Connor Hellebuyck

Previewing the 2019-20 Winnipeg Jets

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(The 2019-20 NHL season is almost here so it’s time to look at all 31 teams. We’ll be breaking down strengths and weaknesses, whether teams are better or worse this season and more!)

For more 2019-20 PHT season previews, click here.

Better or Worse: Far worse.

Losing Jacob Trouba hurts, and the defense also waved goodbye to Tyler Myers and Ben Chiarot (with addition Neal Pionk arguably being a net negative). Kevin Hayes was clearly a rental, but either way, they once again have a 2C problem with him gone.

Strengths: Assuming the Jets sign RFAs Patrik Laine and Kyle Connor, Winnipeg still boasts some serious firepower on offense. It’s tough to shake the feeling that we didn’t see the best out of that forward group at times in 2018-19. Mark Scheifele and Blake Wheeler produced enough to overlook some possession numbers that were at-times middling, but it was a frustrating year for Laine, while Nikolaj Ehlers hopes to shake off a brutal playoff series where he went pointless.

Weaknesses: Dustin Byfuglien and Josh Morrissey are quality defensemen, but that defense group is troubling overall — at least when you’re trying to endure the rigors of a tough Central Division. The Jets could really struggle in their own end, especially if last season’s expected goals nosedive was a sign of a new normal, rather than just a blip on the radar.

Troublingly, it’s not certain that Connor Hellebuyck will bail them out of mistakes; he was fabulous in 2017-18, but then fell back down to Earth with a .913 save percentage last season. It’s unclear if Hellebuyck can bail the Jets out if their defense ends up being as weak as feared.

[MORE: Three questions | X-factorUnder Pressure]

Coach Hot Seat Rating (1-10, 10 being red hot): Normally, I’d lean almost toward 10, but Paul Maurice is some kind of coaching vampire. The dude’s somehow been consistently a head coach since 1995-96, even though team success has often been fleeting. You’d think the calls for his head would have been even louder considering how the Jets’ play plummeted basically once the calendar hit 2019.

Money Puck’s month-to-month expected goals chart really captures that meltdown dramatically:

Yikes.

When you look at the Jets on paper, you expect more than we saw in 2018-19. How much is that on the players underachieving (or bad luck), and how much does it boil down to a coach who … frankly, hasn’t accomplished enough to make you think “that guy should be a head coach for decades.”

Because Maurice is nearly indestructible, let’s bump that 10 down to an 8 or 9. Turn on the microwave if Laine, Connor, and/or Dustin Byfuglien miss a chunk of the early season and the Jets really sink, though.

Three Most Fascinating Players: Laine, Connor, and Byfuglien.

In the cases of Laine and Connor, they remain RFA situations to watch. They’ll also carry a ton of pressure if they get paid more than people believe they’re worth. These are two players with quite a bit to prove already, and may only bring higher expectations with fatter wallets.

Byfuglien, meanwhile, is fascinating under almost all circumstances — a true anomaly of a player. Humans this large aren’t supposed to be able to rove like Byfuglien can, and he’s a truly unique combination of skill and nastiness. At his size and his age (34), it’s fair to wonder when Byfuglien might buckle under the burden of what will likely be a heavy workload post-Trouba and Myers.

Playoffs or Lottery: As gifted as Winnipeg’s top-end players are, it feels like they’re more likely to fight for a wild-card spot or Central second/third seed than run away with the division, conference, or Presidents’ Trophy. This team had serious problems toward the end of last season, and it’s unclear if they’ve solved them, particularly after losing important players like Trouba.

Even considering some of the red flags, it would be a surprise if the Jets missed the playoffs altogether, though.

MORE:
• ProHockeyTalk’s 2019 NHL free agency tracker
• Your 2019-20 NHL on NBC TV schedule

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.

When will Jets sign Laine, Connor?

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Each day in the month of August we’ll be examining a different NHL team — from looking back at last season to discussing a player under pressure to identifying X-factors to asking questions about the future. Today we look at the Winnipeg Jets. 

