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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: Game 2 rebound for Fleury, Golden Knights

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1st Star: Marc-Andre Fleury, Vegas Golden Knights

Other than a power play goal, Fleury rebounded from a Game 1 loss to backstop the Golden Knights to a 3-1 series-evening victory in Game 2 over the Winnipeg Jets. Fleury finished with 30 saves, including 3-1 in the final period to halt any thoughts of a comeback. The Golden Knights have not lost consecutive Fleury starts since March 14-16.

2nd Star: Jonathan Marchessault, Vegas Golden Knights

Marchessault picked up his fifth and sixth goals of the playoffs in the Game 2 win. His first goal extended the Vegas first period lead to 2-0 and his second tally was even bigger. Kyle Connor had cut the Jets’ deficit to 2-1 early in the third period, but 1:28 later it was the Golden Knights forward finishing off a lovely sequence to bring back the two-goal lead.

[Vegas’ Tomas Tatar makes most of opportunity in Game 2]

3rd Star: Nate Schmidt, Vegas Golden Knights

Leading all Vegas blue liners with 23:17 of ice time, Schmidt also blocked two shots and picked up this assist by clearing a loose puck in Fleury’s crease.

Highlight of the Night:

Marchessault’s second goal is a fun one to watch:

Factoid of the Night:

Tuesday’s schedule: Tampa Bay Lightning at Washington Capitals (8 p.m. ET, NBCSN, Capitals lead series 2-0)

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

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

Golden Knights vs. Jets: Three questions facing each team

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Golden Knights

1. Can Marc-Andre Fleury keep this up? After posting a .981 even strength save percentage in the first round, Fleury was a measly .941 against the San Jose Sharks, boosting by a pair of shutouts in Games 1 and 6. The Los Angeles Kings and Sharks did a good job of getting pucks through to Fleury, but the Golden Knights’ shot suppression improved and they’ve allowed an average of 23.9 shots at 5-on-5.

2. Can their even strength scoring improve if Fleury falters? When you have Fleury playing like he has, you can rely on those tight, low-scoring games to get you by in the postseason. But the Winnipeg Jets bring a ferocious offense into the conference finals. Tied for the most goals per game in the playoffs (3.58), it will take another strong defensive play for Vegas to slow the Jets’ offense. The Golden Knights have only averaged 2.9 goals per game through 10 games with 19 of their 29 goals coming at even strength. It’s easy to fall behind against Winnipeg, and they can’t rely on Fleury posting obscene numbers every night.

3. Will Vegas be able to prevent the Jets getting to the net? Two images tell the story. The first is how unsuccessful the Sharks were at getting in close on Fleury:

Now we have what the Jets did against the Predators:

(Via NaturalStat Trick)

San Jose managed just four even strength goals around the net while Winnipeg basically bought real estate in front of Pekka Rinna. There are enough big bodies on the Jets roster that they’ll be able to create and find space in and around Fleury’s net. That could cause Vegas plenty of trouble.

Jets

1. How effective will Mark Scheifele be against William Karlsson? “Wild Bill” had a year that could have ended with a seat at the Selke Trophy party, but he was not named one of the finalists. His 43 regular season goals earned him some love, but his two-way game was certainly overlooked. He’ll likely have the big challenge of slowing Scheifele, who leads all players with 11 goals.

2. Will the penalty kill step up? Fortunately for the Jets’ shorthanded unit, Vegas’ power play has only been okay through two rounds, clicking at 17.5 percent. But Winnipeg’s penalty kill hasn’t been much to write home about with a 74.2 percent success rate. The Golden Knights are already showing a need to produce on power play scoring with 7 of their 29 goals coming with the extra man. Averaging only 2.9 goals per game, if Vegas can’t get their power play going, that will cause them plenty of issues in this series.

3. Can depth carry them through? Scheifele, Blake Wheeler and Paul Stastny led the Jets offensively in the second round, but contributions also came through from Brandon Tanev (three goals), Kyle Connor (six points) and Nikolaj Ehlers (four assists), among others. Ten different forwards recorded a point and seven scored a goal against the Predators. Vegas may not have enough to stop the waves coming over the boards that Paul Maurice has at his disposal. Also keep in mind that Patrik Laine has one goal in his last 10 games. He’s due for a breakthrough.

