Just over two seasons after a trip to the Western Conference Finals, the Winnipeg Jets have suffered some bumps on the road since that time, but believe they are ready to regroup and race in the North Division.
After back-to-back early postseason outings, the Jets are counting on a Vézine-winning goaltender, a highly skilled group of strikers and some internal stability and growth at the back – after a radical overhaul before the 2019-20 season – to help them get back to where they’d like to go.
Regular season record 2019-2020: 37-28-6, 80 points
End of the 2019-20 season: 20th overall in percentage points, fifth in Central Division, lost in four qualifying round games to the Calgary Flames
Best pick in the 2020 draft: C Cole Perfetti, Saginaw Spirit, OHL, 10e au total
Additions: C Paul Stastny (Vegas Golden Knights), D Derek Forbort (Calgary Flames / Los Angeles Kings), C Nate Thompson (Philadelphia Flyers / Montreal Canadiens), RW Trevor Lewis (Los Angeles Kings) * on offer professional test but a good bet to make the team.
Subtractions: C Cody Eakin (Buffalo Sabers), D Dmitri Kulikov (New Jersey Devils), D Carl Dahlstrom (Vegas Golden Knights), D Anthony Bitetto (aux Rangers de New York), C Nick Shore (en Europe), LW Gabriel Bourque (agent libre ), RW Logan Shaw (Sénateurs d’Ottawa), C Mark Letestu (retraité).
The Jets are considered by many observers to be a wild card among the Group of Seven, a team that could finish between second and sixth.
During a tight schedule, goalies become even more important than usual and the Jets have the NHL’s best goalie at Connor Hellebuyck, so that’s a clear advantage.
Having an effective save is also essential, even for a team that has a good rookie who prefers to play the bulk of games.
Laurent Brossoit was excellent in the 2018-19 campaign before suffering a groin injury, but his game plunged last season, so it behooves him to get back into shape.
The Jets tandem middle goaltenders won’t be enough, they have to perform at an above-average to elite level to be a playoff team – especially with just four spots left.
The Jets gave up far too many high-risk scoring opportunities last season and the goal for this group will be to wrap up defensively.
Even with full commitment, it will be a process, not an overnight fix.
“I understand what we have. What are our defensive challenges, ”said Jets head coach Paul Maurice, who is back for a full seventh season behind the bench. “The defense will be an improvement throughout the season. We clearly gave up too many top-end chances, but our level of competition was really very good. So we have to make some adjustments with this. We’re going to work really hard to get marginal returns defensively, but we’re going to do it. I think there’s a lot of room offensively for us to grow – it’s just with a little bit of adjustment.
The Jets have the potential to be a high octane attacking squad with one of the NHL’s most dangerous first six forward sets, let alone the division after the addition of Paul Stastny.
“(Stastny) is cut from a different fabric, more of an old fashioned mold,” said Jets captain Blake Wheeler. “The way he plays the game, mentally, he’s one step ahead of everyone else. He’s incredibly reliable on faceoffs and he’s the type of cross that improves the people around him. You can put any player online with them and they will flourish. He’s just a constant presence in alignment.
Top center Mark Scheifele has been operating at a point-per-game level for four seasons, but he has room to develop and will have every opportunity to take that next step as some of the NHL’s best hubs face each other.
Kyle Connor has just finished three straight 30-goal campaigns, including a high of 38 goals in 71 games.
Wheeler remains an elite passer and he has scored 20 goals in seven consecutive seasons (and eight times in his career), while Nikolaj Ehlers and Patrik Laine have taken their respective games to another level but have yet to reach the ceiling.
Having Dylan DeMelo for a full season after retaining his services and bringing in Derek Forbort to add size and stability should give a boost to a defense corps led by Josh Morrissey and Neal Pionk.
“It’s no secret that there is some serious star power in this division. Even if you look across the center of the ice, there are a lot of good players on each team, ”said DeMelo. “It will be our job to eliminate the chances, to get the puck out of our zone as quickly as possible, to pass it to the forwards.
“Simply work as a unit. The coaches insisted on eliminating the odds in this area of the house, in the slot machine. Hope we can do it. It will also go a long way in helping our goalkeepers. They faced a lot of pucks last year and we can do a good job, not just the D, everyone on the ice. It will be a five-man unit. Everyone has to realize at certain times who we are against and play smart.
If the defense corps does not hold up, Jets general manager Kevin Cheveldayoff will be tasked with either taking a step towards strengthening the rear end or hoping that one of the defense hopefuls like the first round of 2019 City Heinola will work its way into the roster.
Jets fans should exercise cautious optimism as we approach a season that could be filled with surprises.
Considering how things have unfolded over the past two seasons, it’s natural to have some skepticism.
However, if some things fall into place, it wouldn’t be at all surprising to see the Jets come out on top in the playoff mix.
X factor: Patrik Laine
There are a number of players that fall into that category, but the storyline that has dominated the offseason revolves around Laine’s future, so he gets the nod here.
While it was at times embarrassing and at times uncomfortable for him as he tackled business speculation for the first time on Monday, the Finnish sniper has made it known he doesn’t want to be a distraction and will channel his energy towards its pursuit of becoming a dominant player.
With a year left on his bridging contract, Laine (a pending restricted free agent who has arbitration rights) understands that the best way to increase both his contract value or business value is to come up with a season of escape.
After watching the progress he made last season, it wouldn’t surprise anyone if Laine returned to the Rocket Richard Trophy discussion and produced at a points-per-game rate for the first time in his young career.
Player who might surprise: Mason Appleton
With RFA Jack Roslovic still unsigned, Appleton has the inside track to start the season on the third row with Adam Lowry and Andrew Copp.
Although best known for their defensive reliability, Lowry and Copp have excellent chemistry and have the ability to create plenty of chances while building up time in the offensive zone.
Two seasons ago, Brandon Tanev set career highs with 14 goals and 29 points in 80 games while playing primarily alongside Lowry and Copp before winning as a free agent with the Pittsburgh Penguins.
Appleton’s skill set has many qualities required to fit in with the third-row duo and he could be on the verge of his first double-digit goalscoring season.