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Despite their ascendance, Jets know nothing will come easy this season

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WINNIPEG — They set a franchise record in wins, won their first playoff game in the team’s existence and stamped a ticket to the Western Conference Final for good measure.

But if you ask the Winnipeg Jets captain Blake Wheeler, a man coming off a career-year with 91 points and a shiny, new five-year, big-money contract extension to show for it, it all means very little.

“We didn’t accomplish anything last year,” Wheeler said as he stood in front of his locker room stall at Winnipeg’s practice facility earlier this month. “Making the playoffs was certainly a hurdle for this group. It was something that we desperately needed to accomplish for some of that verification of what I was talking about before. When the puck drops this season, it’s not going to be Game 1 of the Western finals again. There’s a long road to get back to where we got last year and it doesn’t happen just because we want it to happen or we think we’re better than everyone else or because we had a good year last year.”

There’s a lot to unpack, particularly in that first sentence alone.

In one sense, Wheeler is right.

Ultimately, in the National Hockey League, if you’re not first, you’re last.

Banners aren’t raised for second place.

In that vein, the Jets accomplished nigh last season. They made waves but ultimately fell short of the goal, like every team that made the Stanley Cup Playoffs minus one, the Washington Capitals.

For the Vegas Golden Knights, their second-place showing will only be remembered because of its rarity (you know, the best expansion team ever stuff). Otherwise, second place gets forgotten in the annals of hockey history. No one remembers, nor cares, about who finished second.

But you can’t just brush aside what the Jets did last season — 52 wins is a lot of wins (only Nashville and Tampa had more); 114 points is a lot of points (only Nashville had more).

There’s more, too: A young goalie who re-invented himself over the summer before going on to win 44 games and finish second in Vezina voting. A captain who turned in an elite career year. A second-year sniper that had 44 goals and would have likely had more if he his stick didn’t catch a cold as the regular season drew to a close.

Winnipeg didn’t take the ultimate step but they certainly began their ascent on Lord Stanley’s mountain. They are, simply, a bona fide Cup contender in what’s often regarded as the toughest division in hockey and arguably the strongest conference in the NHL.

Wheeler is both right and wrong at the same time.

One thing is certain though: repeating success is hard.

* * *

As big as last season was in Winnipeg, and by the same token, as important as it was for the organization, the coming 2018-19 season has even more riding on it.

Expectations are undeniably higher.

The Jets showed a lot of good things last season.

When Mark Scheifele missed 16 games with an upper-body injury, instead of crumbling, Winnipeg responded with an 11-2-3 record with their No. 1 center out of the lineup. Wheeler stepped in to play Scheifele’s role and the rest of the team fell in behind him as the team thrived amid the adversity.

[Can Patrik Laine score 50?]

A young Jets team took much of what came their way last season in stride. Blemishes were few, and they have to be to win 52 games. The Jets didn’t lose three straight in regulation until the Conference Final.

But resting on their laurels would be a massive mistake.

“In our minds, we can’t rest on what we did last year,” Scheifele said. “Obviously, we had a good year, there’s going to be expectations, but at the end of the day it takes a whole lot of hard work, it takes a lot of things to go right, and we have to start here. It’s Day 1… we have to be ready for a lot of hard work, to play fast, to play our game and get ramped up for the season.”

Now, Winnipeg doesn’t have the excuse this season of being that inexperienced playoff team. They went pretty deep last season, playing (and winning) a Game 7, and also feeling the heartbreak of defeat. They know what it is to lose now and, more importantly, they caught a glimpse of what it takes to win.

* * *

The Jets set the bar last season.

And for that bar to get to where it did last season (and beyond), a lot of things needed to go in Winnipeg’s favor.

Wheeler’s monster season. Laine’s ascendance to the NHL’s goal-scoring pantheon, Kyle Connor’s emergence after leading all rookies in goal scoring. Hellebuyck’s evolution. Winnipeg’s resilience.

All important to last year, surely. But the coming season?

“All the things that went into last year are built yearly,” Jets head coach Paul Maurice said on Friday. “We have some talented players, we lost some talented players, so we start to build a season again. Even if you win the Stanley Cup, and we’ve seen it in the past, if you don’t start a training camp and build again from ground zero, you’re going to miss the playoffs in this league when you’re in our division and in our conference. All the things that went into the final two months of the season, all the good was built over the course of the year and it’s going to have to happen again.”

[Jets Day: Under PressureBreakthrough | Three Questions]

Maurice knows this all too well.

In 2002, he guided the Carolina Hurricanes to the Stanley Cup Final, eventually losing to the Detroit Red Wings in five games. The next year, the Hurricanes went from first in their division to fifth, missing the postseason.