MORE:
NHL Stanley Cup Playoffs 2018: Conference Finals schedule, TV info
NBC’s Stanley Cup Playoff Hub

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Sean Leahy is a writer forPro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line atphtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @Sean_Leahy.

Jets face quick turnaround to host Vegas in Western finals

NASHVILLE, Tenn. (AP) — The Winnipeg Jets only got a few hours to celebrate the biggest victory in franchise history.

The Jets finished off the Presidents’ Trophy-winning Nashville Predators 5-1 in Game 7 of their second-round series Thursday night, then quickly headed home to prepare for the opener of their first ever Western Conference final Saturday night.

”It’s too bad one of us had to be knocked off here,” Jets captain Blake Wheeler said. ”But night’s like tonight, you try to really soak it in and enjoy it. And then, wake up and get ready for a big game on Saturday.”

The Jets will be hosting the upstart Vegas Golden Knights in a conference final nobody predicted.

Upstart Winnipeg was swept in its only previous playoff appearance since leaving Atlanta for Canada in 2011. The Golden Knights, meanwhile, are dragging their debut season deep into the NHL calendar.

”We know what they bring, we know that they’re good, that they maybe surprised a few teams, but not really,” Jets center Paul Stastny said. ”They had 109 points. In a sense they play like us, they have a lot of depth, and they can roll four lines, and they have good, puck-moving D. So we’re going to have our hands full for sure.”

Stastny had one of two Winnipeg goals 2:06 apart in the first period to chase Vezina Trophy finalist Pekka Rinne for the third and final time in their series. Stastny finished with two goals and an assist, and Mark Scheifele finished with two goals, giving him a postseason record seven road goals in a single series .

Tyler Myers also scored. Wheeler and rookie Kyle Connor each added two assists, and Jets goalie Connor Hellebuyck, who improved to 4-0 coming off a loss this postseason, made 36 saves to outduel Rinne in the showdown between Vezina Trophy finalists.

”A year in a goalie’s life makes such a big difference,” Jets coach Paul Maurice said of his 24-year-old goalie. ”In the third period, I think had one bobbled puck that got away from him, but everything else after that he was knocking it to the corner, he was clearing the front. He looked calm.”

This was the first Game 7 for the Winnipeg/Atlanta franchise, and the Jets dominated the Predators to win in Nashville for the third time in the series. They outskated the Predators and kept the puck on their sticks much of the game, even as Nashville outshot them 21-7 in the third period.

By the time Scheifele scored his record-setting goal into an empty net with 2:33 left, the Jets had left no doubt this was their series.

Now they head back to Winnipeg, where the Jets posted the NHL’s best home record in the regular season. They have a good idea how much this next series means as Canada’s last team still standing and even more special for Winnipeg after the town lost its first NHL team to Arizona.

Wheeler said they’re thrilled their fans get to have a celebration.

”Our fans have been with us filling up our building for seven years and we haven’t always had the most success, but they’ve always been supportive all over the city,” Wheeler said. ”I don’t think I’ve heard a negative comment in seven years. So now, we’re just happy to keep playing for them.”

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

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Conference Finals schedule, TV info
PHT 2018 Conference Finals Roundtable
PHT predicts NHL’s Conference Finals
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Nashville Predators failed to live up to expectations

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The Nashville Predators had it all… until they didn’t.

Coming into the Stanley Cup Playoffs, the Predators seemingly had laid the groundwork for a redemption campaign that would see them travel to the Stanley Cup Final again, and maybe even snag the hardware this time.

They owned the best record in the regular season, possessed the soon-to-be Vezina Trophy winner and trotted out the best defensive corps in the NHL in the opinion of many.

They had the experience. They had tasted the cruelty of losing at the last possible juncture. You have to lose before you can win, right? At least according to sports’ book of unwritten rules.

