Luca Sbisa

Long-term outlook Winnipeg Jets Laine Connor Hellebuyck
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Long-term outlook for the Winnipeg Jets

With the 2019-20 NHL season on hold we are going to review where each NHL team stands at this moment until the season resumes. Here we take a look at the long-term outlook for the Winnipeg Jets.

Pending Free Agents

The Core

With the exception of Patrik Laine — who they could theoretically extend during the offseason – the Jets locked down most of their core over the years.

Mark Scheifele and Connor Hellebuyck possess two of the “shorter” long-term contracts among that core group, and their affordable contracts run through 2023-24. (Blake Wheeler‘s does, as well, but that’s a little more troubling being that the often-underrated winger is now 33.)

Beyond that Wheeler worry, there’s a lot to like, especially since Wheeler is comfortably the highest paid at $8.25M AAV.

(Actually, Bryan Little‘s contract was troubling from day one, but sadly, he might go on LTIR quite credibly.)

If Kevin Cheveldayoff can extend Laine at a reasonable price, this group could be cost-conscious enough for Winnipeg to even take advantage of other teams possibly facing cap squeezes. It makes me wonder: could the Jets go after another core piece in free agency? Signing, say, Alex Pietrangelo would make them stronger and weaken Central Division rival St. Louis.

Even as a “budget” team, the possibilities are intriguing for the Jets to improve upon their long-term core. That said, improvements might be needed for the Jets to truly soar.

Long-term needs for Jets

It’s remarkable that Hellebuyck (and some star scorers) dragged Winnipeg to playoff contention, because that group was rough this season.

Neal Pionk turned out to be an extremely pleasant surprise, to the point that he might be able to join the core to an extent. And, for sure, Josh Morrissey is a steady presence. But things dry up quite a bit beyond that, and an ideal contender probably would ask less of both of them, particularly Morrissey.

So, can Ville Heinola eventually be a key defender? How will Sami Niku’s development go?

Getting steps in development, overall, is a long-term key for the Jets. Jack Roslovic strikes me as someone who can do more, but he needs opportunities. What, exactly, is Laine’s ceiling? Will the Jets actually boost him up to reach it?

The Jets have to hope that they can mitigate the eventual drop-off for Wheeler, who’s already sinking a bit at 33. (By his standards.)

They could also use some more depth. It’s probably not a coincidence that, year after year (Paul Stastny to Kevin Hayes to even Cody Eakin), they seem to need to burn assets to add 2C and/or 3C help. Laurent Brossoit had a tough season, casting some doubt on the backup position.

I’ll also endlessly wonder if Paul Maurice is all that far above your average coach. But, hey, give the dude credit for being a long-term bench presence even with … meh results more often than not.

Long-term strengths for Jets

The sheer youth of this team is something to get excited about. Laine just turned 22. Kyle Connor seems to be jumping another level at 23, while Nikolaj Ehlers is a transition menace at 24. Hellebuyck is 26, Mark Scheifele is only 27, and Morrissey is 25.

I mentioned possibly pitching a deal at Pietrangelo because the Jets see a lot of space opening up.

Losing Dustin Byfuglien hurts, but his age was making his contract risky anyway. The Jets signing Kulikov furrowed my brow, yet now they can use that money toward … uh, someone good? (Sorry, Kulikov.)

It’s not always easy to lure free agents to Winnipeg, but a) they’ve become a consistent winner and b) might be one of the only winners with cash to burn during the uncertain, upcoming offseason.

That mixture of prime-age talent, solid maneuverability, and a steady-and-solid front office should put the Jets in a solid position to compete for some time. They do need Cheveldayoff to make the right moves to get back at a high level again, as Hellebuyck camouflaged a steep decline — one that quietly brewed even toward the end of 2018-19.

MORE ON THE JETS:

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.

Looking at the 2019-20 Winnipeg Jets

With the 2019-20 NHL season on hold we are going to take a look at where each NHL team stands at this moment with a series of posts examining their season. Have they met expectations? Exceeded expectations? Who has been the surprise? All of that and more. Today we look at the Winnipeg Jets.

