Getty

How Jets can continue to contend

5 Comments

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.

The Jets built Cup contender by drafting, developing talent

AP Images
3 Comments

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

Golden Knights – Jets gets physical: Reaves sends Wheeler into bench

The first period of Game 1 ended with an exchange that felt like a hockey clash of the titans, as Ryan Reaves got into a physical exchange with Dustin Byfuglien.

In an ideal world for the Vegas Golden Knights, such a battle would consume Byfuglien’s attention. After all, the red-hot roving defenseman scored the 1-0 goal very early into Game 1, helping the Winnipeg Jets storm off to a 3-0 lead. The Golden Knights cut the lead down to 3-1 as the first period ended, but that required some big saves from Marc-Andre Fleury, who’s been beyond-busy so far to start this intriguing, unlikely 2018 Western Conference Final.

[CLICK HERE TO WATCH LIVE]

Reaves’ presence in the Golden Knights lineup can be a matter of debate, but if he can get a single Jets star off his game, it might be worth it. That’s especially true considering the way this contest started, as it seems like Vegas is tasting its own medicine a bit as Winnipeg’s shown speed, skill, and clever passing to create a slew of dangerous chances.

If Reaves and other Golden Knights can buy a retaliatory penalty or two, that might be key. You could argue Jacob Trouba‘s late penalty might have been an example of this thought process.

Reaves’ biggest and most memorable moment of the opening frame came when he sent Jets captain Blake Wheeler into the Golden Knights bench. Wheeler seems fine – and mad – but took quite a bit of time to make his way out of there.

Video of that entertaining moment can be seen above this post’s headline. Here it is in GIF form, as well:

MORE:
• Conference Finals schedule, TV info
• PHT 2018 Conference Finals Roundtable
• PHT predicts NHL’s Conference Finals
• 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 vs. Golden Knights: PHT’s Western Conference Final preview

NBC
1 Comment

If you were to tell me your Western Conference Final pick at the start of the season would have involved the Winnipeg Jets and the Vegas Golden Knights the only logical response would be to tell you that you are a rotten liar and nobody believes you.

A first-year expansion team. A team that until this season had never won a single postseason game and had made the playoffs just once in the previous 10 years. Each on their own an improbable success story this season. Yet here they are together, each just four wins away from a completely unexpected trip to the Stanley Cup Final.

It may not be the matchup we expected at this point, but given the way these two teams play and are built it could be a fast-pace, back-and-forth series. They both have great offenses, they both have great goalies, and they both offer an incredible storyline with Vegas trying to reach the Stanley Cup Final as a literal expansion team, and the Jets trying to bring Winnipeg its first ever Stanley Cup.

Here is how the matchup looks as the series begins on Saturday night.

Schedule

Saturday, May 12, 7pm: Golden Knights @ Jets | NBC
Monday, May 14, 8pm: Golden Knights @ Jets | NBCSN
Wednesday, May 16, 9pm: Jets @ Golden Knights | NBCSN
Friday, May 18, 8pm: Jets @ Golden Knights | NBCSN
*Sunday, May 20, 3pm: Golden Knights @ Jets | NBC
*Tuesday, May 22, 9pm: Jets @ Golden Knights | NBCSN
*Thursday, May 24, 8pm: Golden Knights @ Jets | NBCSN

Offense

Jets: The Jets have been one of the top offensive teams in the league over the past two years and are absolutely loaded with top-line talent. Then they added to at the trade deadline by picking up Paul Stastny from the St. Louis Blues, and he has been absolutely incredible in the playoffs. The scary thing about them right now in the playoffs? They are still scoring goals and really haven’t gotten Patrik Laine (three goals in 12 games) and Nikolaj Ehlers (zero goals in 11 games) going yet. They have front-line talent, they are deep, they are fast, they have skill. They pretty much have it all up front.

Golden Knights: Even though they had a bunch of players have great years — including a couple of career years — they don’t really have the superstar individual talent the Jets have. That doesn’t mean they are not a threat. They are fast, they play fast, and they don’t really have a glaring weakness as pretty much all four of their lines is legitimate first or second line NHL quality. No matter who is on the ice they can hurt you. They got a lot of help from the NHL’s other general managers in the expansion draft process (Hello, Jonathan Marchessault, Reilly Smith, Erik Haula, Alex Tuch, David Perron, and William Karlsson) and they were able to take advantage of that by building an exciting, fast team that head coach Gerard Gallant has been more than happy to turn loose. The most dangerous thing about them? They never let up depending on the score.

