Connor Hellebuyck

Long-term outlook Winnipeg Jets Laine Connor Hellebuyck
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Long-term outlook for the Winnipeg Jets

With the 2019-20 NHL season on hold we are going to review where each NHL team stands at this moment until the season resumes. Here we take a look at the long-term outlook for the Winnipeg Jets.

Pending Free Agents

The Core

With the exception of Patrik Laine — who they could theoretically extend during the offseason – the Jets locked down most of their core over the years.

Mark Scheifele and Connor Hellebuyck possess two of the “shorter” long-term contracts among that core group, and their affordable contracts run through 2023-24. (Blake Wheeler‘s does, as well, but that’s a little more troubling being that the often-underrated winger is now 33.)

Beyond that Wheeler worry, there’s a lot to like, especially since Wheeler is comfortably the highest paid at $8.25M AAV.

(Actually, Bryan Little‘s contract was troubling from day one, but sadly, he might go on LTIR quite credibly.)

If Kevin Cheveldayoff can extend Laine at a reasonable price, this group could be cost-conscious enough for Winnipeg to even take advantage of other teams possibly facing cap squeezes. It makes me wonder: could the Jets go after another core piece in free agency? Signing, say, Alex Pietrangelo would make them stronger and weaken Central Division rival St. Louis.

Even as a “budget” team, the possibilities are intriguing for the Jets to improve upon their long-term core. That said, improvements might be needed for the Jets to truly soar.

Long-term needs for Jets

It’s remarkable that Hellebuyck (and some star scorers) dragged Winnipeg to playoff contention, because that group was rough this season.

Neal Pionk turned out to be an extremely pleasant surprise, to the point that he might be able to join the core to an extent. And, for sure, Josh Morrissey is a steady presence. But things dry up quite a bit beyond that, and an ideal contender probably would ask less of both of them, particularly Morrissey.

So, can Ville Heinola eventually be a key defender? How will Sami Niku’s development go?

Getting steps in development, overall, is a long-term key for the Jets. Jack Roslovic strikes me as someone who can do more, but he needs opportunities. What, exactly, is Laine’s ceiling? Will the Jets actually boost him up to reach it?

The Jets have to hope that they can mitigate the eventual drop-off for Wheeler, who’s already sinking a bit at 33. (By his standards.)

They could also use some more depth. It’s probably not a coincidence that, year after year (Paul Stastny to Kevin Hayes to even Cody Eakin), they seem to need to burn assets to add 2C and/or 3C help. Laurent Brossoit had a tough season, casting some doubt on the backup position.

I’ll also endlessly wonder if Paul Maurice is all that far above your average coach. But, hey, give the dude credit for being a long-term bench presence even with … meh results more often than not.

Long-term strengths for Jets

The sheer youth of this team is something to get excited about. Laine just turned 22. Kyle Connor seems to be jumping another level at 23, while Nikolaj Ehlers is a transition menace at 24. Hellebuyck is 26, Mark Scheifele is only 27, and Morrissey is 25.

I mentioned possibly pitching a deal at Pietrangelo because the Jets see a lot of space opening up.

Losing Dustin Byfuglien hurts, but his age was making his contract risky anyway. The Jets signing Kulikov furrowed my brow, yet now they can use that money toward … uh, someone good? (Sorry, Kulikov.)

It’s not always easy to lure free agents to Winnipeg, but a) they’ve become a consistent winner and b) might be one of the only winners with cash to burn during the uncertain, upcoming offseason.

That mixture of prime-age talent, solid maneuverability, and a steady-and-solid front office should put the Jets in a solid position to compete for some time. They do need Cheveldayoff to make the right moves to get back at a high level again, as Hellebuyck camouflaged a steep decline — one that quietly brewed even toward the end of 2018-19.

MORE ON THE JETS:

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.

Byfuglien-sized surprises, disappointments for Winnipeg Jets

With the 2019-20 NHL season on hold we are going to review where each NHL team stands at this moment until the season resumes. Here we take a look at the surprises and disappointments for the Winnipeg Jets.

