Neal Pionk

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.

The Buzzer: Jets, Kings extend winning streaks; Blackhawks thump Sharks

Kyle Connor #81, Blake Wheeler #26 and Mark Scheifele #55 of the Winnipeg Jets
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Three Stars

1) Alex DeBrincat, Chicago Blackhawks

The goal-scoring numbers have not been there for DeBrincat this season, but a three-assist evening Wednesday helped the Blackhawks defeat the San Jose Sharks, 6-2. His helpers came on three consecutive goals (two on the power play) in the second period as the Blackhawks turned a one-goal deficit into a two-score advantage. DeBrincat’s most highlight-worthy assist came at 16:33 of the middle frame when he found Patrick Kane darting toward the back post. The 22-year-old forward weaved around Marc-Edouard Vlasic before Kane netted his second of the evening. Rookie forward Dominik Kubalik added his 30th of the season in the victory.

2) Kyle Connor, Winnipeg Jets

The Jets claimed sole possession of the first wild card in the Western Conference with a 4-2 win against the Edmonton Oilers. Connor scored twice in the third period to help the Jets extend their winning streak to four games. Defenseman Neal Pionk blocked a shot from Leon Draisaitl which allowed Connor to bolt toward the Oilers net. Blake Wheeler delivered a perfect pass to set up a breakaway for Connor who gave the Jets a 3-2 lead with a five-hole finish. Connor added an empty-net goal in the final minute to seal the victory for the Jets.

3) Cale Makar, Colorado Avalanche

After missing five straight games with an upper-body injury, Makar returned to the lineup and pitched in offensively with three assists in the Avs’ 3-2 win against the Rangers. He helped set up power-play goals for Tyson Jost and Vladislav Namestnikov in regulation. Then, during the three-on-three overtime session, he moved around the offensive zone until firing a wrist shot that Compher eventually deflected for the game-winning goal. Makar has recorded 50 points this season and is in a tight race for the Calder Trophy with Vancouver Canucks defenseman Quinn Hughes. The Avalanche remain two points behind the Central Division-leading St. Louis Blues but have one game in hand.

[RELATED: NHL evaluating options due to Coronavirus]

Highlights of the Night

Kane scored his second of the game after DeBrincat delivered a perfect cross-ice pass.

Connor McDavid returned to action and beat Connor Hellebuyck to the far post.

It only took Bobby Ryan 29 seconds to open the scoring when he buried this feed from Brady Tkachuk.

Playoff Push

Stat of the Night

Scores

Chicago Blackhawks 6, San Jose Sharks 2

Winnipeg Jets 4, Edmonton Oilers 2

Colorado Avalanche 3, New York Rangers 2 (OT)

St. Louis Blues 4, Anaheim Ducks 2

Los Angles Kings 3, Ottawa Senators 2


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.

Evander Kane rips Player Safety for ‘ridiculous’ three-game suspension

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The NHL’s Department of Player Safety’s decisions have come under fire lately — even more than usual. Following his three-game suspension for elbowing Neal Pionk, Evander Kane absolutely unloaded on George Parros and other decision-makers.

In particular, Kane claimed that “bias transpires in this department.” The Sharks winger claims that they pick and choose who gets “the book” and who gets a pass.

” … No one person can tell you what is or isn’t a suspension in today’s game, it’s become a complete guess,” Kane wrote as part of his statement. “There is a major lack of consistency with NHL Department of Player Safety. A completely FLAWED system in so many ways.”

Kane shares examples of inconsistencies he sees from Player Safety

Kane pointed to Zdeno Chara being fined (instead of suspended) for cross-checking Brendan Gallagher in the face:

Kane also wondered why he was suspended while Lawson Crouse avoided discipline for what Kane believes was a similar hit:

Full statement from Kane on Player Safety

Kane tweeted out his statement:

Read Kane’s statement in text form, if that’s easier:

The fact the NHL Department of Player Safety headed by George Parros continue to pick and choose, who and what they suspend is ridiculous! There have been countless incidents of the same nature through this season and past seasons that have gone unsuspended or fined. No one person can tell you what is or isn’t a suspension in today’s game, it’s become a complete guess. There is a major lack of consistency with NHL Department of Player Safety. A completely FLAWED system in so many ways. From the suspensions to appeal rights, it’s baffling to me how we as players agreed to this. You can’t continue to give some players a pass and throw the book at others. There has to be a outside third party making these decisions to remove the bias that transpires in this department headed by George Parros. None of it makes any sense.

Explanation for suspension

It’s wise to consider the specific suspension for a moment.

The league did thoroughly explain Kane’s suspension. The video describes it as a “dangerous extension of the elbow outward and upward.” It also cited Kane’s suspension history, and history of delivering over-the-line elbows.

Kane’s statement doesn’t really go into much detail about the hit on Pionk itself. Instead, Kane focused on a perceived double-standard, or a lack of clarity. Merely traipse around Hockey Twitter for a bit and you’ll realize Kane is not alone.