In 2008, and back behind the bench in Raleigh, Maurice led the Hurricanes deep again, this time to the Eastern Conference Final where they were swept by the Pittsburgh Penguins. The next season, the Hurricanes missed the playoffs again with another sub .500 season.

“It changes,” Maurice said. “Every year your circumstances are different than the year prior, so for this year, specifically, [we] did not change training camp. All the things that we needed to improve on have to be [improved on] and it goes with that message. It’s not so much that we’re starting at ground zero. I know said that, I’m not sure that’s 100 percent accurate. We believe in our team, we’ve got some good players here.

“But the grind that you have to go, the price that you have to pay has to be paid every year regardless of your talent. And that’s the message.”

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

Can Patrik Laine score 50 goals this season?

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It’s tempting to look at Patrik Laine‘s 44 goals – a pretty incredible number considering how difficult it is to score in the modern NHL – and believe that everything went right for him last season.

That’s not necessarily true.

Such a thought is pretty intriguing as we consider Laine’s drive to score 50 goals in 2018-19.

“Yeah, I think that would be a great milestone and achievement,” Laine told TSN’s Darren Dreger. “But that’s something that comes when you play well. You have to do the small things for the team first. When you work hard the whole season, you’ll get rewarded at some point.”

If you feel like those are bland quotes compared to the often-candid and funny things Laine’s said in the past, you’ve got a point.

Even so, Laine’s comments actually do shed some light on a key factor: to score 50 goals, he’ll probably need to earn more of Paul Maurice’s trust.

Uneven

Puzzlingly, Laine went from averaging 17:55 minutes per game as a rookie in 2016-17 to just 16:29 per contest in 2017-18. While his power-play ice time was nearly identical (in the three-minute range each season) and his shorthanded duties remained essentially non-existent, Laine’s even-strength ice time plummeted by about 90 seconds as a sophomore.

Maurice probably deserves at least a bit of scrutiny for this, as it’s just difficult to fathom that Laine fails to be a player you’d want on the ice at least as frequently as he was as a rookie, even on a Jets team that improved substantially in 2017-18. Apologies to Bryan Little – who’s often been underrated during his NHL career – but if I were in Maurice’s shoes, I’d want Laine on the ice more often at even-strength.

Some of this revolves around Laine’s inexperience, though, as this can’t be solely chalked up to the bad coaching habit of giving younger players shorter leashes just because. There are times when Laine appears a tad bit one-dimensional (consider his so-so possession numbers), as Oilers Nation’s Kyle Buhler discussed in late June:

The other big issue with Laine’s game is his work along the boards. Laine has an extremely tough time getting the puck out of his own end which is surprising for someone with so much talent. When the puck is rimmed around the boards, it takes Laine too long to bring it to from his skate to his stick and he gets hemmed in by pinching defensemen. When Laine is able to chip the puck past the defender he can’t create odd-man rushes due to his lack of acceleration.

With the addition of another impressive forward in Kyle Connor, not to mention the dominance and chemistry generated by Mark ScheifeleBlake Wheeler, one can understand why Maurice would be a little less eager to put Laine on the ice in all situations. There are worse things Laine can be than an absolutely deadly specialist, as he was in scoring 20 of his 44 goals on the power play (his 20 PPG topped all NHL players).

(It’s also worth noting that Laine blossomed that much more when Paul Stastny came along and completed a deadly line with Laine and Nikolaj Ehlers, so that loss might be a slight detriment to the drive for 50.)

In viewing this collection of last season’s 44 tallies, you can see that Laine is keen on constructing his own version of Ovechkin’s “office.”

Looking deeper at how Laine scored his 44 goals last season, there are some compelling reasons why he will or will not hit the 50 mark:

Health, puck luck, and opportunities

Even with reduced ice time, the already-trigger-happy Laine let pucks fly to a more pronounced degree during his second season in the NHL, as you can see from listings such as those of Hockey Reference.

Over 73 games as a rookie, Laine scored 36 goals on 204 shots on goal (2.79 SOG per game), making for a 17.6 shooting percentage. Hockey Reference puts his total shot attempts at 360 during 1,308 total minutes of ice time.

Laine was healthier last season, playing all 82 games, and his high shooting percentage remained, as he bumped it to 18.3 percent. Few players can maintain such robust percentages, yet Laine’s now done so two seasons in a row, so it’s possible that he simply has rare shooting talent; witnessing his howling release doesn’t hurt that argument.

Still, injuries and/or cold shooting could represent very simple – yet formidable – obstacles in Laine’s quest for 50.