Hellebuyck surprises with heck of a season for Jets

Depending on your interpretation of “most valuable player,” you can make a strong argument that Connor Hellebuyck deserves the Hart Trophy, not just the Vezina.

With injuries and the absence of Dustin Byfuglien dealing huge blows to the Jets’ defense, it’s truly remarkable that Winnipeg entered the pause in playoff position. To that, I offer a simple remark: it’s mainly because of Hellebuyck.

Hellebuyck managed a 31-21-5 record, but of course, it was about more than that. For one thing, you can break down Hellebuyck’s .922 save percentage compared to backup Laurent Brossoit‘s .895.

When you factor in the leaky Jets defense in front of him, Hellebuyck really shines.

Looking at Hockey Reference’s Goals Saved Against Average stat, Hellebuyck (22.40) only trails Tuukka Rask (22.51). Anton Khudobin sits in distant third at 17.75, while Darcy Kuemper (16.65) is the only other goalie who reached 14+.

Hellebuyck saved a lot of goals. He saved the Jets’ bacon.

If you choose MVPs based on the most indispensible player of a season, you’d probably pick Hellebuyck.

It’s not shocking that Hellebuyck ended up playing well, but carrying the Jets on his shoulders ranks as one of the bigger surprises of the season.

Neal Pionk > Jacob Trouba?

People understood that Jets GM Kevin Cheveldayoff had to trade Trouba’s rights. While one can only wonder if there was a better way to settle the situation, that moment passed.

Even so, plenty of people scoffed at Pionk being part of the return. Yes, Pionk scored a mind-blowing goal for the Rangers, and showed some scoring skill. But just about every other metric pointed to Pionk being … pretty bad.

Well, the Jets certainly can puff their chests out, because Pionk’s been crucial to their defense.

Now, it’s probably still true that you don’t necessarily want Pionk to be featured this much. An ideal blueline probably won’t lean on Pionk for a team-leading 23:23 per night. Sometimes things aren’t ideal, though. In reality, Pionk delivered incredible value for Winnipeg.

Meanwhile, Trouba looks like an $8M mistake for the Rangers. Pionk’s younger and cheaper than Trouba, and the Jets also nabbed a first-rounder in the deal. It’s remarkable just how similar Pionk and Trouba come across in this even-strength RAPM comparison chart via Evolving Hockey:

Wow. Pionk being arguably better than Trouba is quite the surprise for the Jets, and a massive disappointment for the Rangers.

Disappointments abound for Byfuglien, Jets

So, Pionk ended up being important to the Jets. And Hellebuyck cleaned up the many messes made by Pionk and that shorthanded blueline crew.

But none of it really washes down the disappointments involving Dustin Byfuglien and his now-former team, the Jets.

The COVID-19 pause creates extra uncertainty, but Byfuglien’s future seems like it would be cloudy either way. It’s also fuzzy figuring out what, exactly, happened. The situation ended up disappointing for Byfuglien’s accountant, at minimum, being that he walked away from a lot of money.

Hopefully we’ll get the pleasant surprise of an awkward-but-entertaining game whenever Byfuglien suits up for a different team against the Jets. The point being: it would be deeply, deeply disappointing if we never see the towering, one-of-a-kind defenseman ever play again. Especially since there would be no warning that we’d already seen his last game.

Either way, it was a highly disappointing end to Byfuglien’s lengthy, important stay with the Jets. The connections between the Thrashers days just keep fading away.

MORE ON THE JETS:

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 Morning Skate: If NHL returns, could games take place in … North Dakota?

NHL 2019-20 North Dakota
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Welcome to the PHT Morning Skate, a collection of links from around the hockey world. Have a link you want to submit? Email us at phtblog@nbcsports.com.

