Sami Niku

Jets’ defense takes yet another blow ahead of game vs. Penguins

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When the Winnipeg Jets had their 2018-19 season end this past April, their defense was made up of the following players: Dustin Byfuglien, Jacob Trouba, Josh Morrissey, Tyler Myers, Ben Chiarot, and Dmitry Kulikov. Not a great group by any means, but a formidable one that was good enough to help make the Jets a playoff team.

How many of those players will be in the lineup for them on Tuesday night when they visit the Pittsburgh Penguins?

Zero.

None of them.

Due to a series of roster moves and unfortunate circumstances the entire defense the team used a year ago is not available as the team prepares to open its current four-game road trip.

Trouba, Myers, and Chiarot all left the team over the summer (Trouba was traded to the Rangers; Myers and Chiarot departed in free agency), while Byfuglien stepped away just before the start of training camp to reportedly consider his future in the NHL.

All of that alone was enough to decimate their blue line.

The departures continued on Tuesday when the Jets announced that Kulikov has been given a personal leave from the team.

Morrissey, meanwhile, suffered an injury during warmups before the team’s most recent game against the New York Islanders and was held out of Sunday’s game. After practicing on Monday, coach Paul Maurice announced on Tuesday that the team is going to hold Morrissey out for at least another game (Tuesday in Pittsburgh) as a precaution.

This all means the Jets’ defense on Tuesday is going to include Sami Niku, Carl Dahlstrom, Neal Pionk, Ville Heinola, Anthony Bitetto and Tucker Poolman.

Combined NHL games for those six players: 350.

Heinola, 18, was the team’s first-round draft pick this past season and has played just three games so far, while Dahlstrom was claimed on waivers a week ago from the Chicago Blackhawks. Pionk is the “experienced” member of that group and was acquired over the summer from the Rangers in the Trouba trade. Calling that group a “makeshift defense” would be a monumental understatement.

Even though they are facing a Penguins team that is without two of its top three centers (Evgeni Malkin and Nick Bjugstad) it is still a dangerous team offensively with the Sidney Crosby and Jake Guentzel occupying the top line.

The Jets’ defense was always going to be a massive question mark this season, and it just seems to keep finding ways to get even more shorthanded. Starting goalie Connor Hellebuyck is going to need to play the best hockey of his career to keep this thing together.

MORE:
• Your 2019-20 NHL on NBC TV schedule

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.

When will Jets sign Laine, Connor?

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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 identifying X-factors to asking questions about the future. Today we look at the Winnipeg Jets. 

Let’s ponder three questions facing the Jets:

1. When will the team sign Patrik Laine and Kyle Connor?

Want to dominate headlines and sports radio in a Canadian market during the offseason? Simply wait to sign a new contract.

While a lot of attention has been on Mitch Marner’s situation in Toronto, it’s Laine and Connor who’ve taken center stage in Winnipeg.

Both are restricted free agents without new deals as training camp fast approaches. On one hand, it’s not all that surprising given the landscape with RFAs at the moment. Laine and Connor are just two names on a long list of big-ticket players who’ve played the waiting game with their respective teams.

But in a hockey-mad city, it’s led to a lot of speculation, fuelled further by the posturing that naturally arises.

It’s unlikely that either play anywhere but Winnipeg next year, but when will they play among the highest concerns. The Jets need to sort out some things in their top six in training camp, and both Laine and Connor are fixtures in that group.

For their success this season, they need both signed before camp begins.

2. How will the team fair on defense?

Some context: Take a middle-of-the-pack blue, subtract one of your top-pairing defenders and two veteran depth pieces and what are you left with?

The answer? Who knows.

Losing Jacob Trouba, Tyler Myers and Ben Chiarot in one offseason is going to hurt any team. Losing them all in the span of a couple of weeks? Ouch.

Even if Myers and Chiarot aren’t premier blueliners, it still stings when half of your defensemen are their traded or leave in free agency.

The Jets couldn’t afford to keep Myers or Chiarot — and they’re better off for it based on what those two are making. Trouba, meanwhile, seemed destined to leave since he demanded a trade three years ago.

[MORE: 2018-19 review | X-factorMaurice under pressure]

Regardless of the reasons, the Jets are left with a very unproven bunch outside of Josh Morrissey and Dustin Byfuglien. Nathan Beaulieu re-upped with the team after being acquired at the deadline and showed well when Morrissey missed a big chunk of time down the stretch due to injury.

