Our Winnipeg Jets 2019-20 Preview is a part of our series covering the entire NHL. Check them out here in the lead up to another exciting season.
After a few seasons as one of the most intimidating teams in the NHL, the Winnipeg Jets lost some of that reputation through the end of the 2018-19 season. The team that had been one of the most difficult to play against in the league due to their fast playstyle, physical presence, dominant offense, and elite goaltending was stuck in a slump for a while and were ultimately defeated in the first round of the playoffs by the eventual champion Blues.
This has brought an offseason of uncertainty to Winnipeg. RFA’s Patrik Laine and Kyle Connor only signed at the very end of the preseason. Laine has even found himself in trade talks, albeit not much in the way of substantial or credible sources, but the rumours have begun flowing. The type of player that Laine is, and what he contributes, is highly divisive.
Sure, he is averaging ~36 goals per season in his first three years, but Laine is a one dimensional player who basically lives and dies on his ability to score. His advanced stats are nothing special even though he has a significantly higher percentage of offensive zone starts (60-40 in 2018-19). In the past two seasons, nearly half of his goals have been on the powerplay as well.
Coming off of a major down year that saw his production drop by 14 goals and 20 points, including stretches like scoring one goal in January and one goal in the last 19 games of the season, there may be a major discrepancy between what the team feels Laine’s value to them is and what Laine’s camp feels his value is.
Adding more to the roster uncertainty is the nearly complete overhaul needed on the defense. Gone are the two leading scorers from the blue line, Tyler Myers and Jacob Trouba. Both were longtime Jets who had been playing huge roles for the team and covering the lack of bottom pairing depth the organization had. Additionally, the status of Dustin Byfuglien is currently unknown. Early into training camp, the team announced Byfuglien had been granted a leave of absence, which we later learned was for him to consider his future in the NHL.
Unfortunately, players of their calibre are not easy to replace, especially from trades and free agency, so the Jets are entering the 2019-20 season with a massive downgrade on defense that will truly test the players on the team.
And, at the risk of starting something that isn’t really there, will a slow start to the season put Paul Maurice firmly on the hot seat? Despite great regular season success, the Jets have not been able to continue their strong play through the playoffs under Maurice. In their defense, however, the team’s best showing in the playoffs (2017-18) where they lost to the Golden Knights in the Conference Finals was after a long and grueling series versus Nashville, which very clearly fatigued the team. But, if last season’s struggles continue into November or even December this season, the team will need a change somewhere and the coach is usually the first to go.
Early in this iteration of the Winnipeg Jets, the team had a strong draft record that helped to surround the core built up during the time in Atlanta with complimentary and supporting players. Most of the team’s current roster are Jets draft picks, something that GM Kevin Cheveldayoff and his crew have been praised for once the fruits of their patience began to ripen.
As is the case with most top teams, however, they begin to sacrifice in the way of draft picks to help the ‘win-now’ mentality. The past few seasons have been a combination of less than an average number of draft picks and picks later in the rounds due to standings placement. With the exception of the lottery win that led to Patrik Laine, that is. The loss of top players (such as Myers and Trouba) and lack of high draft picks to replace them quickly can take a toll on the strength of a roster.
The amateur scouting and development staff will need to step their games up if they want to maintain the Jets’ position at the top of the league, since the Jets do not have a particularly impressive prospect pool, at the moment. Most of their best prospects have graduated to the NHL over the last 1-3 seasons.
The leadership of veterans Blake Wheeler and Mark Scheifele will be relied on through the preseason to help get the team motivated to start the season and the two-way play of the lower half of the forward group will need to step up to cover the lack of defensive depth the team now has. It will be a true test for the Jets, and they may have a difficult season unless Connor Hellebuyck returns to Vezina-calibre form.
Centre is currently the Jets’ strongest position. They are led up front by Mark Scheifele, who has blossomed into one of the league’s most electrifying scorers. Although it took him a few years to get to this point, the first ever draft pick for the Jets after their relocation has become a centrepiece of the team’s offense. He is an extremely dedicated professional and is always looking to take his game to the next level, and this season may be the one for him to focus on his two-way play now that the offense has levelled off at an elite level.
Longtime Thrasher/Jet Bryan Little may be one of the most overlooked players in the organization. Although he has never turned into a star player, Little has been a consistent force in the team’s middle line forwards for years and can reliably contribute 40-50 points, which is a respectable contribution on the second line. Combine this with his defensive stick and leadership, and you have an excellent team player.
Adam Lowry, who can slot in as the third or fourth line centre, depending on matchup and situation, gives the team a big body, a physical presence, and a reliable defensive forward to handle tough matchups/penalty killing. He is among the league’s best faceoff takers, ranking 5th in FOW% among players with 500+ faceoffs taken last season. Although the team would like to see a bit more offense from him on the third line, this is something that can be overlooked due to his heavier defensive load.
Jack Roslovic earned and established himself as a full-time NHL’er last season with his speedy, aggressive, and determined efforts on the ice. Roslovic has an offensive and playmaking upside that may see him move up the lineup or get some powerplay time with a couple of the team’s better snipers, but for the time being, will give the team an offensive boost from the bottom line.
The veteran Mark Letestu may slot in as a centre in certain situations, but he is equally capable of playing wing. Letestu has turned into a very specific-use player in recent years, however, as he found the most success in Edmonton as a special teams wizard. Most importantly, however, if Letestu is playing on the Jets, it is much more difficult for him to score on the Jets (Patrik Laine excluded). This started to become a real concern during his time in Edmonton, as Winnipeg is the team he has scored on the most in his career.