Nashville had a deep team, capable of scoring, defending and stopping goals — a team bred for success and with a roster chalk full of resumes to back it up — and better than nearly anyone.

Nearly.

Nearly, because on Thursday night the Predators’ season, with all of its expectations, the hopes and dreams and everything they’d learned from a year ago, ceased to exist.

A 5-1 loss in Game 7 of the Western Conference Second Round meant Nashville wouldn’t reach the Final. There would be no redemption. Only questions, tears and hopes vanished.

The first finger to be wagged in a particular direction starts in the crease.

Pekka Rinne‘s Vezina-caliber regular season got lost as Nashville traveled into the playoffs and never really found its way back.

“I feel very much responsible for our season ending at this point,” Rinne said on Thursday after allowing two first-period goals and getting pulled in record-time just 10:47 into the opening frame. “Tough to swallow, tough to understand. I can’t point out anything. Felt good, and no injuries and totally healthy. But total ups and downs throughout the playoffs. The biggest moment of the season, it’s a terrible feeling. You let your teammates down, and that’s what happened tonight. That’s tough to swallow.”

Rinne, 35 and scheduled to be an unrestricted free agent after next season, struggled mightily at times and was on mediocre (save for Game 6) at others.

At Bridgestone Arena, where Nashville had been so good during the regular campaign, Rinne was at his worst, losing three of our in the series — pulled twice (and three times total) — and posting a horrendous .848 save percentage.

Fingers pointed squarely at Rinne alone would be crass, as P.K. Subban adequately pointed out after the game.

“Critics who want to criticize (Rinne) don’t know what they’re talking about,” Subban said as he vehemently defended his goaltender. “I don’t care if they played in the NHL or not. He’s the backbone of our hockey club. He’s one of the main reasons why we’re here. Could we all have been better tonight? Yeah. We didn’t do enough. I felt at times that they had their whole team going; we didn’t. I mean, it comes down to that. I think everybody could have played a lot better, could’ve given more. I’m sick and tired of people always talking about (Rinne).

“He’s the backbone of this team. He’s the reason we’re here. When you talk about top goaltenders in the League, it’s him, it’s (Montreal Canadiens’ Carey) Price, it’s (Tampa Bay Lightning’s Andrei) Vasilevskiy, it’s (Winnipeg Jets’ Connor) Hellebuyck. It’s these guys. You’re lucky to have one of them. We have to look at this as a team and get better as a team. Like I said, we have a lot of time to think about it, rest and recover and be ready to win a championship next year.”

If they do, their whole team will need to show up. Consistently. Like Subban said, the 18 skaters in front of Rinne didn’t hold up their end of the bargain either.

While Winnipeg’s top line showed up in the series — the trio of Mark Scheifele, Blake Wheeler and Kyle Connor combined for 28 points over the series’ seven games — Nashville’s best showed up in spurts, and spurts don’t win series.

“Yeah I mean, it’s a dangerous group over there, you know?” defenseman Ryan Ellis said. “They won for a reason, they’ve got a lot of dangerous players, guys that got 40 goals and 90 points or whatever. So we have to be, as a group, responsible defensively as well as offensively. I mean, Game 7. It’s that close of a (series).”

It was.

But Nashville met its match.

The team came into the playoffs with 117 points in the regular season and a Presidents’ Trophy to show for their efforts. None of that matters though, its place now is only for context when talking about how and why it all went wrong.

In a nutshell, Nashville’s vaunted defense had no answer for Winnipeg’s rocket-fuelled offense. Nashville’s immovable object moved. The team that allowed the second-fewest goals in the regular season allowed the Jets to come into their barn and drop 19 on them to tie an NHL record. When the onslaught began, there was simply no answer to the unstoppable force.

And so it ended.

Predators head coach Peter Laviolette, now 5-3 in Game 7s as a bench boss, didn’t need many words when he offered a simple truth after the game.

“We ran into a good team, and they’re moving on.”

Indeed.

MORE:
NHL Stanley Cup Playoffs 2018: Conference Finals schedule, TV info
NBC’s Stanley Cup Playoff Hub

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