Let’s ponder three questions facing the Jets:

1. When will the team sign Patrik Laine and Kyle Connor?

Want to dominate headlines and sports radio in a Canadian market during the offseason? Simply wait to sign a new contract.

While a lot of attention has been on Mitch Marner’s situation in Toronto, it’s Laine and Connor who’ve taken center stage in Winnipeg.

Both are restricted free agents without new deals as training camp fast approaches. On one hand, it’s not all that surprising given the landscape with RFAs at the moment. Laine and Connor are just two names on a long list of big-ticket players who’ve played the waiting game with their respective teams.

But in a hockey-mad city, it’s led to a lot of speculation, fuelled further by the posturing that naturally arises.

It’s unlikely that either play anywhere but Winnipeg next year, but when will they play among the highest concerns. The Jets need to sort out some things in their top six in training camp, and both Laine and Connor are fixtures in that group.

For their success this season, they need both signed before camp begins.

2. How will the team fair on defense?

Some context: Take a middle-of-the-pack blue, subtract one of your top-pairing defenders and two veteran depth pieces and what are you left with?

The answer? Who knows.

Losing Jacob Trouba, Tyler Myers and Ben Chiarot in one offseason is going to hurt any team. Losing them all in the span of a couple of weeks? Ouch.

Even if Myers and Chiarot aren’t premier blueliners, it still stings when half of your defensemen are their traded or leave in free agency.

The Jets couldn’t afford to keep Myers or Chiarot — and they’re better off for it based on what those two are making. Trouba, meanwhile, seemed destined to leave since he demanded a trade three years ago.

[MORE: 2018-19 review | X-factorMaurice under pressure]

Regardless of the reasons, the Jets are left with a very unproven bunch outside of Josh Morrissey and Dustin Byfuglien. Nathan Beaulieu re-upped with the team after being acquired at the deadline and showed well when Morrissey missed a big chunk of time down the stretch due to injury.

Neal Pionk, who came Winnipeg’s way in the Trouba deal with the New York Rangers remains a mystery. Dmitry Kulikov is a stop-gap and the team will have to employ someone, likely Sami Niku, in a bigger role this season.

The dust will settle in training camp, but there’s a lot of questions needing answers on the back end.

3. Will Connor Hellebuyck return to his Vezina finalist form?

Hellebuyck went from finishing as a runner up to Pekka Rinne for the Vezina in 2017-18 to being outplayed by his backup a season later.

All of Hellebuyck’s stats took a downturn, from his five-on-five save percentage dropping 11 points from .931 to .920, his overall save percentage dropping from .924 to .913, along with decreases in his high-danger save percentage.

And then there are his goals save above average, which went from being above average at 2.16 in 2017-18 to well below it in 2018-19 at -6.91.

No one saw more shots than Hellebuyck at five-on-five, a testament to Winnipeg’s poor play in front of him, especially in the second half of the season.

With questions on the blue line coming into this season, Hellebuyck will be up against it to rebound from a down year.

MORE:
• ProHockeyTalk’s 2019 NHL free agency tracker
• Your 2019-20 NHL on NBC TV schedule


Scott Billeck is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @scottbilleck

It’s Winnipeg Jets Day at PHT

Each day in the month of August we’ll be examining a different NHL team — from looking back at last season to discussing a player under pressure to identifying X-factors to asking questions about the future. Today we look at the Winnipeg Jets. 

2018-19
47-30-5, 99 points (2nd in the Central Division, T-4th in the Western Conference).
Playoffs: Eliminated in Round 1 by the St. Louis Blues in six games.

