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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.

Golden Knights one win away from Stanley Cup Final

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The Vegas Golden Knights only need one win to reach the 2018 Stanley Cup Final. Yes, really.

If that wasn’t enough, the Golden Knights also have three cracks at reaching the championship round if they need it. By holding on for a 3-2 win in Game 4, the Golden Knights continued to defy the odds in taking a 3-1 series lead against the mighty Winnipeg Jets.

(Looks through a thesaurus for more “unlikely” options …)

Game 4 felt a lot like Vegas’ Game 3 win, even as the Jets pushed that much harder to flip the script.

[PHT’s Three Stars for Game 4]

Much like in Game 3, the Golden Knights were able to take an early 1-0 lead thanks to their impressive first line. This time around, William Karlsson cashed in on assists from Reilly Smith and Jonathan Marchessault to get that opening goal on the power play during an opening period that inspired some officiating complaints and involved a bloodied Mark Scheifele.

The Jets managed to tie things up 1-1 on a power-play goal of their own (somewhat refreshingly by Patrik Laine, who played a great Game 4 overall), yet that relief would not last long, as Tomas Nosek restored Vegas’ lead once again. Just like in Game 3, the Golden Knights would take a slim lead into the third.

For a significant chunk of the third period, it seemed like Marc-Andre Fleury would drag the Golden Knights through another harrowing barrage of shots on goal by Winnipeg. It was difficult to shake that impression through the first half-or-so of the final frame until a Kane-on-Leighton-like goal from Tyler Myers made it 2-2.

That goal and the Jets’ overall pressure made it seem like we’d see overtime and/or a 2-2 tie in this series.

Instead, Reilly Smith finally added another goal to his assists-heavy playoff points total, and it was a big one. Smith capitalized on a bad break for Dustin Byfuglien to score a semi-breakaway goal that caught Connor Hellebuyck by surprise (and caught him off of his angle):

After that 3-2 tally, Fleury gave a wet willy to any Jets’ comeback attempt, continuing what’s shaping up to be a legendary playoff run by stopping 35 out of 37 shots on goal. This is the third straight game where Fleury has been forced to make at least 30 saves, and he’s won all three, allowing just five goals.

Overall, the Golden Knights succeeded in ways that have been paying off for them for much of the playoffs: sometimes-dominant play from their first line, flourishes of blazing speed, and undeniable opportunism.

But, yeah, it’s also mostly about Marc-Andre Fleury.

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.

Mark Scheifele bloodied, penalized (Video)

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Just about any group of hockey/sports fans probably believes that officials are out to get them at some point. Such feelings only intensify during high-profile moments like the 2018 Stanley Cup Playoffs, so the Winnipeg Jets are getting their taste during their first deep run.

To be specific, the Jets were left fuming during the first period of Game 4 (watch it on NBCSN now and stream it live here).

Winnipeg probably wasn’t very happy with Tyler Myers getting penalized on a hit on Ryan Carpenter, which drew the game’s first penalty, opening the door for William Karlsson connecting on a great Jonathan Marchessault pass for a 1-0 power-play goal.

Update: After Vegas’ eventual 3-2 win (more here), Tyler Myers expressed his anger about the Carpenter call.

“It was a [expletive], weak call,” Myers said, via TSN’s Frank Seravalli. “They were whistle happy at the start, then they put them away in the third. It didn’t change the outcome of the game, but it’s hard to play when you don’t know [the line].”

While Jets fans accused Carpenter of diving before that PPG, Jets coach Paul Maurice just about blew a gasket when Mark Scheifele received a retaliatory penalty for slashing Brayden McNabb. It’s tough to blame the Jets for getting angry, what with Scheifele being bloodied by the exchange. More than a few people think that the exchange should have at least prompted matching minors.

(Watch Scheifele’s righteous anger in the video above this post’s headline.)

As of this writing midway through the second period, the penalties swung the Jets’ way, either by merit, thanks to the controversy/Jets outrage, or possibly some combination of the two. Patrik Laine cashed in on a power-play opportunity, but the Golden Knights quickly regained their one-goal lead with a 2-1 goal by Tomas Nosek. The Golden Knights continue their remarkable run of quick responses to what would seem to be tide-turning goals for Winnipeg.

Nikolaj Ehlers drew another penalty moments ago, so the plot may only thicken … and maybe Golden Knights fans will take their turn to feel aggrieved?

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.

Five stunning numbers from the NHL conference finals

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The four teams still playing in the 2018 Stanley Cup playoffs are not only great teams, they are all experiencing some all-time great performances on both an individual and team level.

Let’s take a look at some crazy numbers.

1. Scheifele’s goal-scoring: We already know that Winnipeg Jets forward Mark Scheifele has set an NHL record for most road goals in a single playoff run (11) but he is also having one of the great goal-scoring outputs overall. With 14 goals in the Jets’ first 15 games he is averaging 0.93 goals per game in the playoffs, one of the highest marks in league history. Among players that have played in at least 14 playoff games in a single season that would put him ninth all-time. What is extra impressive about that is the fact that his performance is the only one in the top-15 that came after 1992. Twelve of the others all came between 1975 and 1992 when goal-scoring in the NHL was happening at a far higher rate than it does now. The only other recent players in the top-20 are Johan Franzen‘s 2007-08 performance (13 goals in 16 games) and Alex Ovechkin in 2008-09 (11 goals in 14 games).

