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HEALTHY SKRATCH: HELLEBUYCK SET TO CARRY JETS ONCE MORE

Last season saw the Jets take an unfortunate tumble from their brief status as a cup contender. They’ve still got several elite pieces that keep them from being very far off, but their cap situation makes getting back there a difficult puzzle to solve.

Over the course of the 2019 offseason, their defence went from being a force to be reckoned with to being one of the weakest in the league. Despite the positive progression of Josh Morrissey, Neal Pionk and Dylan DeMelo, the outlook for this group isn’t that much better than last season’s.

With Connor Hellebuyck in top form and the big guns up front firing on all cylinders, they’ll always have a fighting chance, but unless there’s a landscape-shifting move that drastically elevates the back end without losing too many goals up front, they’ll be hard pressed to be in the mix for anything more than a wildcard spot.

UP FRONT

Top heavy but loaded with firepower, the Jets will yet again have a forward group to be reckoned with. The addition of Paul Stastny shores up the hole left by Bryan Little at the number two center spot and will allow Blake Wheeler to remain on the wing full time, health permitting.

After first being acquired by Winnipeg for their 2018 playoff run, Stastny was an excellent fit before ultimately signing with Vegas in the offseason. He’s also been as good a number two center as virtually anyone in the league since his rookie year, but just four of his 15 NHL seasons have been played at an 80+ game pace.

The good: two of those 80+ game seasons have been in his past three. 

The not so good: he’s 34, and put up 39 points in 71 games last season. 

The odds of both staying healthy and having his production return to career average are not great.

Nate Thompson and Dominic Toninato were brought in as depth pieces. Both are capable penalty killers, and Nate Thompson is a fantastic locker room guy who will bring leadership, grit and strong ability on the face-off dot.

While they do lack scoring depth beyond the Top 6, the offensive output from Mark Scheifele, Blake Wheeler, Nik Ehlers, Kyle Connor and Patrik Laine is so substantial it makes up the difference. 

That being said, it makes for tough sledding when taking on teams that have the depth to roll four lines (especially when you factor in their thin defence).

A long-awaited breakout from Jack Roslovic would give opposing teams another ball to juggle when drawing up a gameplan, though he’s asked for a trade and his future with the team is murky at best.

ON THE BACK END

I’ll get this out of the way: this D corps overachieved last year on their way to giving up the most High Danger Scoring Chances Against (HDCA) in the league with 756, according to naturalstattrick.com. For perspective, the Minnesota Wild gave up the least HDCA with 444. That’s just one of their many poor defensive metrics to choose from. A team effort, to be sure, but not a result that happens with an adequate back end.

And yeah, you read that line right. They overachieved.

Going into last season, nobody quite knew how Josh Morrissey would respond to being the de-facto number one defenceman on such a decimated unit. He ran with it, some early ups and downs aside. 

Likewise, few saw Neal Pionk excelling like he did, playing outstanding hockey in the increased role that he was tasked with and entering a new echelon of impact defencemen.

The now-departed Dmitry Kulikov surprised with a return to being a serviceable Top 4 D. Tucker Poolman filled in admirably. Nathan Beaulieu and Luca Sbisa did what they could with the well-known limitations they have.

All this to say that things could have conceivably gone a whole lot worse than they did, and Connor Hellebuyck still had to play out of his damn mind to keep them in the hunt for a wildcard spot.

Dylan DeMelo provided much needed stability in 14 games with the team  (season & play-in combined) after coming over in a February 18th trade with Ottawa, and GM Kevin Cheveldayoff got him locked up to a four year deal that saw him forego his UFA status to stay with the team. 

Derek Forbort, brought into the fold this offseason, is an upgrade on both Beaulieu and Sbisa. He’ll likely get some looks in the Top 4 out of necessity, like he did in LA. 

Ville Heinola, Sami Niku and Dylan Samberg are three wildcards. 

In his first taste of the NHL, Heinola had an impressive five points in eight games last season. While that’s a tiny sample size and obviously not a pace you can expect him to keep up, his game projects very well as a possession driver who plays a steady, cerebral game in all three zones. 