Circling back to his 2017-18 totals, Laine’s 44 goals came via 241 SOG, which translates to 2.94 SOG per game. More games played but with less ice time might skew certain numbers, so it’s worth noting that he fired 466 total shot attempts over 1,351 minutes of ice time in 2017-18.

The Ovechkin comparison

Laine’s 44 goals become extra-impressive when you consider (relatively) limited ice time, and also when you compare his opportunities versus those of Alex Ovechkin, who ultimately pulled away in the Rocket Richard race with 49 goals.

It’s eye-popping to compare Ovechkin to Laine last season when it comes to ice time (20:09 versus Laine’s 16:29) and shooting rates (355 SOG and 653(!) TSA to Laine’s 241 SOG and 466 TSA).

Comparing a shooter to Ovechkin can feel as cruel as expecting an NBA shooting guard to match Michael Jordan, yet it’s instructive that Laine came so close to matching Ovechkin’s output considering the context. This all says a lot about Laine’s shooting prowess, even if it is still fair to at least wonder if he’ll see his shooting percentage sink.

***

Overall, the biggest hurdles Laine must clear to score 50 goals stand out as: health luck, puck luck, and the luck that comes with earning his coach’s trust. One can only shudder to imagine if Laine’s actually still waiting for that extra push – or green light – to unleash shots at an even more blistering rate.

And, no doubt, Laine’s other big obstacle is himself; if he can improve his all-around game, Laine will give Maurice no choice but to put him on the ice more often. Imagine what kind of damage Laine could do if he flirted with 19-20 minutes of ice time every game for 82 contests?

Heading into 2018-19, one would wager that no one is expected to score 50 goals. Ovechkin fell just short of that mark last season with 49, Sidney Crosby won the 2017 Richard with just 44, and Ovechkin’s the only player to reach that plateau (doing so three times) since the last lockout of 2012-13.

That said, if anyone other than Ovechkin can do it, Laine is the guy.

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.

Signing Laine and other Jets cap challenges after Wheeler extension

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The Winnipeg Jets answered a big question on Tuesday by signing captain and star winger Blake Wheeler to a five-year, $41.25 million extension. That removes a huge item from the franchise’s to-do list, yet they face plenty of challenges in keeping this talent-packed roster together for the long haul.

Much of the future worries come down to extending Patrik Laine, but there are other considerations that can make an impact on this loaded team’s ability to contend.

Winnipeg’s cap questions are pretty involved, so let’s go step by step.

(Note via Cap Friendly’s numbers: Winnipeg has about $10.24M in cap space as of this writing. They have about $52.48M committed to 11 players heading into 2019-20, which would give them a bit more than $27M to work with in the unlikely event that the cap would remain at $79.5M.)

More Morrissey

GM Kevin Cheveldayoff faces one more big obstacle for 2018-19: hashing out a contract with RFA defenseman Josh Morrissey.

Right now, the tone seems to be “don’t panic,” even though training camp is rapidly approaching.

The Jets are running some risky business when it comes to their young defensemen.

Jacob Trouba may just become hockey’s answer to Kirk Cousins: a player either forced to or willingly choosing to make short-term bets on himself with the goal of a big payday in the future. Winnipeg is lucky enough that, despite that arduous arbitration hearing, Trouba would only be considered an RFA if he makes it to next summer without a deal. Still, it’s tough to shake the impression that the situation will end with Trouba eventually playing for a different NHL team, much like Cousins ultimately left Washington.

Winnipeg must walk a fine line with two young defensemen (Trouba’s 24, Morrissey is 23). It’s easy to see why Morrissey would prefer a “bridge” contract, particularly considering the defensemen who may be forced out with the cap crunch.

Beyond the Trouba turmoil, Tyler Myers‘ contract ends after 2018-19, with both of those defensemen carrying $5.5M cap hits. Morrissey could goose his numbers by naturally earning more minutes next season, but especially so in the likely event that Myers can’t fit under the cap.

Then again, the added security of term could be quite appealing if the Jets decide that Morrissey is worthy of a Noah Hanifin-ish commitment.

(Goalie Eric Comrie is also an RFA in need of a deal.)

While Morrissey’s situation is unsettled, the Jets made substantial investments in other players, for better or worse:

Long-term commitments: the very good, and the troubling

Whether they end up being wise or imprudent investments, Cheveldayoff committed to some serious term in recent (and semi-recent) situations.

Wheeler’s cap hit goes from $5.6M next season to $8.25M starting in 2019-20. As of this writing, he’s a bargain at both rates, but the unavoidable concern is for regression, considering that the American-born forward is already 32. (He’ll be 33 right before his extension kicks in.)