Advantage: The Jets, but it is close. These are two of the top-five offenses in the league and they can both go three-and four-lines deep when it comes to getting balanced scoring. The Jets get a little bit of an edge because they have more of the front-line superstar talent that can take over a game (Laine and Mark Scheifele specifically).

Defense

Jets: They’ve been missing some key players at different times this postseason, but this is a pretty good unit with Dustin Byfuglien, Jacob Trouba, and Tobias Enstrom leading the way. Byfuglien is the one that is playing truly outstanding right now  with 13 points in 12 games and logging more than 26 minutes of ice-time per night. So much was made of their offense during the season it was maybe easy to overlook the fact they were also a top-five team in goals against.

Golden Knights: Entering the season this was probably expected to be the weakest part of the Golden Knights’ roster, and while a lot of their goal prevention success comes from the goaltending they did do an excellent job during the season of limiting shots and chances against. A lot of the young players (Nate Schmidt, Shea Theodore, Colin Miller) have taken a pretty big step forward right away. Still, the goaltending is what drives this team defensively and they’ve actually given up quite a bit of shots in the playoffs.

Advantage: The Jets. These are two of the three best goal prevention teams in the playoffs (and the other team in the top-three only played four playoff games … so let’s just say they are the two best) but the Jets have the higher end talent and I don’t think they are as dependent on their goalie to keep teams off the board as the Golden Knights have been.

Goaltending

Jets: The Jets were probably good enough as a team to make the playoffs in recent years more than they have only to be completely sabotaged by bad goaltending. This year they finally had the goaltending to go with everything else and it has not only made them a great team, it has made them what is right now the leading favorite to win the Stanley Cup. Connor Hellebuyck finally solidified the position and turned in a performance that earned him a top-three spot in the Vezina Trophy voting.

Golden Knights: Then there is Marc-Andre Fleury. He has been downright dominant all season for Vegas and has to be considered the front-runner for the Conn Smythe Trophy at this point. For a few years in Pittsburgh he was objectively one of the least productive playoff goalies in the NHL and probably the biggest liability standing in front of his own team. The past few years, however, he has probably been his team’s greatest strength in the playoffs.

Advantage: Golden Knights. Another close one, but this one probably goes to Vegas. Hellebuyck got a top-three spot in the Vezina Trophy voting but Fleury could have easily been there alongside him had he not missed so much time due to injury earlier in the year.

Special Teams

Jets: The Jets’ power play has been lethal in the playoffs, converting on 25 percent of its chances, continuing what was a strong regular season performance. They were also a top-10 team on the penalty kill during the season but have seen that number drop a bit in the playoffs.

Golden Knights: Vegas’ power play has been very hit-and-miss this postseason. It has had games where it has dominated (a 3-for-10 game in Game 1 against the Sharks; a 2-for-6 game later in the series) but has also had lengthy stretches without scoring. Their penalty kill has been one of the best units in the playoffs, though a lot of that probably comes from the fact they also have the best goalie in the playoffs.

Advantage: The Jets, simply because their power play has been a bit more consistent and they might be able to get to Fleury and the Vegas penalty kill in a way that the Kings and Sharks were totally incapable of doing. The Jets are by far the most talented team Vegas will have faced this postseason.

X-Factors

Jets: Nikolaj Ehlers has become one of the key building blocks for the Jets organization, and even though he just turned 22 years old a few months ago already has a pair of 25-goal seasons in the NHL on his resume. He is an outstanding player but has been mostly quiet for the Jets this postseason, having yet to find the back of the net. If the Jets can get him going along with everyone else there may be no stopping them.

Golden Knights: Like Ehlers with the Jets, David Perron has been a huge part of Vegas’ success this season, and like Ehlers has yet to score a goal in the playoffs. His line is still producing (he does have seven assists, after all) but he has managed just eight shots on goal in eight games. He has another level he can get to offensively.

Prediction

Jets in 6. Vegas’  year one success has been one of the most improbable stories in North American sports history, but this is where it comes to an end. The Jets are going to be by far the best team they have played in the playoffs and will present a challenge unlike the ones San Jose and Los Angeles presented (they 11th and 12th best teams in the league, giving Vegas what was by far the easiest path to the Conference Finals round). The Jets are just on a roll right now and look like they can carry that all the way to the Stanley Cup Final.

MORE:
• Conference Finals schedule, TV info
• PHT 2018 Conference Finals Roundtable
• PHT predicts NHL’s Conference Finals
• 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.

Bruins should target a Rick Nash upgrade in free agency

Getty
18 Comments

Unfortunately for the Boston Bruins, Rick Nash was … well, Rick Nash during the 2018 Stanley Cup Playoffs.

