was the one,” Blake Wheeler said, via Sportsnet’s Chris Johnston. “[We] had some looks where their goalie made some extraordinary saves. You’ve got to sometimes take your hat off to a good player stealing a game.”

[PHT’s Three Stars for Game 4]

Wheeler was discussing Fleury, perhaps omitting his name because of the whole … wet willy thing from Game 3.

Myers was in the thick of things during Game 4, too. Along with scoring the 2-2 goal that briefly tied the contest, he also was quite unhappy about a penalty he took, which opened the door for William Karlsson to open the scoring with a power-play goal. Myers echoed Wheeler’s thoughts after this painful defeat.

“For the last five periods, we’ve been the better team,” Myers said, according to TSN’s Frank Seravalli.

There’s little denying Winnipeg’s point, much like it’s easy to understand the Washington Capitals’ frustration in being tied 2-2 with the Tampa Bay Lightning despite carrying long stretches of play. About the only team-wide things the Bolts and Golden Knights can hang their hats on is winning recent games and drawing certain high-danger chances even.

As the Capitals can attest with bleary eyes and bad memories, sometimes that’s how the cookie crumbles in the postseason, at least in the NHL.

The Golden Knights boast a goalie on one of the all-time great runs when you combine Fleury’s regular-season work and his nearly flawless 2018 Stanley Cup Playoffs run. The top line of Reilly Smith, William Karlsson, and Jonathan Marchessault just keep getting the job done. Remarkably, the Golden Knights always seem to answer back potential “momentum-turning” goals by the Jets with spirit-crushers in response.

Consider this: Vegas can at least muster an argument that they’re adept at “flipping the switch” when needed.

Either by design via Gerard Gallant or because the Jets turn it up to 11 when down (most likely both), Vegas has seemingly been occasionally guilty of sitting on leads. There haven’t been many 0-0 stretches lately, as Jonathan Marchessault scored about 30 seconds into Game 3 while Karlsson’s Game 4 1-0 tally came about two-and-a-half minutes in. The differences in aggression have been especially stark during the third periods of the past two contests, as Winnipeg’s generated a 28-15 shots on goal edge while rarely breaking through.

Are the Jets generating more chances and hogging the puck? Absolutely, and there’s only so much rationalizing that can be made about playing to the score.

Moral victories mean very little when you need to win three consecutive games while on the brink of elimination.

The Jets have shown that they boast a lot of the elements to put together such a run, but pulling that off against Fleury and the Golden Knights looks like no small feat. Winnipeg can’t let up if the Jets want to get back into the 2018 Western Conference Final, so it’s promising that they believe in themselves. An angry, frustrated reaction is probably more productive than a downtrodden, hopeless feeling.

Whatever the case may be, they need to get to Fleury and get some wins.

MORE:
• 
Conference Finals schedule, TV info
• 
NBC’s Stanley Cup Playoff Hub

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.

Fleury, secondary scoring biggest issues facing Jets

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After scoring three goals in the first 10 minutes of the Western Conference Final against the Vegas Golden Knights, the high-powered Winnipeg Jets offense has been pretty much completely shut down with only four goals in the 170 minutes that have followed.

That has helped put them into a 2-1 series hole entering Friday’s Game 4 in Vegas.

It is not quite yet “must-win” territory for the Jets, but avoiding a 3-1 series deficit and sending the series back to Winnipeg as a best-of-three would obviously be preferable for them.

Finding a way to make that happen is going to be the problem because there are a couple of issues right now facing the Jets, and they are somewhat related. One is impacting the other.

First is the fact that their secondary scoring has dried up a little bit over the past few games.

Going back to their second-round series against the Nashville Predators the Jets have scored 12 goals in their past five games, which is not exactly a great number. Even worse is that seven of those goals have come from just two players, Mark Scheifele (five) and Paul Stastny (two).

A lot of the support players — and core players — that have made the Jets offense such a dominant force this season have gone cold.

Patrik Laine has two goals in his past 12 games. After missing Game 3 to an unknown ailment Nikolaj Ehlers‘ status for Game 4 is not yet known, and he is still searching for his first goal of the playoffs. Kyle Conner has one goal in five games. Captain Blake Wheeler is still piling up assists, but has not score a goal in seven games. In all of their cases it is not for a lack of effort, especially in this series. They are still getting shots, still getting chances, still generating pressure and doing a lot of the things that should be leading to more goals.

In their past two games against Vegas — both losses — the Jets averaged 68 total shot attempts and 25 scoring chances per 60 minutes of 5-on-5 play (via Natural Stat Trick). Those numbers are exactly in line with what they have been doing for the entire postseason when they were lighting up the scoreboard and looking like an unstoppable force.

[Related: These playoffs belong to Marc-Andre Fleury]

That brings us to the other problem facing the Jets at the moment: The goalies get paid a lot of money, too, and right now they are going up against one that is playing at an almost unbelievable level.

