The Hockey News’ 2018-19 Season Preview series dives into off-season transactions, best- and worst-case scenarios and one burning question for each team in reverse order of Stanley Cup odds.
Stanley Cup odds: 6-1
Key Additions: Laurent Brossoit, G
Key Departures: Paul Stastny, C; Joel Armia, RW; Toby Enstrom, D; Shawn Matthias, LW; Matt Hendricks, LW; Michael Hutchinson, G; Julian Melchiori, D
Years of piling up high draft picks loaded the Jets’ roster with sublime talent, and that finally culminated in a 114-point breakout, easily the best season in Winnipeg/Atlanta history. The scariest thing for the rest of the league: this team hasn’t peaked. Patrik Laine still has that 50-goal season coming. Connor Hellebuyck became a Vezina Trophy finalist and tied for the league lead in wins in his first full season as starter. From speedsters Nikolaj Ehlers and Kyle Connor to emerging workhorse defensemen Jacob Trouba and Josh Morrissey to top-liner Mark Scheifele, most of the Jets’ star players are in or approaching their prime years. Don’t forget veterans Blake Wheeler and Dustin Byfuglien, both still dominant in their 30s.
The Jets can keep pace with anyone offensively. They can match any team’s star power. Their roster is littered with end-of-season award threats. They have more prospects coming, too. Speedy, two-way pivot Jack Roslovic, for instance, broke into the league last year and could be the latest Jet to bust out if he leapfrogs Bryan Little for the No. 2 center job. The Jets are young, strong, fast and talented. Sound hyperbolic? It should. They’re our Stanley Cup pick, after all.
Paul Stastny was a hugely impactful acquisition at last season’s trade deadline. He was an ideal fit between Ehlers and Laine, forming a second line better than many teams’ first lines. Losing him in free agency, to the Vegas team that eliminated them no less, hurts the Jets a lot. The underrated Little remains a decent second-line center, but he’s no Stastny, and the bottom half of the lineup doesn’t look nearly as dangerous when Little shifts up. Mathieu Perreault, Adam Lowry and sparkplug Brandon Tanev are useful contributors, but the forward group as a whole can’t match the depth of some Cup contenders.
The same goes for the defense corps, actually. Trouba and Morrissey are a great shutdown tandem, Byfuglien can take over a game like few other D-men with his mix of brute force and scoring ability, but then there’s a drop-off. Tyler Myers had a good year but hasn’t been consistent. The group of Dmitry Kulikov, Sami Niku, Joe Morrow, Ben Chiarot and Tucker Poolman will produce a serviceable third pair. The blueline isn’t a weakness, but it isn’t elite. But this is nitpicking. There’s only so much you can criticize about a team that projects to be the league’s best.
Can Hellebuyck cement himself as one of the NHL’s elite keepers?
Hellebuyck was excellent in 2017-18 and basically rewrote the Winnipeg/Atlanta single-season record book with his performance. To wit, he now owns the single-season marks for wins, shutouts, save percentage and minutes played. He also shares the record for most saves in a season, matching Kari Lehtonen’s 1,892 from the 2006-07 campaign. But we’ve seen single season breakouts before only for young netminders to come crashing back to earth. In fact, the very netminder Hellebuyck usurped last season for the top job, Steve Mason, is one of the more prominent recent examples of such a scenario.
Granted, Hellebuyck’s performance felt different. He’s been working towards this, and despite a tough sophomore campaign in which he saw a significant dip in his numbers, Hellebuyck’s career averages are indicative of a netminder who’s far more than a flash in the pan. He boasts a .917 SP and 2.55 GAA across his 149 games in the NHL. And if Hellebuyck was going to turn into a pumpkin, it likely would have occurred in the playoffs. Instead, he out-duelled eventual Vezina winner Pekka Rinne in the post-season (before being out-duelled himself when Marc-Andre Fleury did his best impression of an acrobatic brick wall) and sported a .922 SP and 2.36 GAA when the Jets’ playoff run came to a halt in the Western Conference final.
There’s a lot of faith that Hellebuyck is the real deal. This season is his chance to prove it.
THE HOCKEY NEWS’ PREDICTION: 1st in the Central Division. We’re picking the Jets to win the Central and ride that home-ice advantage to the Stanley Cup. Winnipeg is deep and lethal up front with a blueline that is among the West’s best and a Vezina-calibre goaltender. That is a winning equation.
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