Fair or not, the typical narrative stuck. Nash generated a mountain of scoring chances (39 shots on goal in just 12 games), but connected on precious few, finishing with three goals and two assists for five points. It says a lot about his career-long playoff woes that his 7.7 shooting percentage during this run was actually a bit better than his career mark of six percent.

[NBC’s Stanley Cup Playoff Hub]

Nash is far from the only player outside of the first line (Brad Marchand, Patrice Bergeron, David Pastrnak) who fell short of the mark, but he stands out as being a guy who’s unlikely to return considering his expiring contract. Whether they bounce back or not, guys like David Krejci and David Backes are locked down through 2020-21.

[Lightning eliminate Bruins in Game 5]

Ultimately, Bruins GM Don Sweeney should look to free agency and ask himself: “Who can give us a little more than Rick Nash and other depth players?”

An unclear window

The Bruins deserve a ton of credit for drafting and developing some real gems in Pastrnak, Jake DeBrusk, and Charlie McAvoy. Even so, the Bruins are powered by some players whose windows of dominance could start to close. Brad Marchand will turn 30 on May 11. Krejci and Bergeron are both 32. Backes is 34. Zdeno Chara is still somehow a top pairing defenseman at 41.

Some aging curve questions are scary, and doubling down with a free agent can be really scary. That said, you never know when your window will close as a contender; the Bruins would be wise to take their best shots over the next season or two.

Intriguing wingers

The Bruins could very well get a younger version of Nash in some free agents who bring some size and skill to the table.

There’s a decent chance that Evander Kane will not hit the market, but if he does, the Bruins could conceivably be a good fit considering all of the veterans they have on hand. Kane isn’t the only interesting option, either.

James van Riemsdyk stands out as one of the more interesting fits. While there’s some risk that JVR could be the next Bobby Ryan (a consistent 20+ goal guy who was once cheap who could then sign an albatross deal), but the American winger has shown that he can score, even when he’s receiving minimal ice time. That said, van Riemsdyk is already 29 and hasn’t always been the most prolific playoff point producer, either.

Like Kane with the Sharks, it’s unclear if James Neal or David Perron will be back with the Vegas Golden Knights, but both are interesting considerations for Boston. Neal could add even more snarl to a lineup that already includes Backes and Marchand, not to mention his ability to score goals with remarkable consistency. Perron, meanwhile, would be the slicker option, and possibly the cheaper one?

Centers

Let’s get this out of the way first: any team with a shot at John Tavares should do what it takes to make it happen, even if it calls for creative trades. The Bruins are no exception, though it’s tough to image Tavares wearing the spoked B.

Another tough-to-imagine scenario: the return of Joe Thornton. That would be fun, though, wouldn’t it?

Now, the Nash example calls more for winger comparisons, but who’s to say that the Bruins wouldn’t dip into the market for a mid-level center? Such a gameplan could be fruitful if management believes that Krejci could be liberated by a Claude Giroux-style move to the wing, or more advantageous matchups as a third-line center. Among other ideas.

Paul Stastny would be intriguing.

He’s not the sexiest scorer, but Stastny is a strong two-way player. It’s tough to imagine the Jets being able to afford re-signing him considering that they’re going to have to give big raises to Connor Hellebuyck, Jacob Trouba, and Patrik Laine going forward. There’s quite a bit of risk with Stastny being 32, but he makes some stylistic sense, too.

The funniest idea

Hey, Leo Komarov is a pending UFA, and he obviously has chemistry with Marchand …

(Ideally) cheaper options

Generally speaking, NHL teams are better off exploiting the bargain bin instead of taking big swings. The Bruins have seen that firsthand, as the Backes deal is one they’d almost certainly want to take back. Many of the above ideas are expressed while realizing that, eventually, those contracts will probably be a headache.

Boston may instead be better off going short-term or cheaper, possibly with more than one signing.

Patrick Maroon‘s value should be interesting to follow. Will a team overpay for a big guy who can score a bit, or will his solid work with New Jersey go under the radar?

The Bruins might be better off going after Maroon or fellow short-time Devil Michael Grabner. Thomas Vanek is another interesting consideration. While he’s become a notably one-dimensional player, Vanek showed that he can really boost a team’s offense. In a specialist role, Vanek might excel, and the Bruins should keep an eye on him if the market is tepid.

***

Look, players usually hit free agency in the NHL for a reason. These are players who, for whatever reason, end up being deemed expendable.

The Bruins and other teams must look at free agency as finding the cherry on top, rather than some cure-all. Rick Nash fell short of that mark, but maybe one of these options could make the difference?

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.