The Winnipeg Jets are at a crossroads, with one foot out of the door of contention and one foot still trying to compete. At one point this off-season, they seemed destined to shuffle their core by moving franchise cornerstones Mark Scheifele or Blake Wheeler - or both.
They missed the playoffs last season but made them three of the four prior years. The Jets seemed poised to go on a deep run a couple of times, making it to the conference finals in 2018 but failed to ever really break through. With tensions around the team, reported rifts in the locker room, and an aging core, Winnipeg will need to figure out what’s next.
Fortunately for them, what’s next is an infusion of young talent. They seem to have built up quite a solid prospect pool with a number of high-end prospects who are just about ready to step into the lineup and become the next wave of Winnipeg Jets hockey. They’ve drafted well recently, finding talent all throughout the rounds.
Cole Perfetti sits atop their prospect pool at the moment and he very well could burst onto the NHL scene this season. The Canadian forward is the epitome of a true dual-threat offensive presence with his incredibly skillful playmaking ability and cannon of a shot that can find twine at a moment’s notice. Perfetti seemed to catch up to the pace of pro hockey last season which allowed him to play his cerebral game to its fullest extent. Perfetti isn’t the most fleet of foot, although he has improved his skating since draft day, so there are times when he wants to rein in the pace and pick apart his opponent’s mistakes. He excels at outsmarting the opposition which will be a treat to watch at the NHL level.
Last year, the Jets nabbed sniper Chaz Lucius in the first round. Playing at the University of Minnesota last year, Lucius had a solid offensive season with 19 points in 24 games before signing his entry-level deal. The one-and-done college player is headed for pro hockey now where he will likely start in the AHL, using his impressive off-puck movement and wicked shot to make an early impact. Be it a one-time shot or an off-balance wrister, every time that Lucius firs the puck, there is a legitimate shot that it goes in.
The Jets' development plan for Ville Heinola has been odd in the kindest of terms. He has been up and down from the NHL to the AHL a number of times over the last few years after making the team out of camp right after being drafted. He has gone to the Liiga to play in his native Finland for parts of a couple of seasons as well. Here’s the thing about Heinola: he has been one of the Jets' better puck-moving defenders over the last couple of years when put into the lineup. The issue is that they don’t seem to trust him defensively even though numbers indicate that some of the defenders they’ve rostered are much less impactful defensively over the last few years. Needless to say, the young Finnish defender should be in the lineup full-time this season and if he’s not, the fit may not be there and a mutual parting of ways via trade may be worth a conversation.
Nikita Chibrikov is a talented offensive player who has the speed and skill to be a highly productive contributor to the top six. He dashes and gashes opponents when they give him space, using his puck skill to open lanes for both passing and shooting. Daniel Torgersson is a less dynamic player but a bit more projectable to an NHL lineup. The Swede brings a power element to his game both on and off the puck, working hard to keep pace and understanding where to go at both ends of the ice. Torgersson likely won’t be a play driver, but he could be a highly effective powerplay presence and middle-six two-way forward.
On the back end, the Jets have a few interesting names behind Heinola. Dmitri Kuzmin is an incredibly dynamic offensive defenseman who has pulled of the lacrosse goal a number of times throughout his junior career, both in international competitions and in league play. He needs to work on play in his own end but he brings a dynamism that is extremely rare amongst blueliners. Anton Johannesson is an undersized defender as well with impressive mobility and offensive skill. Kuzmin regressed a bit this past season but he did seem to show a bit more commitment defensively, even if there is quite a way to go.
2022 NHL Draft Class
Round 1 (14 Overall) - Rutger McGroarty, RW, U.S. National Development Team (USHL)
Round 1 (30 Overall) - Brad Lambert, C, Pelicans (Liiga)
Round 2 (55 Overall) - Elias Salomonsson, D, Skelleftea AIK Jr. (J20 Nationall)
Round 3 (77 Overall) - Danny Zhilkin, C, Guelph Storm (OHL)
Round 4 (99 Overall) - Garrett Brown, D, Sioux City Musketeers (USHL)
Round 6 (175 Overall) - Fabian Wagner, C, Linkoping HC Jr. (J20 Nationall)
Round 7 (207 Overall) - Dom DiVincentiis, G, North Bay Battalion (OHL)
The 2022 NHL draft was a good one for Winnipeg. They had two selections in round one, acquiring the 30th overall pick when they sent Andrew Copp to the New York Rangers, as well as having their own pick at 14th overall. With their first pick, they chose U.S. NTDP captain Rutger McGroarty. A bull in a china shop at times, McGroarty is a player who is exceptional in his off-puck movement and forces his way towards the net to get into the dirty areas and score. McGroarty cheats for offense at times which can get on the coach's nerves but that will fit in perfectly with the Jets' core forwards. McGroarty is a smart offensive player with a great shot, slick hands in tight, and physicality in his game that teams covet. There is a lot of Blake Wheeler in McGroarty’s game.