The Jets also made an interesting bet on young goalie Connor Hellebuyck, handing the 25-year-old a six-year contract that carries a $6.167M AAV. It says a lot about how perception can change in a year, as the Jets signed Steve Mason to a fairly healthy two-year, $8M deal heading into 2017-18 thanks to the uncertainty they still faced in net. If Hellebuyck replicates (or at least produces work close to) his strong, steady season, then that cap hit could be a nice bargain. Goalies are risky, though, and the Jets ended up regretting Ondrej Pavelec’s rancid contract for basically its entirety. Maybe the Hellebuyck contract is “the price of doing business,” but that bill could create some buyer’s remorse if last year was a mirage.

Overall, the Jets boast eight lengthy commitments (three years or more) at significant rates* as of this writing: Wheeler, Hellebuyck, Mark Scheifele, Nikolaj Ehlers, Dustin Byfuglien, Bryan Little, Mathieu Perreault, and Adam Lowry.

Scheifele’s $6.125M ranks on the shortlist of the absolute best bargains in the NHL, especially since it runs for six more seasons. If the Jets manage to wade through this jungle of cap challenges, credit that Scheifele bargain and also locking down Ehlers at an affordable (and potentially steal-worthy) $6M long-term as two key developments.

Some of the veterans might provide problems, though. Little’s been a hidden gem through even the Atlanta Thrashers days, yet the 30-year-old’s $5.292M cap hit already looks dicey, and it runs through 2023-24. Little’s contract may force out a valuable-yet-not-essential player like Perreault, who virtually always shines from an analytics standpoint, and does so at a reasonable $4.125M clip.

Winnipeg’s cap crunch could force out some combination of Little, Perreault, or Lowry, while Dmitry Kulikov may force some LTIR shenanigans.

(Hey, at least other contenders have set a template for how Winnipeg could … “bend some rules.”)

* – Sorry, Tucker Poolman, whose name will forever sound like a fake handle for someone in a fantasy league.

Aiming for raises

All of the situations above bleed into the Jets’ biggest worries: what’s next to come.

Patrik Laine’s rookie contract expires after next season, and Winnipeg can sign him to an extension at any time. Laine already scored 80 goals and 134 points in just 155 games, and it’s tough to imagine his standing in the league falling after 2018-19. The Jets essentially have to hope that Laine will fall in line with other rising stars who’ve signed for relative discounts, as his RFA status only means so much.

Laine is the biggest ticket item, but far from the only player who could rake in big bucks.

Kyle Connor represents a potentially tricky situation. After a minimal, truncated rookie season (5 points in 20 games in 2016-17), Connor broke through last year, managing 31 goals and 57 points.

If you’re Winnipeg, you probably would prefer to sign him to a reasonable extension instead of letting him flirt with even bigger totals in 2018-19, considering that only seven of his 31 goals came on the power play. (Though, to be fair, Connor received pretty healthy reps.)

With Trouba’s situation merely postponed for a year and Morrissey possibly only getting a bridge deal, the Jets could still face some big calls with key players. That’s especially true if management views re-signing Tyler Myers as a necessity rather than a luxury.

***

Overall, the Jets need to try to find value in the next deals for Laine and Connor, while making the right calls with Morrissey and Trouba.

While contenders such as the Chicago Blackhawks have shown that you can get out of a bad deal or two, they’ve also cemented the notion that you might end up regretting being loyal to the wrong players. The Jets handed out no-trade or no-movement clauses to veterans such as Wheeler, Byfuglien, Little, Kulikov and Perreault, which may only complicate matters.

For a GM who inspired puns about “taking the day off,” Kevin Cheveldayoff sure has his work cut out for him.

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 lock up underrated star Blake Wheeler for five more years

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The Winnipeg Jets are one of the most dynamic offensive teams in the NHL and it’s easy to see why. They have youngsters like Patrik Laine, Mark Scheifele, Nikolaj Ehlers and Kyle Connor, but none of those players scored more points last season than captain Blake Wheeler, who had 91 in 81 games. Now, the Jets are rewarding him with a huge payout.

Winnipeg has locked up the 32-year-old Wheeler with a five-year, $41.25 million extension ($8.25 million AAV). Wheeler was entering the final year of his contract. This new deal means he’s signed through the 2023-24 season. The deal also comes with a no-movement and modified no-trade clause.

Sportsnet’s Chris Johnston has the salary breakdown over the next five years:

Sure, it’s risky to a sign a player through his age-37 season, but it’s hard to ignore what Wheeler’s done over the last few years. He’s picked up at least 61 points in every year since the lockout-shortened 2012-13 season. Last year, only eight players in the league picked up more points than he did. He also tied for the league lead in assists with 68 (Flyers forward Claude Giroux also had 68 assists but he reached that number in one more game).