Leading up to his draft year there were questions about his ability to produce offensively at the NHL level. While that’s still up for debate, he lit up Liiga while on loan to start the season, with 14 points in 19 games.

Niku had last season derailed by injuries and while his relationship with the team appeared to be on the rocks for a time, he signed a two year extension in the offseason. Expect trade rumors to persist for now. He remains a promising young player with Top 4 potential but his development has stagnated a bit in recent years. More on him later.

Samberg has developed well since being drafted in 2017. The second round pick plays a big role on a strong Minnesota-Duluth squad in the NCAA, skates very well for a man of his size (6’4, 215lbs), is a good puck mover and plays a tight, physical game defensively. He hasn’t played a game since March, so all eyes will be on his progression at training camp.

While I don’t see any of them moving the needle in a transformative way this season, there’s enough upside between them that if some combination proves to be NHL ready, it may offer a noteworthy boost to the Jets’ playoff hopes. 

BETWEEN THE POSTS

Connor Hellebuyck is a goalie that lives for action. Throw everything you’ve got at him and he’ll show up in his element, thriving. This season he’ll be tasked with replicating the success of the last, and if there’s anyone who can do it, it’s him. Just don’t underestimate how tall an order that is, especially in a condensed season. 

In an offseason where many teams added big name backups and 1B’s, the Jets doubled down on Laurent Brossoit. Time will tell how that plays out, but he’s never been relied on to play more than ¼ of his teams’ games and his performance has routinely fluctuated on a year by year basis throughout his career.

A down year for Hellebuyck or, god forbid, a significant injury, would almost certainly be the straw that breaks the camel’s back for a team that just two seasons ago seemed primed for a long contention window. 

SPECIAL TEAMS

Winnipeg’s power play dropped to the middle of the pack last season after being 4th in the league the year prior; understandable given the mass exodus on defence. Their penalty kill, on the other hand, remained in the bottom third of the league. 

The Stastny addition should provide a modest boost to the PP if he can stay healthy, but a much-anticipated Patrik Laine breakout would work wonders. A full season of Dylan DeMelo will help the PK, though I question how much.

UNDER THE RADAR

Sami Niku.

Here’s a guy with a lot of talent who badly wants, and feels he deserves, a permanent NHL spot. This caused friction with management last season, and his name has regularly shown up in trade rumours since.

When it comes to trading, Kevin Cheveldayoff has the goddamned patience of a monk in line for a port-o-potty at Burning Man, and I think he knows what he’s got in Niku. He locked him up for two more years in the offseason, and I just don’t see him trading low here. 

I think Niku’s got decent odds of making the team out of camp, then working his way into the Top 4 and onto the second power play unit over the course of the season.

CAMP SURPRISE

At the end of the day, I’m a sucker for high end talent. And make no mistake about it, Kristian Vesalainen has high end talent. 

He’s also been infuriating to watch at the AHL level, because you see him ooze with that talent but fail to translate it into consistent success, and he’s had a penchant for fading in games and going through the motions. It’s important to bear in mind he’s spent just one full season in the league and only had his 21st birthday in June. 

Ten years ago, a 21 year old, 6’4 power forward taking a few seasons to put it all together wouldn’t garner much scrutiny, but the NHL is a young man’s league now and skill players are NHL ready far younger than they used to be. 

Still, a big guy taking a bit more time to develop isn’t too concerning to me. I’m going with Vesalainen as a guy who impresses at camp and carves out a Top 9, supplementary scoring role.

CONCLUSION

Once again, the Jets have their work cut out for them. Their high-flying offence is going to have to be at its best, their still-flawed defence is going to have to overachieve, and their starting goalie is going to have to be phenomenal for the second year in a row. 

There’s more than enough here to say they’ve got a decent shot at the playoffs, but in an ultra tight all-Canadian division, I’ve got them finishing sixth, staying in the mix for a wildcard spot before bowing out late.

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