Neal Pionk, who came Winnipeg’s way in the Trouba deal with the New York Rangers remains a mystery. Dmitry Kulikov is a stop-gap and the team will have to employ someone, likely Sami Niku, in a bigger role this season.

The dust will settle in training camp, but there’s a lot of questions needing answers on the back end.

3. Will Connor Hellebuyck return to his Vezina finalist form?

Hellebuyck went from finishing as a runner up to Pekka Rinne for the Vezina in 2017-18 to being outplayed by his backup a season later.

All of Hellebuyck’s stats took a downturn, from his five-on-five save percentage dropping 11 points from .931 to .920, his overall save percentage dropping from .924 to .913, along with decreases in his high-danger save percentage.

And then there are his goals save above average, which went from being above average at 2.16 in 2017-18 to well below it in 2018-19 at -6.91.

No one saw more shots than Hellebuyck at five-on-five, a testament to Winnipeg’s poor play in front of him, especially in the second half of the season.

With questions on the blue line coming into this season, Hellebuyck will be up against it to rebound from a down year.

MORE:
• ProHockeyTalk’s 2019 NHL free agency tracker
• Your 2019-20 NHL on NBC TV schedule


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

How will Winnipeg Jets fill out their roster?

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Of all the 31 teams in the NHL, the Winnipeg Jets have the second highest amount of cap space remaining at this point. Only the Avalanche have more money available than Winnipeg’s $22.872 million, but that cushion won’t last much longer.

The Jets have already lost Jacob Trouba, Ben Chiarot and Tyler Myers on defense, and they still need to re-sign restricted free agents Patrik Laine and Kyle Connor. On the surface, it seems like they have a lot of money to do so, but they also only have seven forwards and six defenders under contract right now. Neal Pionk, who they acquired from New York in the Trouba deal, is also a restricted free agent.

Losing Chiarot and Myers isn’t the end of the world, but replacing them with Nathan Beaulieu, Sami Niku, Pionk or Tucker Poolman isn’t ideal. Finding someone to step in for Trouba will be nearly impossible. The 25-year-old logged over 22:53 of ice time during the regular season and he had 50 points in 82 contests.

So it’s difficult to envision Winnipeg being better on defense this year.

Even if general manager Kevin Cheveldayoff re-signs forwards Connor, Laine and Andrew Copp, that would still only put him at 10 forwards on the active roster. That means he’d have to sign two more fourth-line players and at least one extra body. That’s not going to be easy considering Laine and Connor will likely cost somewhere in the neighbourhood of $15 million or $16 million.

If you add salaries for Pionk and Copp and you consider that a lot of the quality free agents have already been signed, you quickly realize that Cheveldayoff doesn’t have a ton to work with right now.

This is the difficult part of being in the salary cap world. It hurts less to dismantle your team piece by piece when you have a Stanley Cup to show for it. But the Jets haven’t won anything, and they’re already being forced to pick their roster apart because the talent they’ve drafted and developed is starting to get too expensive.

“I’ve got a very big plate,” Cheveldayoff said last month, per the Winnipeg Sun. “It seems like every summer, that question gets asked and the next summer is always the most important one. But that’s the truth. The opportunities and the work that we have in front of us is real important. We’ve got a lot of work that needs to be done with exceptional players that we’ve drafted and are a big part of our organization and a big part of our future. So, this summer will be the most important one, until the next one.”

[ProHockeyTalk’s 2019 NHL free agency tracker]

Assuming that Laine and Connor each make over $6 million per year, that would give the Jets five forwards at that price or higher. Add Dustin Byfuglien‘s $7.6 million cap hit and Connor Hellebuyck‘s $6.166 million cap hit, and it’s easy to see why they’re in such a difficult spot cap-wise.

They also have to consider that Byfuglien and Poolman are the only two defenseman they have under contract beyond next season. They’ll have to make important decisions on Dmitry Kulikov and they’ll have to find a way to pay Josh Morrissey once he becomes a restricted free agent next summer. So it’s not just about icing a competitive roster in 2019-20, it’s also about setting yourself up financially going forward.

The Jets still have so much quality on their roster, but can this group find a way to go on another long playoff run?

MORE:
Examining different lengths, contract routes for Laine, Jets

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.