• Elliotte Friedman details North Dakota as a possible host city in potential season resumption scenarios. Friedman notes that Ralph Engelstad Arena might work, in part because of the state’s low population density. The NHL should consider Engelstad’s controversies if they go probe deeper on a North Dakota plan, though. (Sportsnet)

• Bruce Garrioch expands on some of the issues the NHL and NHLPA are facing, stemming in part from Gary Bettman’s weekly conference call with the Board of Governors. Garrioch provides some interesting details about how players might try to limit the damage from big escrow challenges, and other issues that need to be cleared up. (Ottawa Sun)

• In the latest edition of his The Color of Hockey feature, William Douglas explores how Hockey Is For Everyone programs are helping rinks and schools adjust to the coronavirus pandemic. (NHL.com)

• Travis Yost analyzes the continued decline of “workhorse” goalies in the NHL. Yost shares some fascinating stats, including that Connor Hellebuyck and Carey Price are the only goalies to start 75 percent (or more) of their teams’ games in 2019-20. Could these trends eventually push No. 1 goalie salaries down, and backups’ cap hits up? Certainly plausible, and possibly more sensible than putting all your eggs in one goalie-shaped basket. (TSN)

• Sabres coach Ralph Krueger believes that Rasmus Dahlin‘s defensive game keeps going “up a notch.” Frankly, I’d argue that Dahlin’s ice time needs to go up multiple notches. After averaging 21:09 TOI per game as a rookie, Dahlin’s down by almost two minutes this season (19:18). While that climbed a bit toward the end of 2019-20, it’s baffling that Krueger hesitates to send Dahlin out on the ice at least as much as Dahlin was out there in 2018-19. Maybe such rave reviews will translate to more reps in year three? (Buffalo Hockey Beat)

• You might say that I accused Krueger of under-coaching in the tidbit above. Barry Trotz, meanwhile, wonders if he over-coached his Islanders at times this season. (Newsday)

• John Barr compares 2019-20 attendance numbers to what we saw in previous seasons. Plenty of interesting graphs and charts to chew on if you’re interested in sellouts and other figures. (NHL to Seattle)

Connor McDavid and Gary Roberts teamed up for a video series to try to help kids find creative ways to stay fit indoors. Good stuff from ESPN’s Greg Wyshynski. (ESPN)

• Ranking the Nashville Predators’ jersey designs, from worst to best. Yes, mustard ranked low on the list. (Hockey By Design)

• Binging TV shows during the pause? Milan Lucic will provide staunch competition. He consumed Game of Thrones in just 19 days. That’s 73 episodes, and that wasn’t a 22-minute sitcom … although the travel logic of the latter episodes might’ve deserved a laugh track. (TSN)

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.

A best on best mythical tournament: Players in their prime

Colorado Avalanche center Nathan MacKinnon (29) pushes the puck forward on a break-away as Calgary Flames left wing Johnny Gaudreau
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With the 2019-20 NHL season on hold, Pro Hockey Talk will be creating full rosters for an imaginary best on best tournament over the next few Thursdays. The first team created was a 23-and-under roster that would be fascinating to watch.

An NHL player usually reaches peak performance in his late 20’s and this roster is comprised of players in the prime of their career between the ages of 24 and 29. The combination of skill, size, wisdom and depth in this group will be difficult to match for any opponent. The most surprising part of building this team was seeing several superstars left on the sidelines.

Line Combinations

First line: Artemi PanarinNathan MacKinnonLeon Draisaitl

Thoughts: All three players are firmly in the conversation for the 2019-2020 Hart Trophy and the thought of them on the same team, let alone the same line would be highly entertaining. Panarin has established himself as one of the best passers in the NHL and having two lethal goal scorers alongside him should make for an explosive trio.

Second line: Johnny GaudreauMark ScheifeleNikita Kucherov

Thoughts: Both wingers don’t offer much size but Gaudreau and Kucherov are both electric players that have learned how to win in the corners despite their diminutive stature. Scheifele has long been one of the more underrated players in the league and should find instant chemistry with two players that possess elite on-ice vision.

Third line: Taylor HallMika ZibanejadMark Stone

Thoughts: Hall’s game has dipped since winning the 2018 Hart Trophy but still remains a top two-way forward. Zibanejad was one of the most controversial picks beating out the likes of John Tavares, Tyler Seguin and others. But No. 93 has improved his game since the New York Rangers acquired him in a one-sided traded.