There is nothing in the sport that can swing a playoff series in one team’s favor like the performance of a goalie. Right now the Jets are running into the same problem that the Los Angeles Kings and San Jose Sharks faced before them — they simply can not solve Marc-Andre Fleury.

Fleury was probably the biggest difference in Game 3 on Wednesday night and held off a ferocious Jets third period rally by making 15 saves, including a pair of diving highlight reel saves on Scheifele when the Vegas goalie seemed to be completely down and out.

At this point it’s not really an issue of “solving” Fleury. He is a 14-year NHL starter that has played 865 games in the NHL (regular season and playoffs). At this point there is nothing new to discover about him. His strengths and weaknesses are known and well established. Sometimes a goalie just gets into a zone and is seeing everything, stopping everything, and finding way to make impossible saves … and when they are not, every single break or bounce seems to go their way. They can run hot and cold, and when a goalie like Fleury gets into one of those hot phases there really is not much an opposing team can do except keep firing pucks and hoping that it finally breaks through.

As simplistic as it sounds, that might be the Jets’ best approach — and hope — at this point. Keep doing what you are doing and hope for the best. The process is sound. They are doing the right things and a lot of the same things they were doing earlier in the playoffs and during the regular season. They have just run into the wrong goalie at the wrong time and there may not be an adjustment that is going to matter as long as he keeps playing the way he is.

MORE:
• 
Conference Finals schedule, TV info
• 
NBC’s Stanley Cup Playoff Hub

Adam Gretz is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @AGretz.

These playoffs belong to Marc-Andre Fleury

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We have to talk about Marc-Andre Fleury again because, well, he was making things happen for the Vegas Golden Knights yet again on Wednesday night.

And by making things happen, we are obviously talking about unbelievable saves, stealing games, and helping to be one of the lead authors of one of the most absurd and unbelievable stories in NHL history.

Fleury stopped 33 shots (including 15 out of 16 in the third period) to help the Golden Knights pick up a 4-2 win over the Winnipeg Jets in Game 3 of the Western Conference Final, giving them a 2-1 lead in the series.

They are now just two wins away from reaching the Stanley Cup Final, if you can believe it.

[PHT’s Three Stars: Fleury, Marchessault lead Vegas to Game 3 win]

While Jonathan Marchessault scored two more goals, and James Neal had an eventful night coming back from an apparent head injury early in the game to score a goal, and a bunch of GMs continued to look bad for their expansion draft moves, this game was once again the Marc-Andre Fleury show.

Honestly, it was everything we have come to expect from what Fleury is as a goalie, as a player, and heck, even as a person.

There were incredible highlight reel saves, like the absurd sequence in the third period when he preserved Vegas’ one-goal lead by making back-to-back jaw-dropping saves on Mark Scheifele.

Fleury’s athleticism has been his calling card throughout his career, and it allows him (and sometimes even forces him) to make saves like those two.

There was also those moments where he showed that he basically just wants to have fun on the ice.

Like when he thanked his goal posts as only he can.

Or when he trolled Jets forward Blake Wheeler during that second period scrum — the one that Jets defenseman Dustin Byfuglien had to break up by himself — by flicking the back of his ear.

As if all of that was not enough, he also picked up an assist on Marchessault’s empty-net goal in the closing seconds to help put the game away.

Then after the game he showed what makes him a beloved member of whatever hockey community he is a part of when he met with the wife and children of late Humboldt Broncos coach and general manager Darcy Haugan, spending 20 minutes with them.

This night was the total Fleury experience in every way possible.

Overall, this entire season has been arguably the best hockey that he has ever played in his career. Given that he is already 11th on the NHL’s all-time wins list, already has his name on the Stanley Cup three times, and secured one of those championships with buzzer-beating save on one of the greatest players of all-time (Detroit Red Wings defenseman Nicklas Lidstrom) that is not exactly a small accomplishment. If you want to quibble and point out that he was mostly a backup in the playoffs on the past two Stanley Cup winning teams he played for, you would not be entirely wrong. It is still worth pointing out the Pittsburgh Penguins team from a year ago probably loses in the first or second round without Fleury playing the way he did. So he was still a big part of the success.

But this season.

This season is something else entirely.

This is taking an expansion team — a roster of players that literally did not exist at this time a year ago — to a point where it is now just two wins away from reaching the Stanley Cup Final. Six wins from potentially winning the whole thing. He is one of the driving forces behind this run.

It is not only a performance that is re-writing the narrative of his career as a postseason goalie, it might be the final push he needs to cement his status as a Hall of Fame goalie.

A lot of folks will pretty strongly argue that he has already done that in his career, but as I wrote back in February Fleury, to me, has always been a good, very durable goalie that has played for a long time with some incredible highs and some crushing lows.

A fine career, but is it one that is really worthy of the Hall of Fame? It could be — should be — up for some debate.