Jets were never going to get enough for Trouba

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It’s hard to look at the haul the Winnipeg Jets got for Jacob Trouba and not think, ‘Man, that’s underwhelming.’

That is, of course, because the return was exactly that. And unless general manager Kevin Cheveldayoff could pull off the impossible, he was never going to replace Jacob Trouba with Jacob Trouba.

[Related: Rangers land Trouba, Jets get Pionk and first-rounder]

It was Mission: Impossible and Cheveldayoff was no Tom Cruise. The Jets were always going to lose that deal. Rarely can you replace a top-pairing defenseman that was drafted and developed from within and had helped build a flourishing partnership with Josh Morrissey into one of the better shutdown tandems in the NHL.

One half of that is missing in Winnipeg now and Neal Pionk doesn’t fill that void. This is the CliffsNotes version.

Losing Trouba — Winnipeg’s worst kept secret — is a massive blow to the Jets. They lose a 50-point defenseman and ability to play in all phases of the game while munching on big minutes every night.

“We’re certainly getting a really good player,” Rangers general manager Jeff Gorton said.

Those weren’t words Cheveldayoff uttered during his conference call with the media on Monday night.

“We’re really excited to get Neal in the acquisition as well,” Cheveldayoff said after talking about getting back into the first round of this year’s draft via the trade with the 20th overall pick. “He’s a young player that we believe has upside that is going to continue to grow.”

Pionk may indeed grow, and the Jets may indeed like Pionk over whatever else was offered to them. But there’s no question it’s a step backward for Winnipeg in terms of talent.

The Rangers got a piece that will instantly make their team better (assuming they sign Trouba long-term). Winnipeg does not.

The Jets don’t need a defenseman that can play well on the power play. They have that in Dustin Byfuglien. Morrissey can do that job, too. And Sami Niku showed good signs in limited opportunities with the man-advantage.

No, what the Jets need is a good 5-on-5 defenseman and they aren’t getting that in Pionk.

And it’s not just my words that suggest that

But all of this is really moot.

Trouba had been playing on borrowed time ever since his agent requested that his client be traded on a warm July’s night in Winnipeg in 2016.

His agent’s ransom note published on Twitter that night said Trouba wanted to realize his potential as a top-pairing, right-side defenseman. The Jets did just that, but it all seemed like a smokescreen for the desired eventual outcome.

Trouba wanted out.

Cheveldayoff stood his ground for three years until the clock ran out, likely to be expected by both agent and player. He didn’t get pushed around by Trouba until the tables turned and he had the choice of getting something for him or getting nothing at all.

He had to get something for him. No GM wants a John Tavares ending.

Could he have gotten more? Perhaps by allowing other teams to try and negotiate a contract with Trouba prior to a deal? Maybe, but according to TSN’s Darren Dreger, there were only one or two teams Trouba would commit his long-term future with. Without having it in his contract, Trouba and his agent essentially made their own no-movement clause.

And maybe Trouba just wanted what’s best for him. In a time where players are increasingly looked at as commodities and not humans, Trouba gave to the Jets what he owed them for drafting him back in 2012 and then seized control of his own future.

“It’s a great opportunity for myself and my fiancée,” said Trouba, who spoke with the Winnipeg Sun’s Ken Wiebe. “Her career is as important as my career. We both are passionate about different things and our goal from a couple of years back was we wanted to make this work. And we decided we wanted to make this work. This is part of it, to be realistic with you.

“From a life standpoint, that’s what I decided in the end. I’m going to marry the girl and I want her to be happy and for her dreams to be fulfilled. She’s worked extremely hard to get where she is with schooling and the time she’s put in. I want her to see her be successful just as much as I want to be successful.”

If you’re searching for positives here, one is that the situation is finally over. Both sides can finally move on.

Another is that Trouba’s exit means more wiggle room when it comes to the salary cap and they found a way into the first round this year. The Jets have done well to find quality players in the opening round in the past. Perhaps they’ve got a Mark Scheifele-esque guy (only a defenseman this time) they got good intel on.

“It’s a really interesting draft, once you get past the ones everybody’s talking about on the top end, I think it really spreads out,” Cheveldayoff said. “I think there are players we’re going to see at 20- we’re going to have higher on our list.”