Many believe that Zack Kassian should have been suspended for more than seven games for recklessly kicking at Erik Cernak with his skate blade. That Chara fine instead of suspension also ranks up among the more polarizing recent decisions. In general, plenty argue that the league needs to do a better job protecting stars; it’s all too common for Elias Pettersson and others to be targeted.

However you feel about Kane’s statement, it’s clear that this process has a lot of room to improve.

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.

The Buzzer: McDavid injury scare; More Kovalchuk magic

Kovalchuk magic McDavid injury scare The Buzzer
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Three Stars

1. Patrik Laine, Winnipeg Jets

Consider a handful of Jets as the true recipients of this first star.

To begin, Laine generated a hat trick on Saturday. This marks the eighth hat trick of Laine’s young career, although it’s remarkably his first since Nov. 24, 2018. Laine improved to 51 points (in 54 games) this season, already exceeding last season’s 50. As promising as it is to see Laine become more of a playmaker, it also must be thrilling to see him fill the net like he did against Ottawa:

Other Jets give Laine plenty of competition for the first star of that win, and of Saturday in general. Kyle Connor actually scored more points with four, collecting one goal and three assists. Neal Pionk authored a three-point game of his own (1G, 2A). Laine nabbed a hat trick, including the game-winner, giving him a slight edge.

(Interestingly, Laine scored all three goals on the power play.)

2. Sean Couturier, Philadelphia Flyers

Couturier comes out on top in another situation where multiple teammates present an argument. Couturier generated one more goal (2G, 1) than Claude Giroux (1G, 2A) as both managed three-point outputs.

And, really, Couturier deserves all the plaudits one can provide as a perennial Selke candidate. Beyond the three points, Couturier enjoyed a +2 rating, fired five SOG, and went 14-4 on faceoffs. Even casual hockey fans should know Couturier is a star by now.

Coutrier and the Flyers blew the game open during this stretch, pushing Alex Ovechkin‘s pursuit of 700 to Monday.

3. Dillon Dube, Calgary Flames

It was tough to leave Mackenzie Blackwood (37-save shutout) and Jake Gardiner (three assists in Carolina’s comeback) out of the three stars.

Dube factored heavily in Calgary’s win and Vancouver’s fourth loss in a row on Saturday, however. Dube scored the game-winning goal and two assists, not needing an empty-netter to pump up his totals.

If Dube can put together NHL-quality work down the stretch, it would be huge for Calgary. He’s been a productive AHL scorer (at least a point-per-game in 2018-19 and 2019-20). There would be serious value in Dube merely becoming a useful supporting cast member for the depth-challenged Flames.

McDavid gets an injury scare

The Oilers are no strangers to crossing their fingers about Connor McDavid‘s knees. McDavid suffered a scare on Saturday, but the early word is optimistic. Dave Tippett told reporters that McDavid only suffered a bruised knee, and that it’s nothing serious.

Still, it’s a situation to watch, what with McDavid getting the knee iced during the game and also afterward.

Pronger honored

The Blues announced that Chris Pronger’s number 44 will be retired. It’s remarkable to ponder just how much Pronger accomplished with the Blues — including winning a Hart Trophy — and yet just as many people remember him most for impressive playoff runs with the Ducks, Oilers, and Flyers.

(On that note: I still believe Pronger should own at least one Conn Smythe Trophy.)

Saturday’s other best highlight

Honestly, this warrants a mention for Ilya Kovalchuk‘s celebration alone. It’s as if Kovalchuk is a totally new person (or his old self?) with the Montreal Canadiens.

Factoids

  • Kovalchuk moved into third place in NHL history with his 17th overtime goal (Sportsnet Stats).
  • Blackwood became the second Devil to generate shutouts in consecutive appearances. Good luck catching Martin Brodeur, though, being that he’s done so on eight different occasions. (NHL PR)
  • Nikita Kucherov ranks as the fifth player during the last 30 years to generate at least five different point streaks of 10+ games during the span of three seasons. Wayne Gretzky managed six from 1989-90 through 1991-92. (NHL PR)
  • Tanner Pearson continues to quietly produce for the Canucks. He’s tied for the second-highest total of points on the team since Nov. 12 with 34. (Sportsnet Stats)
  • Giroux generated his 800th regular-season point on Saturday. That places him fourth in Flyers history, and only 83 behind Bill Barber for second. Bobby Clarke will be tough to catch at 1,210, though. (NHL PR)

Scores

WPG 5 – OTT 2
BOS 4 – ARI 2
MTL 2 – TOR 1 (OT)
TBL 3 – NYI 1
PIT 3 – FLA 2
NJD 3 – LAK 0
PHI 7 – WSH 2
COL 2 – CBJ 1
EDM 3 – NSH 2
DAL 3 – STL 2 (OT)
CGY 6 – VAN 2
CAR 6 – VGK 5 (SO)

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.