Record: 37-28-6 (71 games), fourth in the Central Division, sixth in the Western Conference.
Leading Scorer: Tie between Kyle Connor (38 goals, 73 points) and Mark Scheifele (29 goals, 73 points)

In-Season Roster Moves
• Claimed Luca Sbisa off waivers from Ducks.
• Claimed Nick Shore off waivers from Maple Leafs.
• Acquired Dylan DeMelo from Senators for a 2020 third-round pick.
• Acquired Cody Eakin from Golden Knights for 2021 conditional fourth-round pick.
• Reached agreement to mutually terminate Dustin Byfuglien‘s contract.

Season Overview

Before the Jets even played a 2019-20 preseason game, they lost a big piece. Dustin Byfuglien’s decision to take a leave of absence to contemplate his future ended seven months later with a mutual agreement to terminate the defenseman’s contract. Having already traded away Jacob Trouba and letting Ben Chiarot and Tyler Myers walk in free agency, the blue line took a hit before the puck even dropped.

There were also losses up front when Mark Letestu was ruled out for six months with heart muscle inflammation and Bryan Little suffered a perforated ear drum.

That set a tone for the season as the Jets streaked their way — good and bad — to the first Western Conference wild card spot  at the time of the NHL pause. How much of a roller coaster has it been? The Jets took 28 out of 36 points from November to early December, and then squandered that gained ground with a five-game losing streak and a 3-8-1 skid in January.

Their biggest weapons — Mark Scheifele, Kyle Connor, Patrik Laine, Blake Wheeler, Nikolaj Ehlers — have all led the way offensively. Neal Pionk, who was acquired from the Rangers in the Trouba trade, impressed on defense with positive possession numbers and 45 points. Then you have Connor Hellebuyck, a heavy Vezina Trophy frontrunner, who also deserves some Hart Trophy consideration. The netminder leads the league in shutouts (6), even strength save percentage (.927) and 5-on-5 shots against (1,530).

Entering the NHL break on a four-game winning streak gave the Jets hope that they were peaking at the right time. They’re two points behind the Stars (Dallas has two games in-hand) and were doing a good job of staving off teams like the Predators, Canucks, and Wild, who are right on their heels.

Highlight of the Season

A new extension and on the verge of 40 goals — it’s been a pretty good season for Kyle Connor:

MORE JETS:
Biggest 2019-20 surprises, disappointments
Long-term outlook

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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.

Marchand fights Ehlers after big hit in nasty Bruins-Jets game

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The Boston Bruins beat the Winnipeg Jets 2-1 in a nasty affair on Friday. Brad Marchand fighting Nikolaj Ehlers after Ehlers landed a huge hit was the highlight, but far from the only violent moment.

(Watch that series of escalating events in the video above.)

Violence extended beyond Ehlers – Marchand

Again, the violence wasn’t limited to Ehlers vs. Marchand. People dusted off boxing glove emojis for three fights in the second period. Overall, the teams combined for 74 penalty minutes.

Brandon Carlo also fought Gabriel Bourque:

Also, Luca Sbisa dropped the gloves with Karson Kuhlman:

You’d expect this kind of animosity between division or at least conference rivals. Instead, the Bruins and Jets rarely meet. Maybe that’s for the best for everyone’s teeth, knuckles, and brains.

Mayhem overshadows Rask return

The Jets often charge Connor Hellebuyck with saving the day, but they can’t blame Friday’s starter Laurent Brossoit for the loss. In this case, Tuukka Rask was up to the task, making 37 saves as Boston won despite Winnipeg’s 38-25 shots on goal advantage.

Special teams ended up being the biggest difference, beyond a successfully returning Rask. While the Jets squandered their power-play opportunities (0-for-6), the Bruins scored both of their goals on the man advantage (2-for-4).

It’s tempting to wonder if Brad Marchand wanted a little pest’s attention, what with all of the attention going Matthew Tkachuk’s way. Instead, it just seemed like Marchand was enraged by a big, hard hit by Ehlers. Oh well, if you cannot always get the juiciest narratives, at least there’s the carnage of all of those fights.

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’ second act shaping up to rival first

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LAS VEGAS — Shea Theodore and Alex Tuch had to have faith.

