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Jets tweak defense for Game 5 vs. Vegas

As “stay the course” as Paul Maurice’s message seemed with the Winnipeg Jets facing elimination in Game 5, he’s making quite a few lineup changes against the Vegas Golden Knights.

In particular, their defense will look quite different. Ben Chiarot and Toby Enstrom are being replaced by Joe Morrow and Dmitry Kulikov (pictured). On the offensive side, Joel Armia is returning to the lineup in place of Andrew Copp.

While this might feel like swapping lower-end parts (especially in Armia taking Copp’s spot), it’s worth noting that Morrow is likely to pair with Dustin Byfuglien on what is technically Winnipeg’s first duo, so these changes could make a difference. They also shine a spotlight on the gulf in talent between Winnipeg’s left and right sides on defense.

Winnipeg will ask the two returning defensemen to shake off some significant rust. Morrow, 25, hasn’t played since April 20 during the Minnesota Wild series. Kulikov, 27, has been sidelined and/or scratched since March 8.

No pressure.

At least Morrow’s already contributed a big goal during the 2018 Stanley Cup Playoffs:

Game 5 is about to air on NBC (at 3 p.m. ET). You can also stream the action live here.

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Patience pays off for Jets in building Stanley Cup contender

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If their five meetings from the regular season are any indication of what is to come, the Nashville Predators and Winnipeg Jets are probably going to pummel each other over the next two weeks in what looks to be the best matchup of the 2018 Stanley Cup Playoffs.

They finished the season with the top two records in the league, while the Predators won the season series by taking three of the five games, with all of them being tight, fierce, chaotic contests that saw Nashville hold a slight aggregate goals edge of just 22-20.

They really could not have played it any closer.

They are both outstanding teams. They are evenly matched. The winner will almost certainly be the heavy favorite to represent the Western Conference in the Stanley Cup Final no matter who comes out of the Pacific Division bracket.

For as similar as their results on the ice were this season, the teams have taken two very different paths to reach this point.

The Predators have been a consistent playoff team in recent years, and while they have a strong core of homegrown talent (Roman Josi, Viktor Arvidsson, Mattias Ekholm, Ryan Ellis, Pekka Rinne, etc.), a large portion of this team has been pieced together through trades, including two of the biggest player-for-player blockbusters in recent years. They also made the occasional big free agent signing. They traded for Filip Forsberg. They traded Shea Weber for P.K. Subban. They traded Seth Jones for Ryan Johansen. They traded for Kyle Turris. They signed Nick Bonino away from the Pittsburgh Penguins. They have been bold and aggressive when it comes to building their roster.

On the other side, you have the Winnipeg Jets, a team that has been the antithesis of the Predators in terms of roster construction.

Since arriving in Winnipeg at the start of the 2011-12 season the Jets, under the direction of general manager Kevin Cheveldayoff, have taken part in one of the most patient, slow, methodical “rebuilds” in pro sports, and in the process demonstrated a very important lesson of sorts.

Sometimes it pays to do absolutely nothing at all.

[NBC’s Stanley Cup Playoff Hub]

On the ice, the Jets have been a mostly mediocre team since arriving in Winnipeg, continuing the tradition the franchise had established for itself during its days as the Atlanta Thrashers. Before this season they made the playoffs once in six seasons in Winnipeg and were promptly swept in four straight games (just as they were in their only playoff appearance in Atlanta).

They were never among the NHL’s worst teams, but they were also never good enough to be in the top-eight of their conference. They were mediocrity defined.

The lack of success was at times baffling because it’s not like it was a team totally devoid of talent. It also at the same made complete sense because the single biggest hurdle standing in front of them was the simple fact they never had a competent goaltender or one true superstar to be a difference-maker.

In other words, they were basically the Canadian version of the Carolina Hurricanes.

What stands out about the Jets’ approach is they never let the lack of success lead to overreactions. We have seen time and time again in the NHL what overreactions due to a lack of success can do to a team. It can lead to core players being traded for less than fair value. It can lead to teams throwing good money at bad free agents and crippling the salary cap for years to come. It can lead to a revolving door of coaching changes. When all of that works together, it can set a franchise back for years.

The Jets did none of that.

Literally, they did none of it.

They have had the same general manager since 2011-12 even though before this season he had built one playoff team.

Despite their lack of success when it came to making the playoffs, they have made just one coaching change, replacing Claude Noel with Paul Maurice mid-way through the 2013-14 season.

Just for comparisons sake, look at how many coaching changes other comparable teams have gone through over that same time frame. Buffalo is on its fifth coach (and third general manager). Dallas will be hiring its fourth coach this offseason since the start of 2011-12. Calgary, after the hiring of Bill Peters on Monday, is on its fourth coach. Florida is on its fifth.

