The Jets are looking to take the long-awaited step forward and become a playoff team, but that’s going to be tough to accomplish in the star-studded Central Division.
The Hockey News is rolling out its 2017-18 Team Previews daily, in reverse order of Stanley Cup odds, until the start of the season. Today, the Winnipeg Jets.
Stanley Cup odds: 35-1
Key additions: Steve Mason, G; Dmitry Kulikov, D; Matt Hendricks, LW
Key departures: Ondrej Pavelec, G; Chris Thorburn, RW; Paul Postma, D
Can the Jets defense take a leap this season?
Tyler Myers was the team’s best possession driver last year, but he was also limited to just 11 games of service due to a lower body injury that required surgery. Jacob Trouba ate a ton of minutes, though his impact was felt more in the second half because of a contract dispute that cancelled out the first 15 games of the season. With the rising Josh Morrissey and powerful veteran Dustin Byfuglien returning, Winnipeg appears to have the makings of a crack ‘D’ squad. Now they need to put it all together.
The Jets were not a good possession team last year and they also weren’t good at shot suppression, ranking bottom-10 in both categories. There is hope that new goalie Steve Mason will help the goals-against problem, but he is only marginally better than Ondrej Pavelec – Connor Hellebuyck is going to be the key. So if Hellebuyck is still finding his NHL form on a long-term basis, the only way Winnipeg is going to sniff a playoff spot in the Central is if the defense steps up – and staying healthy will go a long way towards making that happen.
With Patrik Laine, Mark Scheifele, Nikolaj Ehlers and Blake Wheeler, the Jets have enough firepower to lead the NHL in goals. Laine, Scheifele and Ehlers are still ascending. It wouldn’t be a surprise to see Laine top 40 goals and win the Rocket Richard Trophy after sniping 36 as a rookie with his amazing shot, and setup man Scheifele has a 90-point season in him. Another exciting young talent, Kyle Connor, should make the top-nine forward group, bringing game-breaking speed and goal-scoring ability. Toss in Bryan Little and Mathieu Perreault and you have a formidable attack.
The Jets have big, strong, versatile pillars to lead their defense in Dustin Byfuglien and Jacob Trouba. Plus, puck-mover Josh Morrissey finally made strides last season. Maybe he starts picking up points this year, as he was projected to do as a first-round pick in 2013. That would help Winnipeg’s consistently weak power play. The Jets need Steve Mason to stabilize the crease and mentor Connor Hellebuyck. Even average goaltending would make this team a playoff threat for the first time since 2014-15.
About the only thing that went right for the Jets last year is they finished with the seventh-most goals in the league. Have the flaws been remedied? The forward group made no significant acquisitions and thus will rely on help from within. Connor’s potential is tremendous, but he struggled in his first NHL shot last season. Dmitry Kulikov inked a three-year, $13-million deal, which is a lot for a player coming off a career-worst, injury-marred campaign. Will he upgrade the Jets’ defense corps or weigh it down? Mason posted a .908 save percentage in 58 games last season. Is he really better than Hellebuyck? It’s just as likely the goalie position remains a liability.
And what happens to coach Paul Maurice? Under his tutelage, the Jets have made the playoffs once in three-and-a-half seasons. They’ve struggled with their special teams over that span. Maurice has only coached a team into the playoffs in five of his 20 seasons. What if this incarnation of the Jets fails to take off under his watch? Maurice will need a strong start to 2017-18. Otherwise, the calls for his job will become deafening.
THN’s PREDICTION: 6th in Central. With too many teams ahead of them in the division, less-than-ideal goaltending and the same coach that has yet to see a playoff win in town, the Jets will be on the outside looking in after 82 games.