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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.

Jets face quick turnaround to host Vegas in Western finals

NASHVILLE, Tenn. (AP) — The Winnipeg Jets only got a few hours to celebrate the biggest victory in franchise history.

The Jets finished off the Presidents’ Trophy-winning Nashville Predators 5-1 in Game 7 of their second-round series Thursday night, then quickly headed home to prepare for the opener of their first ever Western Conference final Saturday night.

”It’s too bad one of us had to be knocked off here,” Jets captain Blake Wheeler said. ”But night’s like tonight, you try to really soak it in and enjoy it. And then, wake up and get ready for a big game on Saturday.”

The Jets will be hosting the upstart Vegas Golden Knights in a conference final nobody predicted.

Upstart Winnipeg was swept in its only previous playoff appearance since leaving Atlanta for Canada in 2011. The Golden Knights, meanwhile, are dragging their debut season deep into the NHL calendar.

”We know what they bring, we know that they’re good, that they maybe surprised a few teams, but not really,” Jets center Paul Stastny said. ”They had 109 points. In a sense they play like us, they have a lot of depth, and they can roll four lines, and they have good, puck-moving D. So we’re going to have our hands full for sure.”

Stastny had one of two Winnipeg goals 2:06 apart in the first period to chase Vezina Trophy finalist Pekka Rinne for the third and final time in their series. Stastny finished with two goals and an assist, and Mark Scheifele finished with two goals, giving him a postseason record seven road goals in a single series .

Tyler Myers also scored. Wheeler and rookie Kyle Connor each added two assists, and Jets goalie Connor Hellebuyck, who improved to 4-0 coming off a loss this postseason, made 36 saves to outduel Rinne in the showdown between Vezina Trophy finalists.

”A year in a goalie’s life makes such a big difference,” Jets coach Paul Maurice said of his 24-year-old goalie. ”In the third period, I think had one bobbled puck that got away from him, but everything else after that he was knocking it to the corner, he was clearing the front. He looked calm.”

This was the first Game 7 for the Winnipeg/Atlanta franchise, and the Jets dominated the Predators to win in Nashville for the third time in the series. They outskated the Predators and kept the puck on their sticks much of the game, even as Nashville outshot them 21-7 in the third period.

By the time Scheifele scored his record-setting goal into an empty net with 2:33 left, the Jets had left no doubt this was their series.

Now they head back to Winnipeg, where the Jets posted the NHL’s best home record in the regular season. They have a good idea how much this next series means as Canada’s last team still standing and even more special for Winnipeg after the town lost its first NHL team to Arizona.

Wheeler said they’re thrilled their fans get to have a celebration.

”Our fans have been with us filling up our building for seven years and we haven’t always had the most success, but they’ve always been supportive all over the city,” Wheeler said. ”I don’t think I’ve heard a negative comment in seven years. So now, we’re just happy to keep playing for them.”

More AP NHL: https://apnews.com/tag/NHLhockey

MORE:
Conference Finals schedule, TV info
PHT 2018 Conference Finals Roundtable
PHT predicts NHL’s Conference Finals
NBC’s Stanley Cup Playoff Hub

A terrible end to a great year for Pekka Rinne

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Nashville Predators goalie Pekka Rinne put together a terrific Vezina worthy season, but his campaign ended in disappointment in Game 7 against the Winnipeg Jets.

Rinne got the hook at the midway point of the first period after he allowed two incredibly soft goals on seven shots. Head coach Peter Laviolette had seen enough at that point and he decided it was time to go with Juuse Saros.

“I feel very much responsible for our season ending at this point,” Rinne said, per the Tennessean. “Tough to swallow, tough to understand. I can’t point out anything. Felt good, and no injuries and totally healthy. But total ups and downs throughout the playoffs. The biggest moment of the season, it’s a terrible feeling. You let your teammates down, and that’s what happened tonight.”

As cruel as it might be to point the finger at one player, it’s justified in this case. Rinne can’t give up the opening goal to Tyler Myers, he just can’t. Putting his team in a 2-0 hole certainly didn’t get things started on the right foot, either.

It’s a cruel end to a rather stellar season for the 35-year-old netminder, as he accumulated a 42-13-4 record with a 2.31 goals-against-average and a .927 save percentage during the regular season. Those numbers dipped significantly in the playoffs.

Since Game 1 of last year’s Stanley Cup Final against Pittsburgh, he has a 2.99 goals-against-average and a .900 save percentage in 19 postseason contests. But the most surprising thing about Rinne’s disappointing playoff run is how much he struggled at Bridgestone arena:

Things change quickly in the NHL. As good as Rinne was during an 82-game stretch, there’s a chance that his time in Nashville could be coming to an end. That probably won’t happen next season because the veteran is under contract for one more year at $7 million.

Saros is scheduled to become a restricted free agent this summer and he’ll command a raise from the $692,500 he made this season. The Preds will have to make a significant financial commitment to their younger goaltender, which could signal the end of Rinne’s tenure as their starter after the 2018-19 season.

MORE:
NHL Stanley Cup Playoffs 2018: Conference Finals schedule, TV info
NBC’s Stanley Cup Playoff Hub

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.