That wasn’t how the 2018-19 season was supposed to go. On the heels of a trip to the conference final, the Winnipeg Jets were expected to use last season to assert themselves as the class of the NHL – a true juggernaut that scored at will and defended with size, strength and one of the league’s best goaltenders.
Instead, Winnipeg struggled with consistency, earning 15 fewer points than the previous campaign, nearly lost home-ice advantage late in the season and were eventually sent packing six games into the playoffs. It was a disappointing encore, plain and simple.
Don’t take that to mean expectations have been lowered, however. Winnipeg’s window is still wide open, and the elite offensive talent that powers the Jets will keep them in contention, even if they did suffer significant losses on the blueline. The problem is, in the cutthroat Central Division, it’s as easy to finish fifth as it is first.
We know what to expect out of the Jets’ attack, which has been among the league’s most lethal – last season’s 270 goals were the seventh-most in the NHL. We also know who will lead the way. Mark Scheifele has staked his claim as one of the league’s top pivots, Blake Wheeler continues to age like a fine wine, and Kyle Connor has proven he’s the top-line scorer he was drafted to become.
But that doesn’t mean there aren’t a few questions, the most pressing of which is what version of Patrik Laine we’ll see this season. In November 2018, Laine was unstoppable, scoring 18 goals in 12 games, but then he managed only nine tallies in his final 58 games for a career-low 30-goal campaign. He’s a key cog, but if last season was the start of a downturn, it will spell trouble.
The centerpiece stays the same, as the steady Dustin Byfuglien is unquestionably the blueline leader, but the group around ‘Big Buff’ has changed immensely. Gone are Jacob Trouba, Tyler Myers and Ben Chiarot with no free-agent additions to replace them.
Neal Pionk arrives, Dmitry Kulikov remains, and Sami Niku looks primed for a full-time shot, but the departures are worrisome for a club that surrendered the fifth-most shots against. How successful the team defense will be depends on the continued growth of Josh Morrissey, who remains one of the league’s most underrated blueliners.
Last season was tough on Connor Hellebuyck, who followed his Vezina Trophy runner-up campaign by surrendering more goals against than any other keeper and posting a mediocre .913 save percentage. He needs better insulation from his defense, and more rest could be one key to greater success. His 130 games over the past two seasons are more than any other goalie. Laurent Brossoit is a capable second-stringer, and the Jets should lean on him more often.
Laine’s one-time blast is one of the game’s greatest power-play weapons, especially when paired with Wheeler’s remarkable playmaking ability. There’s little that needs to be adjusted in that regard. The penalty kill, however, needs all hands on deck, as it tied for ninth worst in the NHL. It was often a shooting gallery for the opposition, and it didn’t help matters that the Jets were among the league’s least disciplined outfits. Winnipeg was shorthanded 250 times, more than all but eight teams. It’s an issue that needs addressing.
Inconsistency plagued the Jets last season. Some nights, Winnipeg looked like a top contender for the Stanley Cup. On other nights, defensive lapses and mindless errors paved the way to defeat. And rarely did one positive performance carry over to the next.
Kristian Vesalainen, a 6-foot-3 winger, exercised his option to head back overseas after being stashed in the minors last year, but he’s aiming to stick with the big club this season. Spots have opened up in the bottom six, and his offensive upside can replace some of the departed skill.
The Jets failed to replace what was lost when Trouba was shipped to the New York Rangers, and the lack of a shutdown defender is apparent. Winnipeg’s greatest shortcoming is its ability to slow the opposition’s attack, and the blueline will need to be greater than the sum of its parts.
How close is Paul Maurice to the hot seat? GM Kevin Cheveldayoff has given the coach a talented roster, but the Jets went in the wrong direction last season and salary-cap constraints have resulted in a shrinking window. It’s not quite win-now for Winnipeg so much as it is win-soon. If there are stumbles early, will the Jets consider a change?
– Jared Clinton
Stanley Cup Odds: 17/1
Prediction: 4th in Central
The future is Finnish in Winnipeg, where power forward Kristian Vesalainen, top ‘D’ prospect Sami Niku and 2019 first-rounder Ville Heinola all speak the same language as Patrik Laine. Heinola, selected with a pick acquired in the Jacob Trouba trade, has shown impressive hockey sense and poise from the blueline while playing against men in the Liiga. Big blueliner Dylan Samberg won his second NCAA title with Minnesota-Duluth, and Tucker Poolman is on the cusp of NHL duty.
1. Kristian Vesalainen, RW
Age 20 Team Jokerit (KHL)
A big winger with a powerful shot. Uses his size effectively during battles in high-traffic areas.
Acquired 24th overall, 2017 NHL ’20-21
2. Dylan Samberg, D
Age 20 Team Minn-Duluth (NCHC)
Added some offense to a strong, physical game. Mobility coming along as well. In junior season.
Acquired 43rd overall, 2017 NHL ’21-22
3. Sami Niku, D
Age 22 Team Manitoba (AHL)
Great vision and a good shot. He’s been patient waiting for an NHL opening, and now it’s here.
Acquired 198th overall, 2015 NHL ’19-20
4. Mason Appleton, RW
Age 23 Team Manitoba (AHL)
AHL rookie of the year in 2017-18 is a great passer. Showed glimpses in 36 games with the Jets.
Acquired 168th overall, 2015 NHL ’19-20
5. Logan Stanley, D
Age 21 Team Manitoba (AHL)
Few players can match his monstrous size. Uses that frame to dominate in front of his net.
Acquired 18th overall, 2016 NHL ’20-21
6. Ville Heinola, D
Age 18 Team Lukko (Fin.)
Poised young defender. His excellent vision and hockey IQ make mistakes rare.
Acquired 20th overall, 2019 NHL ’22-23
7. Tucker Poolman, D
Age 26 Team Manitoba (AHL)
Big blueliner has had success at every level but has struggled with injuries. Now is his time.
Acquired 127th overall, 2013 NHL ’19-20
8. Eric Comrie, G
Age 24 Team Manitoba (AHL)
Four good seasons in AHL suggest he’s close. Needs an outstanding camp to win backup job.
Acquired 59th overall, 2013 NHL ’20-21
9. David Gustafsson, C
Age 19 Team HV71 (Swe.)
Hardworking two-way center with good strength.Limited offense restricts his use to fourth line.
Acquired 60th overall, 2018 NHL ’22-23
10. Johnny Kovacevic, D
Age 22 Team Merrimack (HE)
Turned pro after third rock-solid year in NCAA. He has a pro-sized frame but skating needs polish.
Acquired 74th overall, 2017 NHL ’22-23