2. The Fleury wall: Scheifele has even managed to get a couple of pucks behind Vegas goalie Marc-Andre Fleury, something that everyone else has struggled with mightily this postseason as he carries a .945 save percentage into Friday’s Game 4. Among goalies that have appeared in at least 12 playoff games in a season only three have ever finished with a save percentage that high: Jonathan Quick (.946) in 2011-12, Patrick Lalime (.946) in 2001-02, and Jean-Sebastien Giguere in 2002-03. Quick and Giguere ended up winning the Conn Smythe Trophy in their seasons. Giguere did so in a losing effort in the Stanley Cup Final.

[Related: These playoffs belong to Marc-Andre Fleury]

3. Tampa Bay and Washington’s power plays are unstoppable: Special teams have been the story of the Eastern Conference Final with the Capitals and Lightning both boasting exceptionally dangerous power play units. Entering Game 5 of the series in Tampa Bay on Saturday, the Lightning power play is clicking at 30.8 percent in its first 14 playoff games. The Capitals are at 28.6 percent. How impressive are those numbers? Among teams that have played in at least 14 playoff games the Lightning’s mark is the second-best all-time, trailing only the 1980-81 New York Islanders (37.8 percent), while the Capitals is sixth best. Of the four other teams in the top-six, three of them went on to win the Stanley Cup.

4. The Capitals offense: It is not just the power play where the Capitals are filling the net. They are doing it in every situation to the tune of 3.56 goals per game. Since the start of the 2000-01 season only two teams with at least 10 playoff games have averaged more, as both the 2009-10 Vancouver Canucks and Detroit Red Wings averaged 3.58.

5. Ovechkin and Kucherov the best in the business: Earlier we noted the great individual postseason goal-scoring performance from Scheifele. When it comes to career goal-scoring, though, Alex Ovechkin and Nikita Kucherov are the top players going when it comes to playoff goal scoring. Among active players that have appeared in at least 50 career playoff games they are first and second in the league in goals per game. Ovechkin is first at 0.50 goals per game (56 goals in 113 games) while Kucherov is just behind him at 0.49 (29 goals in 59 games).

Data via Hockey-Reference and NHL.com

Related: Conn Smythe Trophy Power Rankings

MORE:
• 
Conference Finals schedule, TV info
• 
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.

Fleury, secondary scoring biggest issues facing Jets

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After scoring three goals in the first 10 minutes of the Western Conference Final against the Vegas Golden Knights, the high-powered Winnipeg Jets offense has been pretty much completely shut down with only four goals in the 170 minutes that have followed.

That has helped put them into a 2-1 series hole entering Friday’s Game 4 in Vegas.

It is not quite yet “must-win” territory for the Jets, but avoiding a 3-1 series deficit and sending the series back to Winnipeg as a best-of-three would obviously be preferable for them.

Finding a way to make that happen is going to be the problem because there are a couple of issues right now facing the Jets, and they are somewhat related. One is impacting the other.

First is the fact that their secondary scoring has dried up a little bit over the past few games.

Going back to their second-round series against the Nashville Predators the Jets have scored 12 goals in their past five games, which is not exactly a great number. Even worse is that seven of those goals have come from just two players, Mark Scheifele (five) and Paul Stastny (two).

A lot of the support players — and core players — that have made the Jets offense such a dominant force this season have gone cold.

Patrik Laine has two goals in his past 12 games. After missing Game 3 to an unknown ailment Nikolaj Ehlers‘ status for Game 4 is not yet known, and he is still searching for his first goal of the playoffs. Kyle Conner has one goal in five games. Captain Blake Wheeler is still piling up assists, but has not score a goal in seven games. In all of their cases it is not for a lack of effort, especially in this series. They are still getting shots, still getting chances, still generating pressure and doing a lot of the things that should be leading to more goals.

In their past two games against Vegas — both losses — the Jets averaged 68 total shot attempts and 25 scoring chances per 60 minutes of 5-on-5 play (via Natural Stat Trick). Those numbers are exactly in line with what they have been doing for the entire postseason when they were lighting up the scoreboard and looking like an unstoppable force.

[Related: These playoffs belong to Marc-Andre Fleury]

That brings us to the other problem facing the Jets at the moment: The goalies get paid a lot of money, too, and right now they are going up against one that is playing at an almost unbelievable level.

There is nothing in the sport that can swing a playoff series in one team’s favor like the performance of a goalie. Right now the Jets are running into the same problem that the Los Angeles Kings and San Jose Sharks faced before them — they simply can not solve Marc-Andre Fleury.

Fleury was probably the biggest difference in Game 3 on Wednesday night and held off a ferocious Jets third period rally by making 15 saves, including a pair of diving highlight reel saves on Scheifele when the Vegas goalie seemed to be completely down and out.

At this point it’s not really an issue of “solving” Fleury. He is a 14-year NHL starter that has played 865 games in the NHL (regular season and playoffs). At this point there is nothing new to discover about him. His strengths and weaknesses are known and well established. Sometimes a goalie just gets into a zone and is seeing everything, stopping everything, and finding way to make impossible saves … and when they are not, every single break or bounce seems to go their way. They can run hot and cold, and when a goalie like Fleury gets into one of those hot phases there really is not much an opposing team can do except keep firing pucks and hoping that it finally breaks through.

As simplistic as it sounds, that might be the Jets’ best approach — and hope — at this point. Keep doing what you are doing and hope for the best. The process is sound. They are doing the right things and a lot of the same things they were doing earlier in the playoffs and during the regular season. They have just run into the wrong goalie at the wrong time and there may not be an adjustment that is going to matter as long as he keeps playing the way he is.

MORE:
• 
Conference Finals schedule, TV info
• 
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.