Brad Lambert was a potential top-five pick at the start of the year and has the skill to be a big-game player. The problem is that between two different teams in the Liiga and a number of inconsistent showings internationally, Lambert hasn’t been able to put it all together. The young Finn could be one of the biggest steals of the draft or he could be the ultimate “what if”. He is an elite skater, a skilled passer, a transitional monster, and an uber-talented puck handler. He could pop off this upcoming season.
The Jets took another enigma in the second round in Elias Salomonsson. While he came into the year with expectations that he would showcase his dynamic offensive game and skilled passing and puck handling, Salomonsson would up starting slow before finding his game around midseason, although not in the way expected from him. His offensive game became simple and effective but lack the dynamism exhibited in previous years. His defensive game, which was a major question mark became sound and tactical. He flipped the script and began using his size and length to thwart offensive chances. If he can combine elements we’ve seen over the last few years, Salomonsson could be an interesting two-way defender moving forward.
Danny Zhilkin was highly touted early in the season and while he wound up being drafted in the third round, he was given a first-round grade by a number of people in the prospect world. Zhilkin is a good straight-line skater who excels through the neutral zone as a puck transporter. He has a very good shot and understands how to settle into pockets of space. Zhilkin could stand to get a bit more agile, but he seems like great value at 77th overall.
Garrett Brown is a transitional defenseman who creates with the puck on his stick in a limited role but is held back by poor skating and inconsistent defensive instincts. Brown has work to do in terms of getting his mobility up to a reasonable level but the University of Denver will be a good spot to do so.
At 175th overall, Fabian Wagner’s fall was ended by the Jets. His offensive game looks quite good at the J20 level in Sweden but it didn’t translate in the handful of games at the SHL level. He plays with energy and can look good in a depth role even when he isn’t scoring. He works hard and understands positioning quite well but he lacks the footspeed to be a dynamic presence. At 175th, Winnipeg found excellent value.
The center depth that the Jets have built up recently in their pipeline is impressive. They have a bit of everything from high-end players that are ready to step into the NHL right now such as Perfetti to massive swings on talent like Lambert. Wagner is a smart two-way presence who could project to the bottom-six while Danny Zhilkin is a middle-six transitional center. Lucius might wind up on the wing long-term but his goal-scoring touch is as good as just about anybody’s in the Winnipeg pipeline. The diversity and depth of their center pool is impressive, to say the least.
The Jets have hardly anyone on the left wing coming up. Torgersson is a nice piece but without much behind him, the Jets could use some depth there. Alex Limoges has found some AHL success but at 24 years old, there isn’t much development expected going forward. Morgan Barron is a young player who could bring some depth to the left side as well. It will be interesting to see if one or two of the centers move over to fill the need on left wing.
Next Man Up: C Cole Perfetti
Perfetti has been bubbling under the surface for a bit now. The young Canadian has torn up the OHL, dominated on the international stage, and found his game at the pro level, even showing up in the limited NHL action he received last season. Perfetti should play a prominent role in the Jets lineup this season and could be a legitimate threat for the Calder Trophy.
Prospect Depth Chart Notables
LW: Daniel Torgersson, Alex Limoges
C: Cole Perfetti, Chaz Lucius, Brad Lambert, Danny Zhilkin, Henri Nikkanen, Fabian Wagner
RW: Rutger McGroarty, Nikita Chibrikov, Dmitri Rashevsky
LD: Ville Heinola, Anton Johannesson, Dmitri Kuzmin, Declan Chisholm
RD: Elias Salomonsson, Jonathan Kovacevic, Simon Lundmark, Leon Gawanke
G: Mikhail Berden, Oskari Salminen, Arvid Holm
For a deeper dive into the prospect pool with player rankings, check out the Yearbook and Future Watch editions of the Hockey News print edition!