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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.

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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.

Flying under the radar: Kyle Connor’s rookie season has been quietly impressive

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Tucked away behind Blake Wheeler’s career season, Patrik Laine’s 43 goals and Connor Hellebuyck’s Vezina-type season is Kyle Connor’s impressive rookie campaign.

I’d be open to suggestions, but you’d be hard-pressed to show me another rookie having a more impressive season than Connor is that is also seemingly flying under the radar in the National Hockey League.

Up until about week ago, no one outside of Winnipeg was talking about the former Hobey Baker runner-up. And there’s a good reason for that given that Laine was doing things that, historically, no teenager had ever done.

“Everything goes under the radar when you play for Winnipeg,” Jets captain Blake Wheeler this past Tuesday. “He’s been one of the huge X-factors for our team. Him stepping into our lineup and contributing at the rate he’s contributed at, it’s a huge reason why we sit where we are today. He was a got that you had high hopes for coming into the year, but obviously a little bit of a question mark. You didn’t really know what you were going to get. He’s taken the opportunity that he’s got this year and done a great job.”

Connor, like he has all season, just carried on working in the shadows of others. Piling up the goals until there was no choice but to take notice at what he’s doing.

Connor’s 28 goals are just one goal back of Brock Boeser for the rookie goal-scoring lead, something that Connor should surpass before the end of the season given his recent success in that department. He’s second the Jets with five game-winners.

“It’s nice to have the coach have confidence in you,” Connor said. “To be able to go out there and try to make something happen and get a chance for game-winnernner.”

Connor is picking up 1.8 primary points per 60 minutes played and his goals-per-60 is sitting at 1.3.

He also has a little streak going for himself, with two overtime goals in the Jets past two games, becoming the second rookie ever to accomplish the quirky feat.

And he’s done so by using his speed to create space for himself in open ice.

There’s not much of a case to be made for Connor and the Calder — that belongs to Mathew Barzal. But Connor should be in the conversation, if only for the recognition of what he’s done.

Unlike the Barzals, the Boesers and the Kellers and the Gourdes, Connor didn’t begin the season with the big club. Instead, the 21-year-old former Michigan Wolverine didn’t make the grade for the opening day roster out of training camp. He was just mediocre. And with a team oozing with offensive talent, mediocre wasn’t going to cut it.

Connor, banished to the Manitoba Moose of the American Hockey League, played four games for the Jets farmhand, collecting three goals and five points, before his stay across the hall at Bell MTS Place came to an abrupt end.

Injuries to Adam Lowry, Matt Hendricks and Mathieu Perreault meant the Jets needed some reinforcements, so Winnipeg recalled Connor on Oct. 16.

He hasn’t looked back since.

HockeyViz.com

Connor’s recalled came with a period spent playing with Bryan Little and Laine before he was promoted to the top line.

It hadn’t worked out with Laine or Nikolaj Ehlers on the top unit, and moving other pieces meant a cascading effect and a lot of line juggling. If Connor could fill in the void, the Jets could concentrate on getting their other three lines right.

So there was a chance and a challenge: prove he can keep up with the relentless pace of Mark Scheifele and Blake Wheeler and you’ll stay right where you’re at.

Connor obliged.

Outside of a few hiccups — dropping down to the third and fourth lines at times — Connor has become an important piece on Winnipeg’s top line — a shifty player with a knack for finding enough space in front to get a quality scoring opportunity.

“He’s awesome. He’s gotten better and better as the season’s gone on,” Jets forward Mark Scheifele said after Connor’s game-winner on Friday. “He goes to the right spots. He battles hard in the corner, he goes to the right areas, he goes to the dirty areas. He does everything so well and obviously, his knack for scoring is top notch. He’s been really fun to play with this season. It’s exciting to see him grow like that.”

Connor has exploded for six goals in his past eight games, but it’s perhaps what he learned in an eight-game drought prior that’s played an important role in what he’s been doing lately.

“So, he’s played a lot of good games, but the game in Carolina, he doesn’t score, plays exceptionally well and I think he was really working hard all that stretch, he had that little block there where he wasn’t scoring,” Maurice said on Friday. “He seems to me that he’s relaxed a little bit when the puck is on his stick. Confidence for any player is such an important thing and can’t be given to anybody, you get one and then all the sudden you get that good feeling and then you attach that good feeling to some really good play. He’d been playing very, very well and not scoring, so he wasn’t very far off it and a little bit of confidence and away he goes.”

The only real pressure on Connor is what he puts on himself in Winnipeg. There’s enough heavy lifting happening, so Connor has had the freedom of figuring out his game and what works.

“Well, you can never be too comfortable in this league,” Connor said. “Something I learned through this year is you’ve got to bring it every day. You’ve got to prove yourself. I think I’m getting more confident every game I play but I don’t think I’m too comfortable. You come to the rink and you’ve got to prove yourself.”


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

Should Winnipeg Jets stand pat at trade deadline?

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There are whispers that the Winnipeg Jets could stand pat at the trade deadline and get away with it.

It’s not necessarily the most popular opinion, but one that has gained a small following given how their season has shaped up to this point.

The growth of rookie forward Kyle Connor, who scored his 21st goal of the season on Sunday, has been impressive. Connor went from a mediocre training camp that saw him begin the season in the American Hockey League to play a vital role on Winnipeg’s top line with Mark Scheifele and Blake Wheeler.

Jack Roslovic began the season in the AHL and was only called up recently to fill in the gaps as Winnipeg’s health began to deteriorate. Now, Roslovic, a dynamic player with speed and play-making ability, has performed so well that he likely won’t see the minors again.