According to The Point, Wheeler ranked first in power play assists, 33rd in power play pass completions and second in power play slot pass completions last season. Those numbers show just how good of a set-up man he is for his teammates.

Even with a 90-point season under his belt, it seems like Wheeler rarely grabs as many headlines as he deserves in the hockey community. Everyone knows how important he is to his organization, but others on the team seem to be thought of as more important on the ice.

This offseason, Scheifele mentioned that he felt his captain was underrated.

“I’d throw my linemate Blake Wheeler in the top five, he’s one of the most underrated players,” Scheifele told TSN. “His passing is next level by far, he’s a pretty special player to play with.”

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.

Three questions facing Winnipeg Jets

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Each day in the month of August we’ll be examining a different NHL team — from looking back at last season to discussing a player under pressure to focusing on a player coming off a breakthrough year to asking questions about the future. Today we look at the Winnipeg Jets.

Three questions for you to ponder regarding the 2018-19 Winnipeg Jets…

1. Who will replace Paul Stastny on the second line?

The Jets made one of the best deadline rentals in the NHL last year when they landed Paul Stastny from the St. Louis Blues, adding to an offense that was already one of the best in the league. Stastny made an immediate impact and proved to be a perfect fit on the team’s second line between young studs Patrik Laine and Nikolaj Ehlers. During the regular season and playoffs that trio outscored teams by a 24-12 margin at 5-on-5, while Stastny put together an incredible postseason individually with 15 points in the team’s 17 games. He turned that performance into a long-term contract with the Vegas Golden Knights in free agency, leaving a vacancy on the Jets’ second line.

It is probably expected that spot will once again be filled by Bryan Little, just as it was last season before the addition of Stastny.

That is going to put some pressure on Little because he is coming off of a down year and did not seem to be a great fit between Laine and Elhers (they performed much better alongside Stastny).

If not Little, another internal candidate could be 2015 first-round pick Jack Roslovic.

The 21-year-old Roslovic got his first real look in the NHL this past season, appearing in 31 games for the Jets, scoring five goals to go with nine assists. Expecting him to take over such a big role at this point may be expecting too much, but he certainly has potential and has been outstanding in the American Hockey League the past two years.

2. Will they be able to keep everybody?

The Jets have a significant chunk of their core signed long-term with Mark Scheifele, Nikolaj Ehlers, Bryan Little, Mathieu Perreault, Dustin Byfuglien, and Connor Hellebuyck all signed for at least the next three years (Scheifele, Ehlers, Little, and Hellebuyck are signed for at least the next five), while some of them are signed to what can fairly be called “team-friendly” deals under the salary cap.

That is all very good.

[Jets Day: 2017-18 Review | Under Pressure | Breakthrough]

But they still have some big contract decisions coming over the next years as team captain Blake Wheeler, prized goal-scorer Patrik Laine, Kyle Connor, Tyler Myers, and Jacob Trouba are all due for new contracts after this season. Wheeler and Myers are set to become unrestricted free agents, while the others are all still restricted.

It is a given that Laine and Connor are going to get taken care of given their age, production, and potential.

The big questions are going to revolve around Wheeler and, most especially, Trouba.

Wheeler has been one of the league’s most productive — and underrated — wingers over the past six years and has become one of the Jets’ most valuable players. But he is also entering his age 32 season (he actually celebrates his 32nd birthday Today, on Jets’ day) and there is some risk with a long-term contract for a player at that age. He is still great now, but will he be when he is 35 or 36?

Then there is Trouba, one of the team’s best and most important defenseman whose contract saga has been a complicated one for years. It almost seems like a given that he is not going to be a member of the Jets for the long haul and the only question that remains is whether or not he gets traded before the trade deadline or in the offseason.

3. Will they make another run at the Stanley Cup Final?

After going nearly two decades in their existence without winning a single playoff game (and only making the playoffs twice) the Jets came almost out of nowhere last season to finish with the league’s second-best record (a 27-point improvement from the year before) and come within three games of reaching the Stanley Cup Final.

There is every reason to believe that the roster as presently constructed can continue to be a force in the Western Conference.

They are, for the most part, fairly young with a significant collection of their core all still in their peak years, they are incredibly talented (especially at forward) and should have the salary cap flexibility to make another significant splash in-season if they feel they can make a trade to help put them over the top.

The big question is going to be whether or not the goaltending holds out and performs the way it did this past season. If Hellebuyck can continue to be a legitimate No. 1 starting goaltender there is no reason why this team can not be a factor in the Western Conference.

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.