When the Vegas Golden Knights decided to send them to the minors at the start of last season, Theodore and Tuch chose to believe what general manager George McPhee told them.

”The message was that we were part of the future of this team and he definitely saw us in that long-term plan,” Theodore said.

Within weeks, they were back in the NHL as part of the fastest-starting expansion team in history and played significant roles in the Golden Knights’ run to the Stanley Cup Final in their inaugural season. Each player got a long-term contract before he played his first game this season, and they weren’t alone as McPhee went about the process of turning Vegas from a one-year wonder into a perennial title contender.

He locked up 75-point forward Jonathan Marchessault through 2024, signed face-of-the-franchise goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury to a three-year extension, inked defenseman Nate Schmidt to a six-year contract that begins next season, signed center Paul Stastny as a free agent and acquired big winger Max Pacioretty in a trade with Montreal. Those moves have paid off so far with Vegas five points back of first place in the Pacific Division and looking like its second act could rival its first.

”We have a couple guys signed long term, and it’s fun because it means that we have a core and we’re building something,” Marchessault said. ”You want to be part of a story as a hockey player, and it feels like we’re part of one here.”

The Golden Knights’ story was a fairy tale: A team that looked on paper like it would be among the worst in the league won its division and steamrolled to the final before losing to McPhee’s former team, the Washington Capitals, in five games. Marchessault said he felt in June like this team could be a legitimate threat for years to come.

McPhee’s job was to ensure that. The veteran executive who got to build the Golden Knights from scratch through a wildly successful expansion draft understood he had the benefit of not having to dig out from bad contracts. But he also shouldered the burden of drawing up a whole host of new ones after one season during which seemingly everyone overachieved.

”We did have a lot of work to do because most of the guys that we acquired were either free agents or were on one-year deals and their deals had matured and it was time to negotiate again,” McPhee said. ”And we just thought, we know what they are, we’re comfortable projecting what they will be in the future and we had the cap space, so why not use it now because cap space is like perishable inventory. If you don’t use it, it’s gone at the end of the year. We just wanted some cost certainty moving forward, so it would help us to plan for things better in the future.”

Fleury got $7 million a year, Schmidt, $5.95 million, Theodore, $5.2 million, Marchessault, $5 million and Tuch, $4.75 million. Fleury leads the NHL with 26 wins, Schmidt has played over 23 minutes a game since returning from suspension, Theodore leads Vegas defensemen with 21 points and Tuch and Marchessault are 1-2 on the team in scoring.

Beyond cost certainty, it was money smartly spent to keep morale up, raise expectations and get bang for owner Bill Foley’s buck.

”When you have a guy believe in you like that, sign you to that kind of a term, you don’t want to make him look bad and I think every night you want to go out and you want to play your best,” said Theodore, who is under contract through 2025. ”I think it’s been paying off for us and hopefully will in the future.”

Even though only wingers James Neal and David Perron and defenseman Luca Sbisa aren’t back from the core group that went to the Cup final, McPhee couldn’t stand pat and think success would repeat itself. He consciously added Stastny, Pacioretty and Nick Holden to replace the lost production and provide an influx of talent.

”When you’re a couple games away from winning, I think you’ve got to try and do whatever you can,” Schmidt said. ”You have to add something in order to beat the best teams.”

The way Pacioretty looks at it, McPhee wasn’t scanning the aisles. He was shopping off a specific list. They weren’t part of the playoff run – Stastny was on the Winnipeg Jets team that Vegas beat in the Western Conference final – but brought some more balance.

”They wanted guys like me and Stas to come in and play a little bit of a two-way game,” Pacioretty said. ”That’s how we want to help our team. We know that especially offensively that this team last year had guys who were relied upon every night to create. And we still want to be those guys coming in, but we also know that there’s areas on both sides of the puck that we can help this team.”

Injuries have hampered Pacioretty and Stastny so far, but they and the Golden Knights will really be judged in the playoffs. After falling three victories short of a championship, players feel like they have what it takes to win this time and for years to come.

”As our owner said at the beginning of the year, we just don’t want to be a winning team. We want to have a winning franchise,” Marchessault said. ”Last year we really felt like we have something special, and we have some unfinished business.”