Luckily for the Jets, their dominant high-profile offensive players will remain together for another season. The sniper Kyle Connor and captain/playmaker extraordinaire Blake Wheeler project to join Mark Scheifele and look to continue their magic on the ice. Watching this line play together is a thing of beauty sometimes, as the way they are able to move the puck around the offensive zone, generate intense pressure, and create high quality scoring chances out of nothing is frightening to watch as a fan of another team. They also are a great fit for each other. Connor is more of a scorer/sniper, Wheeler puts up a crazy number of assists, and Scheifele can do it all.
After that, however, it gets a bit tricky. Nikolai Ehlers is the presumed second line left winger, but Patrik Laine’s status is still unknown. The best fit for his skillset would be to slot in on this line as the right winger. He may get some time with Blake Wheeler to try and utilize the elite playmaker with elite shooter combination, but Laine’s unreliability in other areas of his game make it a tricky combo when the Jets’ first line needs to be able to handle a more difficult defensive load.
The past few years, the bottom half of the Jets’ forward groups have been filled with energy, grit, and role players that wear opponents out. This season may show a bit of a shift to a more offensively oriented group. Mathieu Perrault and Andrew Copp are the returnees, who will bring the historical gritty presence, but the loss of Tanev and Lemieux has opened up roster spots for Kristian Veselainen and Mason Appleton to join the NHL team full-time. Both of these prospects are offensively gifted players, with Veselainen having a bit higher upside and may find himself playing up higher in the lineup at times. But, the Jets have not been a team keen on pushing prospects too quickly so they will be gradually given a more expanded role over time.
The Jets’ defense is worrisome this season. In previous years, it had been one of their strong points, as they had a high-end top-4 and a serviceable bottom pairing. But, this season their top pairing is alright and the bottom two are questionable at best. Dustin Byfuglien and Josh Morrissey are the team’s two best defenders and were the presumed top pair. Dmitry Kulikov and Neil Pionk would have likely started the year as the team’s second pair. But, with Byfuglien currently not in the lineup, Kulikov or Pionk will have to move up and play even higher above where they should be in a lineup. Due to handedness, Pionk is the early favourite for top pairing duties.
After an exceptional pre-season, 2019 first round draft pick Ville Heinola is more or less confirmed to have made the Jets’ roster to start the season. With a young, offensive-minded, and smaller defender, Heinola is going to need a consistent, defensive presence on his pair to help him adjust to the NHL. Heinola could give the Jets a bit of a boost from the back-end. Although he may only get the 9-game trial for rookies, anything helps at this point.
The lack of depth is really apparent at defense from here on, as the bottom half is going to be a rotating cast of Anthony Bitetto, Nathan Beaulieu, Tucker Poolman, Sami Niku, or whichever AHL call-up happens to get a shot that month. Although Niku is not flashy, he was a fairly steady presence on the bottom pairing last season while Dustin Byfuglien was injured and shows the potential to move up the lineup. With Byfuglien’s absence to start the 2019-20 season, he may find himself moving up very quickly.
Whereas the rest of the Jets’ bottom pairing competition is about as good as they’ll ever be, Niku is still young. At 22, he has a few years left before he starts getting into his prime years as a defenseman. Now will be a great chance for him to take the next step in his development to help give the Jets another decent option on the back end.
One last option for the team will be Logan Stanley. His development has been slow, but the 6-foot-7 rearguard has been developing nicely in the AHL with the Manitoba Moose. The biggest concern for someone of his size will be his footspeed and agility, but Stanley is dedicated and continuing to improve game after game. Again, the Jets are not a team to rush prospects so he will likely start in the AHL again this season, but his name will be high up on the injury replacement list so expect him to make his NHL debut this year.
It’s always nice to breathe that sigh of relief when you remember you have a Vezina-calibre goalie in net, so Jets fans can relax just a bit. As long as Connor Hellebuyck returns to form this season, that is. We are still trying to figure out what his normal NHL performance level is, but the one consistent thing so far in his career is a bad year is followed by a good year. Last season was bad, so should we expect a good season this year?
If not, Laurent Broissoit will hopefully be able to pick up the slack. He did not play well enough in Edmonton to show he was an NHL-calibre goalie, but last season in Winnipeg was a respectable showing by the netminder. Although his numbers weren’t out-of-this-world, they were good enough to hold the Jets in some games.
Eric Comrie lies in waiting as the starting goalie for the AHL Moose. He was surpassed in the depth chart by Hellebuyck and Broissoit, but has become one of the top goalies in the AHL. His NHL games so far have been less than impressive, but at 24, there is no reason to give up on him quite yet.
Winnipeg Jets 2019-20 Prediction
3rd – 5th Central Division
If everything goes right for the team and they can cover for the lack of defense, which they have shown to be capable of to an extent, they should stay competitive for a spot in the division. But, with the uprising of Colorado and uncertainty of where Dallas and St. Louis will land, a slow start while adjusting to the massive losses to the roster this offseason could signal a spiral down the divisional standings. But, Cheveldayoff has shown himself to be an astute mind and maybe the players he has added to the defense will be a more solid group than we are predicting from on paper. Regardless, the elite high-end offensive talents and goaltending the Jets possess make it difficult to see too much of a regression this season.