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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.

PHT’s Three Stars: Smith’s goal puts Vegas on brink of Stanley Cup Final

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1st Star: Reilly Smith, Vegas Golden Knights

When you don’t capitalize on opportunities in the offensive zone, the Golden Knights will make you pay. After helping to set up the opening goal of Game 4, Smith picked up his second point of the night by scoring the game winner with 6:58 left in the third period of a 3-2 win over the Winnipeg Jets. Vegas now has a 3-1 series lead and is a win away from the Stanley Cup Final.

2nd Star: Marc-Andre Fleury, Vegas Golden Knights

Another game, another night where Fleury did his thing in playing a huge role in a Vegas victory. His 36 saves were the fourth-most he’s made this postseason. Winnipeg hit double digits in shots in all three periods, with Fleury stopping 12 of 13 he faced in the final 20 minutes of the win.

3rd Star: William Karlsson, Vegas Golden Knights

“Wild Bill” led Vegas in shots on goal (5) and led all Golden Knights forwards in ice time with 20:43 during Game 4. His biggest contribution, of course, was his opening goal 2:25 into the game on the power play.

[Golden Knights are just one win from Stanley Cup Final]

Highlight of the Night:

Patrik Laine picked up his fifth goal of the playoffs with a rocket from his office:

Factoid of the Night:

Saturday’s schedule: Washington Capitals at Tampa Bay Lightning, 7:15 p.m. ET, NBC, live stream (Series tied 2-2)

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

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

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.

Golden Knights replace Tatar with Perron; Ehlers back for Jets

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Both the Vegas Golden Knights and Winnipeg Jets are getting some significant names back into their lineups for Game 4 of the 2018 Western Conference Final.

[CLICK HERE TO WATCH LIVE; Game 4 airs on NBCSN at 8 p.m. ET]

The most significant addition is Nikolaj Ehlers, as expected. Interestingly, Jets head coach Paul Maurice decided to scratch Joel Armia instead of Jack Roslovic to make room for Ehlers. The Jets’ second line should be that much deadlier with Ehlers back alongside Paul Stastny and Patrik Laine; maybe this will help to solve some of their supporting cast riddles?

It’s also interesting – yet the Jets hope irrelevant – that Michael Hutchinson is dressing as Connor Hellebuyck‘s backup instead of Steve Mason.

Meanwhile, the Golden Knights get one of their leading regular-season scorers back in David Perron. While Ehlers seemingly missed Game 3 with an illness, Perron was sidelined for Games 2 and 3.

Gerard Gallant must really like what he’s seeing from his team’s pluggers, because the return of Perron apparently means that Tomas Tatar loses this game of musical chairs. Tatar scored a big goal in Game 2, yet he only logged a little more than 10 minutes in these past two contests, so he may still reside in Gallant’s doghouse.

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.