You want significant roster changes? Well, there has not been much of that, either. At least not in the “roster move” sense.

The Jets never tore it all down to the ground and went for a full-on rebuild. It took Cheveldayoff four years on the job before he made a single trade that involved him giving up an NHL player and receiving an NHL player in return. Even since then he has really only made one or two such moves.

There are still five players on the roster left over from the Atlanta days — Blake Wheeler, Tobias Enstrom, Bryan Little, Dustin Byfuglien, and Ben Chiarot, who was a draft-pick by the team when it was Atlanta — even though it has now been seven years since they played there. The fact so many core players still remain from then is perhaps the most surprising development given how much the team has lost during that time.

How many teams would have looked at the team’s lack of success and decided that it just had to trade a Blake Wheeler? Or a Dustin Byfuglien? Or a Bryan Little? Or a Tobias Enstrom? Or, hell, all of them? You see it all the time when teams don’t win or lose too soon in the playoffs or don’t accomplish their ultimate goal. At that point a core player just has to go. Have to change the culture, you know? Have to get tougher and make changes. The Blackhawks got swept in the first-round a year ago and decided they had to trade Artemi Panarin to get Brandon Saad back because they had won with him before. The Oilers were a constant embarrassment and decided they just had to trade Tayor Hall and Jordan Eberle to help fix that. Montreal just had to get rid of P.K. Subban.

The Jets, to their credit, recognized that their core players were good. They were productive. They were players they could win with if they could just find a way to add pieces around them and maybe, one day, solve their goaltending issue. The only significant core players the Jets have traded over the past seven years have been Andrew Ladd and Evander Kane. Ladd was set to become an unrestricted free agent when he was dealt at the trade deadline two years ago and a split between the Jets and Kane just seemed like it had to happen at the time of his trade.

They have also refrained from dipping their toes into the free agent market.

You know what happens when you avoid free agency? You don’t get saddled with bad contracts that you either have to eventually buy out, bury in the minor leagues, or give up valuable assets to get rid of in a trade. Free agents, in almost every instance, are players that have already played their best hockey for another team, and you — the new team — are going to end up paying them more money than their previous team did. It is not a cap-friendly approach.

Only one player on the Jets’ roster is set to make more than $6.2 million over the next two years (Byfuglien makes $7 million). The only players on the roster that were acquired via NHL free agency are Matthieu Perreault, Matt Hendricks, Steve Mason and Dmitry Kulikov.

Mason and Kulikov, who combine to make $8 million the next couple of seasons, are probably the only bad contracts on the roster, and both are off the books within the next two years. Oddly enough, both were signed before this season. Neither has made a significant impact.

Looking at the Jets’ playoff roster you see how this team has been pieced together.

  • Five players were leftovers from the Atlanta days (where three of them — Enstrom, Little, Chiarot — were drafted by the team then).
  • Only four players — Myers, Joe Morrow, Joel Armia and Paul Stastny — were acquired by trade.
  • Hendricks, Perreault, and Mason are the only players to have appeared in a playoff game that were acquired as free agents (Perreault — due to injury — and Hendricks have played in one each; Mason played one period in the first round).
  • The rest of the team, 12 players, were all acquired via draft picks.

So what did the Jets do well to get? Focus on the latter point there. They kept all of their draft picks, they hit on their important draft picks, and they got a little bit of luck in the draft lottery at the exact right time to allow them to get the franchise player — Patrik Laine — that they needed.

This is where the Jets have really made their progress, and it is not like they did it by tanking for lottery picks.

Between 2011 and now the Jets have picked higher than ninth in the NHL draft just two times. Only once did they pick higher than seventh. NHL draft history shows us that there is usually a significant drop in talent and expected production between even the second and eighth picks. No matter where the Jets have picked in recent years they have found NHL talent — top talent — with their first-round picks.

They got Mark Scheifele seventh overall in 2011. He is a core player and among the top-four goal scorers and point producers in the NHL from his draft class.

They got Jacob Trouba ninth in 2012. He is also a core player and a top-pairing defender.

Josh Morrissey was the 13th pick in 2013.

Nikolaj Ehlers was the ninth pick in 2014 and is the third highest point producer and goal scorer from that class.

In 2015 they picked Kyle Connor (one of the top rookies in the NHL this season) at 17 with their own selection, then got forward Jack Roslovic at 25 with the pick they acquired in the Kane trade.

The next year in 2016 they had the ping pong balls go their way to get Laine at No. 2 and had another first-rounder (Logan Stanley) as a result of the Ladd trade.