The Jets are also anticipating the return of towering center Adam Lowry (out with an upper-body injury) and defenseman Jacob Trouba (out with a lower-body injury) by the time the playoffs roll around, turning into quasi-trade deadline additions.

The Jets, who have scored 13 goals in their past two games, are as good as any other team in the league when they’re firing on all cylinders. A recent adjustment to their lines — one that included putting 20-plus goal scorers Nikolaj Ehlers and Patrik Laine on the third unit — has diversified Winnipeg’s top-nine to a scary extent.

The Jets have three lines that are capable, at the moment, of putting up a lot of points on any given night. So the argument that the Jets don’t need to add someone to their top-six, or even their top-nine, has some merit.

That said, as the old sports cliche goes: there’s always room to improve. The Jets could still use some depth on the fourth line. Matt Hendricks, while a good presence in the room and a decent penalty killer, isn’t the quickest player on the ice. Joel Armia shows flashes of brilliance and then goes on long stretches where he’s mostly invisible. The return of Brandon Tanev from injury will be useful in that regard. But adding a budget center could be the shrewd move general manager Kevin Cheveldayoff needs to solidify a solid fourth-line combo.

On defense, Ben Chiarot has played admirably in place of Trouba but he may be a surplus to requirements when Trouba returns. One wonders what Cheveldayoff is thinking when it comes to Toby Enstrom, however. The diminutive defenseman had a tough outing in the physical department during the Jets last playoff appearance — their only visit since returning to Winnipeg — during the 2014-15 season. And his injury history should have the Jets thinking about at least shoring up that possibility.

The Jets could turn to Chiarot’s size and physicality in a similar scenario or could turn to the trade market for another option.

This is a good headache for any general manager. The Jets are one of the top teams in the NHL without having made a trade thus far this season.

Their goaltending has been spectacular, their power play has been lethal and their penalty kill is up near the top. Bell MTS Place has become a place teams go to die and the Jets, at the moment, would have home-ice advantage in the first round.

It makes for an interesting week leading up to Monday’s trade deadline.

Here’s a look at what the Jets could be/are considering:

Forwards

Rick Nash: A pricey rental player that would add size and scoring to the Jets top-six. But pricey is the key word here and it’s unlikely the Jets want to dig into the farm to own a guy for a couple months.

Mike Hoffman: Skilled and quick with the ability to score. He would be a good fit for the Jets, but as Sportsnet’s Elliotte Friedman reported on the weekend, Hoffman has a limited no-movement clause and Winnipeg is on the list. With term left on his deal, the price wouldn’t be cheap either.

Patrick Maroon and Mark Letestu: Two depth forwards that would bolster Winnipeg’s bottom end. Maroon isn’t the fastest guy around, and he’s not scoring 27 goals like he did last season playing with Connor McDavid. But a fresh start after not getting a contract in Edmonton might be just what Maroon needs to get his confidence up and running. Letestu, meanwhile, offers bottom-six depth up the middle. Matt Hendricks, currently occupying the fourth-line center role, didn’t play in last year’s playoffs for the Oilers. He could make way again depending on what the Jets do at the deadline. These would be cheaper options.

Ryan Hartman: It would be odd for the Chicago Blackhawks to trade a 23-year-old budding forward to a divisional rival, but stranger things have happened. Hartman had 19 goals in his rookie season last year and is playing on a very poor Blackhawks team this year. The price tag is likely high on him as well.

Mats Zuccarello: The New York Rangers announced they were holding a yard sale, and Zuccarello is a name that’s been thrown around when it comes to the Jets. Zuccarello is a good penalty killer and plays a game, not unlike Mathieu Perreault, who the Jets covet. Zuccarello also comes with an extra year on his contract. and could help the Jets beyond this season.

Defenseman:

Nick Holden: Continuing with the Rangers fire sale, Holden could be an option. He’s a left shot defenseman that could fill in for an injury to Enstrom. Holden’s possession metrics don’t jump off the page, but he’s a serviceable third-pairing guy who can play bigger minutes in a pinch.

Jan Rutta: One player the Blackhawks may be willing to part ways with is defenseman Rutta, who is on a one-year entry-level deal that’s set to expire at the end of this season. Rutta shoots right and has better possession metrics than Holden.


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

NHL hands out fines, including for Byfuglien slash

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The NHL’s CBA makes for quite the variety of allowable fines, as Wednesday’s verdicts from the Department of Player Safety showed.

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.

Dustin Byfuglien, Matt Hendricks spend day off capturing monster fish (Photo)

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The Winnipeg Jets had some down time on Tuesday after beating the Edmonton Oilers 5-2 for their first victory of the season. Matt Hendricks and Dustin Byfuglien took advantage and spent the day fishing — and boy did they come home with a catch.

With help from fishing company Sturgeon Slayers, the Jets teammates took to the Fraser River in British Columbia and caught this monster.

The players couldn’t take it home because sturgeon are a threatened species, so the monster was released after posing for some photos.

Of course, this accomplishment didn’t happen without a bit of grumbling from some Jets fans. They were upset that Byfuglien, who sat out Monday’s game in Edmonton with a lower-body injury, was fishing instead of remaining in his hotel room covered in bubble wrap and hot towels. Head coach Paul Maurice, however, did not care.

“He had treatment. [He] did what he needed to do. [It’s a] soft-tissue issue,” Maurice said on Wednesday via the Winnipeg Free Press. “None at all. Just a little bit jealous, but no issue at all.”

Byfuglien will take the morning skate in Vancouver on Thursday but will not play against the Canucks. He’s considered day-to-day. Hendricks has been on injured reserve since the start of the season.

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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.

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