But what if he backstops a first-year expansion team to the Stanley Cup? Or, at the very least, simply to the Stanley Cup Final? If Vegas wins it — still a big if at this point, but we’re just playing with hypotheticals here — that would be his fourth. He would almost certainly win the Conn Smythe Trophy as the playoff MVP. He will be in the top-10 in wins and probably somewhere in the top-five when his career ends. No matter your opinion of him as a goalie, no matter what you remember about his postseason meltdowns in the middle part of his career, the people that vote on the Hall of Fame would never, ever, keep that sort of resume out.

Even if this season does not result in a Stanley Cup it still might play a huge role in changing the way his career is looked at.

Right now he is no longer “playoff Fleury,” the goalie that melts down at the most inopportune time and submarines a potential championship team far short of its expectations.

He is now “playoff Fleury,” the goalie that is helping to carry a team to heights no one thought possible at the start of the season.

MORE:
• 
Conference Finals schedule, TV info
• 
NBC’s Stanley Cup Playoff Hub

Adam Gretz is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @AGretz.

The Jets built Cup contender by drafting, developing talent

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WINNIPEG, Manitoba (AP) — Not many people, if any, expected the Winnipeg Jets to have one of the NHL’s best teams this season.

Vegas Golden Knights assistant general manager Kelly McCrimmon was one of the few.

The former owner, general manager and coach of the Western Hockey League’s Brandon Wheat Kings said he watched Winnipeg play 20 times last season, giving him a peek at what was to come.

”It was pretty easy to see that it was going to happen,” McCrimmon said. ”This year, certainly it has.”

The Jets earned 114 points during the regular season, trailing only Nashville.

Winnipeg advanced in the playoffs for the first time since moving from Atlanta in 2011. The Jets lost only once to Minnesota in the first round, and eliminated the top-seeded Predators on the road in Game 7 of the second round.

The Jets clearly looked like the better team in a 4-2 win Saturday night in Game 1 of the Western Conference finals against Vegas, the darling of the NHL in its expansion season.

Suddenly, Winnipeg might have the best chance of winning the Stanley Cup, especially if it wins Game 2 at home on Monday night (8 p.m. ET, NBCSN).

The Jets have a pair of fantastic lines up front along with two solid ones and a strong group of defenseman led by Dustin Byfuglien , and 24-year-old Connor Hellebuyck has been one of the best goaltenders this postseason.

How has a franchise, which has largely been an afterthought in the league, gone from finishing fifth or worse in its division the previous three seasons to having one of the world’s best hockey teams?

”They put on a clinic in drafting and developing,” McCrimmon said. ”Along with that, great patience and leadership from Mark Chipman as an owner.

”What they did takes time.”

Unlike other NHL teams, which fire general managers and coaches if they don’t quickly have success, the Jets have allowed general manager Kevin Cheveldayoff to build a championship contender since hiring him in 2011 when they left Atlanta. He was just 20 games above .500 in his first five seasons as Winnipeg’s GM, and its only previous postseason appearance in 2015 lasted just four games against Anaheim.

Coach Paul Maurice, likewise, was afforded the opportunity to lead the team for fourth-plus season this year. He made the most of it by helping the Jets go 52-20-10 during the regular season.

But ultimately, it comes down to having talented, unselfish players, and the Jets have plenty.

When Winnipeg had high draft picks, as it often did as a struggling team, it didn’t miss.

Patrik Laine, a 20-year-old winger, was drafted second overall two years ago and is one of the league’s best young players. He had 70 points in the regular season and scored his fourth goal of the playoffs in Game 1.

Mark Scheifele, selected No. 7 overall in 2011, leads all postseason scorers with 12 goals and has averaged more than a point per game the past two seasons. On the back end, defenseman Jacob Trouba has been exceptional in the playoffs as the franchise hoped he would be eventually after taking him No. 9 overall in 2012.

The Jets have also hit on some late-round picks, including Hellebuyck, whom they took No. 130 overall six years ago.

”Hit home run after home run in the draft,” captain Blake Wheeler said . ”A lot of our marquee players are guys we drafted and have taken huge steps in the last year or two to be impact players.”

Winnipeg didn’t draft its best player, Wheeler, but the franchise acquired him from Boston in a trade while it was in Atlanta in 2011 and has built around him. That same year, the Thrashers took advantage of Chicago’s need to get rid of salaries by dealing for Byfuglien.

And like the front office and coaching staff, it seems the players were patient about the process of slowly building a winner when the team moved to Canada.

”We weren’t coming here expecting to blow the doors off right away,” Byfuglien said. ”We knew it was going to be a process of building and finding the right group of guys.”

But when it looked like the Jets had a shot to contend this season, they were willing to give up a first-round pick to St. Louis just before the trade deadline to add veteran center Paul Stastny to chase the Stanley Cup. And now, they might just be the team to beat.

”The story of Winnipeg and the Jets, for far too long, has been about being underdogs and underrated,” Winnipeg Mayor Brian Bowman said. ”But not anymore.”

Follow Larry Lage at https://twitter.com/larrylage

More AP hockey: https://apnews.com/tag/NHLhockey

MORE:
• 
Conference Finals schedule, TV info
• 
NBC’s Stanley Cup Playoff Hub