Fourth line: Chris Kreider – Ryan O’Reilly – Jonathan Huberdeau

Thoughts: Kreider and O’Reilly have anchored shut down lines in the past but the addition of Huberdeau should add more offensive punch to a very responsible grouping. All three skaters play a disciplined, 200-foot game and could match up with any combination of forwards an opponent has to offer.

First D pairing: Roman JosiSeth Jones
Second D pairing: Victor HedmanDougie Hamilton
Third D pairing: Oliver Ekman-LarssonAaron Ekblad

Thoughts: It’s hard to find a flaw in this grouping of defensemen. These six players collectively possess all the attributes needed to shut down opponents and can quickly move the puck out of the defensive zone.

Starting Goalie: Andrei Vasilevskiy

Backup Goalie: Connor Hellebuyck

Just Missed: Aleksander Barkov, Erik Karlsson, John Klingberg, Tyler Seguin, John Tavares

Captain: Roman Josi

Alternate captains: Nathan MacKinnon, Leon Draisaitl

Analysis

It was surprising to see only one player on this team with a championship ring and just seven players have participated in a Stanley Cup Final. With that said, this team has experience in best on best tournaments at every level and have routinely been through the grind of an NHL regular season.

On paper, there are limited areas of concern. The team is comprised of players with diverse attributes to form an extremely well-balanced roster. It has several explosive goal-scorers in the top-six and responsible players in the bottom-six that have the ability to consistently produce on the offensive side of the ice.

In addition, the blueline is staggered with lockdown defensemen and two Vezina candidates guarding the crease.

One challenge for this team, and for any roster in a tournament of this nature, is the ability to find instant chemistry with line mates. In theory, Panarin can set up a few of the top scorers but does it work in reality?

Due to the balance of the roster and varied characteristics, I believe this team would have the inside track to winning this mythical tournament.

Surprising omissions

John Tavares: It wasn’t too long ago that Tavares was the most sought-after free agent in the summer of 2018, but it was challenging to find a spot for the Maple Leafs captain on this roster. It was a tight race between No. 91 and Mika Zibanejad for the third line center position, but the Swedish right-handed centerman has become one of the more dynamic players in the NHL. Tavares is a world-class player. He could easily slide back onto the roster and change the narrative with a dominant stretch when professional hockey returns.

Erik Karlsson: This Swedish defenseman used to terrorize the league with his smooth skating and incredible vision. However, Karlsson hasn’t looked like himself since being traded to the San Jose Sharks in September of 2018. He routinely crossed the 60-point plateau and set a career-high with 82 points in 2015-16, but injuries have slowed him down the past two seasons. This mythical tournament will require teams to perform at an incredibly high level and there is no room for someone who has not been at the top of his game.


Scott Charles is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @ScottMCharles.

Jets help make 11-year-old’s goaltending dream come true

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If you needed a feel-good story, you can find it in the Winnipeg Jets helping 11-year-old Kylan Jackson live out a hockey dream.

Sportsnet’s video captures the story, and the scene, in wonderful detail.

Jackson dealt with leukemia at a young age, but battled the disease with help from his family. Eventually, “The Dream Factory” worked with Josh Morrissey to help Jackson get a taste of life as a Jets goalie.

There are a lot of great touches in that Sportsnet video. For some reason, Paul Maurice motioning Kylan Jackson over really made me smile:

Jets coach Maurice motions Kylan Jackson over Dream Project

The exchanges between Jackson, Connor Hellebuyck, and Laurent Brossoit ranked among the best moments of the video. Hellebuyck was impressed by Jackson being a quick learner, while Jackson raved about Hellebuyck’s glove save against the Lightning.

[A look at Hellebuyck’s dominant season]

Hellebuyck amusingly admitted that he’s not sure he actually saw the puck. That’s OK though, because just putting his glove up there did the trick:

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.