They pretty much not only hit on every first-round draft pick they had between 2011 and 2016 (Stanley is the only one of the eight not currently on the team) but in most of the cases probably got more than the expected value from that pick.

When you combine that with a core that already top-end talent like Wheeler, Byfuglien, Enstrom, and then finally give them competent goaltending you have the force that the Jets have become this season.

Will this sort of approach work for everybody? Probably not (and if I’m being honest, I was highly critical of the Jets’ approach on more than one occasion over the years), and it requires an owner and general manager that has an almost unheard of level of patience in professional sports to stick with it. And let’s face it, sometimes you do need to make changes. I’m not advocating for say, the New York Islanders, to just keep letting Garth Snow do whatever it is he is doing. And maybe the Jets would have been a playoff team sooner had they made a better effort to find a goalie, for example. You also need to have a little bit of luck when it comes to the draft.

But there are still some important lessons that the rest of the NHL can take from the Jets’ patient approach, especially when it comes to keeping your good players even when times get tough, and not thinking that all of the answers to your problems are available on July 1 when everyone acts like they have a blank check to sign whoever they want.

A few years ago Maple Leafs blog Pension Plan Puppets jokingly asked who had a better first day of free agency, then-general manager Dave Nonis, or a potato. The joke being that the potato had a better day because it was an inanimate object that couldn’t do something dumb. I don’t mean this is an insult to Cheveldayoff, but the Jets for the past seven years have basically been the potato in the sense that they just sat back and did nothing except keep their good players, keep their draft picks, and not sign overvalued players in free agency.

If you do nothing, you can’t mess up.

Today, the Jets might actually win a Stanley Cup because of it.

Hockey really is funny sometimes.

————

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.

PHT Morning Skate: Two NASCAR drivers will honor Humboldt victims

Welcome to the PHT Morning Skate, a collection of links from around the hockey world. Have a link you want to submit? Email us at phtblog@nbcsports.com.

• Up top, check out the highlights from last night’s tilt between the Ducks and Sharks.

• After a couple of so-so years, Pekka Rinne really elevated his game this season. This might be the best version of Rinne we’ve ever seen. (ESPN)

Joe Morrow didn’t cost the Jets much at the trade deadline, but he came up big in Game 1 of their series against the Minnesota Wild on Wednesday night. (NHL.com)

• Devils GM Ray Shero gave Taylor Hall one year to move on from the fact that he was traded away from Edmonton. It took Hall the entire year, but he certainly seems to have adjusted to his new surroundings. (SI.com)

• The Washington Capitals haven’t generated a ton of shots, but does the quality of their shots really make up for that? (faceoffcircle.ca)

• Goaltending is so important in the Stanley Cup Playoffs, and there’s a few teams that have question marks at the position. (Featurd)

• What will 2018-19 NHL jerseys look like? Well, we know that third jerseys will be returning after one year off, but don’t expect the standard home or away jerseys to change too much. (Icethetics)

• Team USA captain Meghan Duggan has joined NBC Sports Boston’s coverage of the Bruins’ Stanley Cup run. (NBC Sports Olympics)

• Russia’s hockey coach, Oleg Znarok stepped down from his position just one month after winning gold at the Olympics. (Associated Press)

• Nascar Drivers Michael Annett and DJ Kennington will pay tribute to the Humboldt Broncos during this weekend’s race. (NBC Sports Nascar)

• Check out the highlights from last night’s game between the Blue Jackets and Capitals:

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.

The Buzzer: Historic first night of 2018 Stanley Cup Playoffs

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Three games on the first night

Penguins 7, Flyers 0 (Penguins lead series 1-0)

Jake Guentzel, Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin lit the scoreboard on fire in Game 1, while Matt Murray shut the door in a lopsided victory for Pittsburgh. The Flyers must do some soul-searching even beyond dealing with the question about who to go with in net. The Pens began their bid for a “threepeat” with style on Wednesday.

Jets 3, Wild 2 (Jets lead series 1-0)

Devan Dubnyk almost stole Game 1 for the Wild, as he kept Minnesota in the game despite a 40-20 shots on goal edge for Winnipeg. Ultimately, Joe Morrow ended up being the unlikely hero for the Jets, who won their first-ever playoff game in this incarnation of the franchise (since the Atlanta Thrashers days).

Golden Knights 1, Kings 0 (Golden Knights lead series 1-0)

Vegas, baby. Game 1 seemingly fell into the Kings’ hands as it was a nasty, grinding affair. It didn’t matter. The Golden Knights protected a 1-0 lead generated just minutes into the contest, and they seemed right at home with the physicality. The expansion Golden Knights won their first playoff game on their first try. Amazing stuff.