Follow AP Hockey Writer Stephen Whyno on Twitter at https://twitter.com/SWhyno

More AP NHL: https://apnews.com/NHL and https://twitter.com/AP-Sports

Best remaining free agents by position

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Most of the big money has already been spent in free agency. Names like John Tavares, James van Riemsdyk, Paul Stastny and James Neal have all found new homes. Although there aren’t many big names left on the market, there are still some quality players left that can help make a team better.

Here’s the best of the rest by position:

Center

Joe Thornton: Everyone expects Thornton to return to San Jose, but as of right now he’s still an unrestricted free agent. The 39-year-old is coming off a knee injury. He had 13 goals and 36 points in 47 games last season. Thornton isn’t the same player he once was, but he can still be a complementary piece on a good Sharks team.

Antoine Vermette: The veteran isn’t as productive as he once was, but there’s still likely going to be in demand over the next couple of days. The 35-year-old had just eight goals and eight assists in 64 games with Anaheim last season.

Daniel Winnik: The 33-year-old plays a very specific kind of role, as he’s an energy forward and penalty killer. Winnik had six goals and 23 points in 81 games with Minnesota last year. There probably won’t be a rush to sign the veteran, but he can still be a useful asset. He’s also capable of playing center and wing.

As you can probably tell, the center market is pretty thin.

Wing

Rick Nash: He’s the only 20-goal scorer left on the market now that James Neal has landed in Calgary. The  problem is that the 34-year-old isn’t sure if he wants to keep playing hockey. Nash suffered another concussion after he joined the Bruins, so that’s got to be weighing on him and his huge decision.

Patrick Maroon: The rugged winger split last season with Edmonton and New Jersey and he remained relatively productive, as he accumulated 17 goals and 43 points in 74 games. There probably would have been more interest in his services if he wouldn’t have had to undergo back surgery this offseason. Maroon will still find a nice landing spot in the next few days.

Anthony Duclair: Since he scored 20 goals and 44 points back in 2015-16, Duclair’s career has been a bit of a disappointment. The Coyotes gave him every opportunity to succeed after they got him from the Rangers, but things just never materialized. The 22-year-old was shipped to Chicago last season, but that didn’t help ignite his career either. But he’s still young and a team should roll the dice on his upside.

Defense

Calvin de Haan: The 27-year-old isn’t an offensive juggernaut by any means, but he’s on the right side of 30 and he’s fully capable of serving as an effective number four or five defenseman on a solid team. De Haan was limited to just 33 games last season, but he played in 82 contests the year before that.

Luca Sbisa: Like de Haan, Sbisa also missed a significant amount of time last year. The 28-year-old had two goals and 14 points in 30 games with the Golden Knights. Sbisa is a bottom-pairing defenseman that is capable of moving the puck a little bit.

Dan Hamhuis: The 35-year-old is a defensive defenseman that averaged over 20 minutes of ice time with Dallas last season. He had three goals and 24 points in 80 contests last season, which isn’t awful considering the style he plays.

Alexei Emelin: The Russian blueliner went from being Shea Weber‘s defense partner in Montreal two years ago to being a bottom-pairing defender in Nashville. Emelin doesn’t give his team much when it comes to offense or moving the puck up the ice, but he’s a hard-nosed defender that can lay people out.

Goalies

Steve Mason: After signing with the Jets last season, Mason was moved to the Montreal Canadiens late last week. The Habs, who had a ton of cap space, opted to buy out the netminder, so that’s why he’s on the market right now. The 30-year-old had a rough year in Winnipeg. He was plagued by injuries and never really settled into his new city. Some added playing time will do him some good.

Robin Lehner: At 26 years old, Lehner still has time to develop into the number one goalie many expected him to be, but he’s going to have to do it soon. He had a 14-26-9 record with a 3.01 goals-against-average and a .908 save percentage with Buffalo last season. Playing on a decent team could benefit him in a big way.

Kari Lehtonen: His days of being a big money goaltender are over. The 34-year-old hasn’t posted decent numbers in a while, so he’s more of a backup netminder at this point of his career. Finding his next home won’t be easy given his recent performances and age.

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.