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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.

PHT’s Three Stars: Reaves’ goal helps Golden Knights reach Cup Final

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1st Star: Ryan Reaves, Vegas Golden Knights

A year ago, “Ryan Reaves scored the goal that helped send the Vegas Golden Knights to the Stanley Cup Final” is totally the sentence we all expected to read in May 2018. Well, here we are after Vegas eliminated the Winnipeg Jets in Game 5 with a 2-1 victory.

2nd Star: Marc-Andre Fleury, Vegas Golden Knights

Fleury continued his march toward the Conn Smythe trophy with a 31-save effort as he helped ensure his chance to win a third straight Stanley Cup.

[Golden Knights’ incredible run continues to Stanley Cup Final]

3rd Star: Connor Hellebuyck, Winnipeg Jets

After a tough couple of games, Hellebuyck did all he could to keep the Jets in Game 5. He finished with 30 saves, including  a pair late in the third period that helped keep the Jets’ deficit to one goal.

Highlight of the Day:

Thank you, Deryk Engelland, for touching the Clarence S. Campbell Bowl:

Factoid of the Day:

Monday’s schedule: Tampa Bay Lightning at Washington Capitals, 8 p.m. ET, NBCSN (Lightning lead series 3-2)

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

————

Sean Leahy is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @Sean_Leahy.

Golden Knights’ incredible run continues to Stanley Cup Final

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Want to capture the unlikely story of the Vegas Golden Knights advancing to the 2018 Stanley Cup Final in their first season? Consider that Ryan Reaves was the person who scored the goal to punch their ticket.

(It’s OK if you need a second just to stare at your screen in disbelief.)

Remarkably, the Golden Knights only needed one chance to dispatch the Winnipeg Jets, who sported the NHL’s second-best record (and who eliminated the top team, Nashville, in the previous round). With a 2-1 win in Game 5, Vegas beat Winnipeg 4-1 in the series.

[PHT’s Three Stars.]

Quite a few storylines carried over from earlier games in the 2018 Western Conference Final.

As usual, Marc-Andre Fleury‘s work was just about spotless. Fleury won his fourth consecutive game, and he needed to make 30+ saves for the fourth time in a row as well, stopping 31 out of 32 shots.

It says a lot about how excellent Fleury has been that Connor Hellebuyck‘s absorbed all sorts of heat during this series, as Hellebuyck’s rarely allowed bad goals, even amid relative struggles during this third round. Hellebuyck made some key saves down the stretch of Game 5, but it wasn’t enough.

Game 5 felt a little different than Winnipeg’s last few losses because Fleury didn’t need the same Herculean effort during the third period. You can get away with making a bad joke about the Jets running out of gas/fuel, because at least compared to previous pushes, it seemed like Winnipeg sputtered a bit after that Reaves tally.

Winnipeg had generated a shots on goal advantage for six straight periods (the last two of Game 3, all three in Game 4, and the first in Game 5), yet the two teams were tied at 32 shots on goal by the end of this one, as Vegas took the final 40 minutes from that standpoint. You wonder if Fleury’s excellent play truly “broke” Winnipeg, at least once it became clear that they’d need to fight back from another deficit following that Reaves-winner.

The Jets were dominant at times during this series, yet it’s sobering for this mighty group to realize that they didn’t just drop four games in a row … they also failed to grab a single lead after Game 1.

Speaking of remarkable stats, consider this: the Golden Knights still haven’t faced elimination during this Cinderella run. They swept the Kings in the first round, beat the Sharks in six games, and then passed by the Jets in five. Now they’ll get to watch Game 6 of the 2018 Eastern Conference Final to see if the Tampa Bay Lightning advance or if the Washington Capitals force a Game 7 (thus giving Vegas a nice rest advantage, as well).

The Golden Knights may root a little extra for that East series to go the distance if Fleury’s a bit hampered by injury issues, as some speculated during Game 5. Fleury wasn’t bothered enough to allow Winnipeg to get back in the contest, and chances are, he’s not too worried about that right now.

Really, the biggest concern is trying to top Elliotte Friedman’s joke:

Ante up.

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.

Golden Knights one win away from Stanley Cup Final

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The Vegas Golden Knights only need one win to reach the 2018 Stanley Cup Final. Yes, really.

If that wasn’t enough, the Golden Knights also have three cracks at reaching the championship round if they need it. By holding on for a 3-2 win in Game 4, the Golden Knights continued to defy the odds in taking a 3-1 series lead against the mighty Winnipeg Jets.

(Looks through a thesaurus for more “unlikely” options …)

Game 4 felt a lot like Vegas’ Game 3 win, even as the Jets pushed that much harder to flip the script.

[PHT’s Three Stars for Game 4]

Much like in Game 3, the Golden Knights were able to take an early 1-0 lead thanks to their impressive first line. This time around, William Karlsson cashed in on assists from Reilly Smith and Jonathan Marchessault to get that opening goal on the power play during an opening period that inspired some officiating complaints and involved a bloodied Mark Scheifele.

The Jets managed to tie things up 1-1 on a power-play goal of their own (somewhat refreshingly by Patrik Laine, who played a great Game 4 overall), yet that relief would not last long, as Tomas Nosek restored Vegas’ lead once again. Just like in Game 3, the Golden Knights would take a slim lead into the third.

For a significant chunk of the third period, it seemed like Marc-Andre Fleury would drag the Golden Knights through another harrowing barrage of shots on goal by Winnipeg. It was difficult to shake that impression through the first half-or-so of the final frame until a Kane-on-Leighton-like goal from Tyler Myers made it 2-2.

That goal and the Jets’ overall pressure made it seem like we’d see overtime and/or a 2-2 tie in this series.

Instead, Reilly Smith finally added another goal to his assists-heavy playoff points total, and it was a big one. Smith capitalized on a bad break for Dustin Byfuglien to score a semi-breakaway goal that caught Connor Hellebuyck by surprise (and caught him off of his angle):

After that 3-2 tally, Fleury gave a wet willy to any Jets’ comeback attempt, continuing what’s shaping up to be a legendary playoff run by stopping 35 out of 37 shots on goal. This is the third straight game where Fleury has been forced to make at least 30 saves, and he’s won all three, allowing just five goals.

Overall, the Golden Knights succeeded in ways that have been paying off for them for much of the playoffs: sometimes-dominant play from their first line, flourishes of blazing speed, and undeniable opportunism.

But, yeah, it’s also mostly about Marc-Andre Fleury.

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.