3 Stars

1. Jake Guentzel, Penguins: Sidney Crosby deserves a ton of credit for his hat trick, and he’ll likely draw most of the attention for Pittsburgh’s startlingly one-sided win over Philly. Guentzel actually scored more points, though, grabbing a goal and three assists. Guentzel also collected an assist on the game-winner, while Crosby’s hat trick fattened a lead from 4-0 to 7-0.

Nitpicky? Sure, but that’s how you split hairs when it comes to picking the three best players of the night. If you insist, consider Guentzel and Crosby 1a and 1b.

2. Marc-Andre Fleury, Golden Knights: “MAF” stopped all 28 of the Kings’ shots in Game 1, and he had to, as Vegas won 1-0. This marks the 11th postseason shutout for “The Flower,” placing him in select company.

3. Matt Murray, Penguins: Matt Murray and Jake Guentzel are both generating reputations for turning things up a notch when the playoffs kick into gear. Things didn’t always go smoothly for Murray during the regular season, but he remains tough to beat in the postseason. He finished the 2017 Stanley Cup Final with two consecutive shutouts and kept his streak going through Game 1. Scroll down the page for more context on Murray’s rare run.

MISC.

  • Shea Theodore scored the first playoff goal in Vegas Golden Knights history, and he didn’t take long to do it, putting Vegas up 1-0 in Game 1 just 3:23 into the contest.

  • The Flyers’ in-net implosion stole the attention from a weird moment from Game 1, as the puck split apart:
  • There’s some concern for the Winnipeg Jets, as Mathieu Perreault left the game with an upper-body injury and did not return. No word yet on how serious the issue might be. Not good for a player who helps them make such a deep, scary team.
  • Ilya Bryzgalov kindly offered his services to a Flyers team with some goalie headaches.

Factoid of the Night

Thursday’s schedule

Lightning vs. Devils, 7 p.m. ET – NHL Network
Bruins vs. Maple Leafs, 7 p.m. ET – NBCSN
Capitals vs. Blue Jackets, 7:30 p.m. ET – USA
Predators vs. Avalanche, 9:30 p.m. ET – NBCSN
Ducks vs. Sharks, 10:30 p.m. ET – USA

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 overcome Dubnyk for first playoff win

For the first time in Atlanta Thrashers – Winnipeg Jets history, this team won a playoff game. Doing so was as hard as that previous sentence made it seem.

Devan Dubnyk was truly fantastic for the Minnesota Wild in Game 1, keeping them in the game despite Winnipeg generating a 40-20 shots on goal advantage. Ultimately, a game-winning goal by unlikely hero Joe Morrow helped the Jets grind out a 3-2 win to take a 1-0 series lead.

[NBC’s Stanley Cup Playoff Hub]

That Morrow goal might have been a rare moment Dubnyk would want back:

Technically, the previous incarnation of the Winnipeg Jets won playoff games, but this is a special accomplishment for a team many expect to be one of the best teams of the 2018 Stanley Cup Playoffs.

While Dubnyk had a great night, you could see how Minnesota might struggle to steal wins from the high-octane Jets in this series, as the Wild didn’t put much pressure on Connor Hellebuyck despite emptying their net with far more than two minutes remaining in the third period.

That said, it’s worth noting that the Wild actually briefly took the lead. After entering the final frame down 1-0, Matt Cullen and Zach Parise made it 2-1 during a dizzying span four minutes into the third. Less than a minute later, Patrik Laine reminded hockey fans why he’s such a difference-maker, tying things up 2-2 in his first playoff appearance. Morrow then got that game-winner late in regulation.

***

With Ryan Suter on the shelf, the Wild are heavy underdogs. To that extent, they might not be too shaken by being down 1-0 in this series.

That said, these are the types of games an underdog might steal. Dubnyk nearly did that, while Matt Dumba also saw a great effort come up short, as the young defenseman logged a whopping 30:03 of ice time, easily the most of any skater in Game 1.

Bruce Boudreau will probably need to ask them to churn out similar work in Game 2 and beyond, which could be quite the ask. In a weird way, a close 3-2 loss for Wild might actually sting more than the Flyers getting decimated 7-0 by the Penguins in their own Game 1, even if Philly will be far more embarrassed.

Ultimately, Minnesota most hope that Game 1 is how this series looks, only with the Wild coming out on top going forward. If Winnipeg’s work tonight is any indication, that won’t be easy to accomplish.

Game 2 will take place on Friday on USA Network.

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.