IN
Neal Pionk
Gabriel Bourque
Anthony Bitetto
Mark Letestu

OUT
Jacob Trouba
Kevin Hayes
Ben Chiarot
Matt Hendricks (retired)
Tyler Myers
Marko Dano
Nic Kerdiles
Joe Morrow
Brandon Tanev
Par Lindholm
Bogdan Kiselevich

RE-SIGNED
Laurent Brossoit
Seth Griffith
Andrew Copp
Cameron Schilling
Nathan Beaulieu
Logan Shaw
C.J. Seuss
J.C. Lipon

[MORE: Three questions | X-factorMaurice under pressure]

2018-19 Season Summary

As NHL teams headed out to enjoy the Christmas break last December, the Jets were sitting pretty. They had just won 11 of their previous 13 games and were atop the Central Divison, four points ahead of the Nashville Predators.

The winning ways continued into February, but the success slowed down and some real concerns started bubbling up. Patrik Laine, whose early season was highlighted by a hat trick in an NHL Global Series game in his home country of Finland and a five-goal performance three games later, saw his goal scoring come to a halt. After scoring 18 goals in the month of November, the sniper only scored nine times in the team’s final 58 games. The penalty kill’s success dropped 5% and Connor Hellebuyck, coming off a season that saw him a finalist for the Vezina Trophy, couldn’t find consistency.

As Scott Billeck pointed out following the Jets’ playoff exit, there was 19-day stretch in February where the Jets lost twice to the Senators, twice to the Avalanche, and once to the Canadiens, Coyotes and Wild. Let’s not forget about some major injuries as well. Dustin Byfuglien missed 34 games due to a pair of ankle injuries. Josh Morrissey was out 20 games after taking a hit up high.

Despite a 99-point season, the Jets just didn’t feel like a team that was going to make noise in the playoffs. Something was just off.

The Jets finished with five fewer wins and 15 fewer points in 2018-19 than 2017-18. They banked enough points early on to help them remain in the dog fight for the Central Division title, which could be claimed by the Predators by a single point. The Stanley Cup playoff experience would be a short one as they were knocked out by the eventual champion Blues in six games sending them into the summer with questions.

What is Laine’s future? The forward was not happy about his year and remains a restricted free agent as September arrives. The Jets have $16M in cap space to re-sign him and fellow RFA Kyle Connor, who was second on the team with 34 goals. Will general manager Kevin Cheveldayoff go the bridge route with one or both? Will the negotiations bleed into training camp and even the regular season? Can Laine regain his scoring touch and can Connor build off a second straight 30-goal campaign?

The Central is once again shaping up to be one of, if not the toughest division in the NHL. The Jets can’t afford another disappointing season, otherwise there will be the desire for big changes. Will they be able to live up to their potential and make a run in the Western Conference?

MORE:
• ProHockeyTalk’s 2019 NHL free agency tracker
• Your 2019-20 NHL on NBC TV schedule

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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.

How will Winnipeg Jets fill out their roster?

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Of all the 31 teams in the NHL, the Winnipeg Jets have the second highest amount of cap space remaining at this point. Only the Avalanche have more money available than Winnipeg’s $22.872 million, but that cushion won’t last much longer.

The Jets have already lost Jacob Trouba, Ben Chiarot and Tyler Myers on defense, and they still need to re-sign restricted free agents Patrik Laine and Kyle Connor. On the surface, it seems like they have a lot of money to do so, but they also only have seven forwards and six defenders under contract right now. Neal Pionk, who they acquired from New York in the Trouba deal, is also a restricted free agent.

Losing Chiarot and Myers isn’t the end of the world, but replacing them with Nathan Beaulieu, Sami Niku, Pionk or Tucker Poolman isn’t ideal. Finding someone to step in for Trouba will be nearly impossible. The 25-year-old logged over 22:53 of ice time during the regular season and he had 50 points in 82 contests.

So it’s difficult to envision Winnipeg being better on defense this year.

Even if general manager Kevin Cheveldayoff re-signs forwards Connor, Laine and Andrew Copp, that would still only put him at 10 forwards on the active roster. That means he’d have to sign two more fourth-line players and at least one extra body. That’s not going to be easy considering Laine and Connor will likely cost somewhere in the neighbourhood of $15 million or $16 million.