Even then, that player is a few years away from making a meaningful impact. Last year at this time, the Jets were legitimate Stanley Cup contenders after a solid showing from a team oozing with young talent and the right mix of contracts.

Some believed this year was where their window was widest to make that run. Instead, they struggled down the stretch and got bounced in six games in Round 1 by the current Stanley Cup champs. In hindsight, it would have been better to trade Trouba a year ago. But a year ago, it would have been stupid to trade Trouba without hindsight’s benefit.

And now reality sets in.

Cheveldayoff said as much in his conference call about the “hard cap world,” and few GMs this summer face one as paramount in terms of the team’s future success as he does.

He has to sign Patrik Laine and Kyle Connor and those two, depending on how the deals come together, could command well over $15 million combined if both sign long-term. Trimming the fat may continue, too. Decisions on trading Mathieu Perreault and buying out Dmitry Kulikov to find more cap relief have to be made.

And then they need to sort out if they bring Tyler Myers back. And Ben Chiarot. And Brandon Tanev.

And then decisions on what pieces from the team’s farm system down the hall with the American Hockey League’s Manitoba Moose are going to make the jump to the bigger dressing room in the show.

“There’s no question we have a challenging summer still ahead of us,” Cheveldayoff said. “We still got lots of moving parts or balls in the air, so to speak.”

So more changes are likely coming, and a team will emerge next season very different than the one from a year ago.

And given how last season ended, perhaps a shakeup in that dressing room is what was needed anyway.

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.

Healthier defense would make Byfuglien-sized difference for Jets

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The Winnipeg Jets have made a habit of “finding ways to win” this season, but it hasn’t always been pretty. That’s been particularly true lately, with key defensemen Dustin Byfuglien and Josh Morrissey out with injuries.

It’s unclear when, exactly, Byfuglien and Morrissey may return. This NHL.com report from Tim Campbell indicates that the team thinks Byfuglien could play on Saturday (or even Thursday), with the general feeling being that he could be back in the lineup soon. Morrissey, meanwhile, seems to be targeting an early April return.

Campbell’s story is entertaining because of the range of ways people describe the impact of Byfuglien, citing both his ability to move the puck out of trouble (and in trouble for opponents), and his ability to intimidate opposing players if they try to cause trouble. Jets coach Paul Maurice tends to have a way with words, so it’s not shocking that he painted quite the picture.

“He changes the way [opposing] forwards view their night,” Maurice said. “I don’t know that people are chirping our bench any more but you’re not checking your shoulder quite as hard when you’re going to get a puck when it’s not Dustin coming after you.”

The Jets are generally better equipped to handle the absence of Byfuglien and Morrissey, but that doesn’t mean there hasn’t been a strain. Byfuglien’s been averaging 24:26 TOI per game so far in 2018-19, while Morrissey had been logging 22:24 TOI. That burden fell to Jacob Trouba – who seems to have mostly handled it well – but also pressed Sami Niku and Nathan Beaulieu into action.

You could argue that there could be a silver lining to this situation, in that Niku and Beaulieu might serve as upgrades to Ben Chiarot and Dmitry Kulikov once Byfuglien and Morrissey return, depending upon your taste. But either way, the absence of Byfuglien and Morrissey has been resounding.

Even with a relatively healthy defense, the Jets have already shown some warning signs of trouble when you look past simple goals scored and allowed, and peaked at underlying stats. If you look at Money Puck’s expected goals differential chart, though, you can see that things went from “shaky for a contender” to just-plain scary once February rolled around:

via Money Puck

That, friends and foes, is a pretty disturbing chart.

Now, sure, the Jets have the sort of shooting talent that can make the difference many nights, even when they’re underwater from a puck possession standpoint. It’s telling, for instance, that the Jets scored one more goal (57) than allowed (56) during their latest, bumpy 18-game stretch where they’ve gone 9-8-1 while losing the total shots on goal battle by almost 100 (605-509).

What happens, however, when the Jets don’t get to feast on the Senators, Rangers, and Ducks of the NHL? Would they be able to skill-over-will opponents who boast similar firepower if they kept playing at this current rate?

Getting Byfuglien and Morrissey back sure seems crucial to that goal, and Winnipeg has to hope that they can shake off some rust while also entering the 2019 Stanley Cup Playoffs as healthy as possible. For all we know, they could make the difference between a big run or more postseason heartbreak for a prodigiously talented team.

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.