If you add salaries for Pionk and Copp and you consider that a lot of the quality free agents have already been signed, you quickly realize that Cheveldayoff doesn’t have a ton to work with right now.

This is the difficult part of being in the salary cap world. It hurts less to dismantle your team piece by piece when you have a Stanley Cup to show for it. But the Jets haven’t won anything, and they’re already being forced to pick their roster apart because the talent they’ve drafted and developed is starting to get too expensive.

“I’ve got a very big plate,” Cheveldayoff said last month, per the Winnipeg Sun. “It seems like every summer, that question gets asked and the next summer is always the most important one. But that’s the truth. The opportunities and the work that we have in front of us is real important. We’ve got a lot of work that needs to be done with exceptional players that we’ve drafted and are a big part of our organization and a big part of our future. So, this summer will be the most important one, until the next one.”

[ProHockeyTalk’s 2019 NHL free agency tracker]

Assuming that Laine and Connor each make over $6 million per year, that would give the Jets five forwards at that price or higher. Add Dustin Byfuglien‘s $7.6 million cap hit and Connor Hellebuyck‘s $6.166 million cap hit, and it’s easy to see why they’re in such a difficult spot cap-wise.

They also have to consider that Byfuglien and Poolman are the only two defenseman they have under contract beyond next season. They’ll have to make important decisions on Dmitry Kulikov and they’ll have to find a way to pay Josh Morrissey once he becomes a restricted free agent next summer. So it’s not just about icing a competitive roster in 2019-20, it’s also about setting yourself up financially going forward.

The Jets still have so much quality on their roster, but can this group find a way to go on another long playoff run?

MORE:
Examining different lengths, contract routes for Laine, Jets

Joey Alfieri is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @joeyalfieri.

Schwartz stuns Jets, completing Blues’ comeback in dying seconds

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These two teams finished with nearly identical records in the regular season, so it seems appropriate that almost every game in this series has been decided by a razor thin margin. This one was no different, though it had an extra element to it as the Blues surged to a 3-2 comeback win over Winnipeg in Game 5 to take a 3-2 series lead.

The Blues found themselves chasing almost immediately. Winnipeg’s Adam Lowry scored just 12 seconds into the game, exciting the hometown crowd, which started a “you look nervous” chant at Blues rookie goaltender Jordan Binnington. Only the netminder wasn’t rattled.

Binnington held firm and while he did surrender a second goal, this time to Kevin Hayes, later in the period, he kept the Blues in this game early. A lot of credit also has to go to the Blues for their killing of a double minor to Robert Thomas midway through the first, preventing this game from getting away from them.

All the same, the Jets maintained their 2-0 lead for most of the contest. It wasn’t until 1:29 of the third period that the Blues finally got on the board thanks to a power-play goal by Ryan O'Reilly. He fired the puck in front of the net off a rebound, ending what had been until that point a shutout bid for Connor Hellebuyck.

Even after that, the period wasn’t all Blues. Winnipeg actually led in shots in the final frame 9-8, but the Blues continued to find ways to capitalize. Their comeback wasn’t without intrigue either. Brayden Schenn‘s game-tying goal needed to be reviewed because the net was dislodged at the same time the puck went in. Ultimately it was ruled as a good goal because Jets defenseman Dustin Byfuglien pushed St. Louis’ Oskar Sundqvist into the net, which is what dislodged it.

The comeback was completed with just 15 seconds to spare on a goal by Jaden Schwartz.

With that, the home team has lost every game in this series and four of the five contests have been decided by just one goal. Even with how close this series has been, this contest had a different tone to it thanks to the dramatic comeback. It will be a tough pill for the Jets to swallow, but they have to bounce right back to avoid elimination in Game 6.

Blues-Jets Game 6 from Enterprise Center will be Saturday night at 7:00 p.m. ET on NBCSN

Ryan Dadoun is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @RyanDadoun.