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The Winnipeg Jets are at a Crossroads

The Jets are a team stuck between the present and the future. Cheveldayoff will almost certainly need to thread the needle between rebuilding and rebooting in order to prolong the Jets' contention window, writes Mike Stephens.
Paul Stastny

The Winnipeg Jets are a team stuck between the present and the future. 

After selling off veteran assets at the trade deadline for draft picks and prospects, it looked as if a soft rebuild was in order. But the Jets have hung around in the playoff race, sitting two points out of the Western Conference's final wild-card spot with 14 games remaining.

They even find themselves stuck in between coaches at the moment, with Dave Lowry serving in an interim role after Paul Maurice stepped down midseason. 

No one -- perhaps not even the team itself -- knows where the Jets are going. 

It's hard to imagine much changing in Winnipeg, though. At least, anything meaningful. Not under this management group. 

The Jets have been a remarkably stagnant team since returning to their rightful home in 2011, with Maurice lasting from 2014 to 2021, and GM Kevin Cheveldayoff overseeing the front office for over a decade and counting. 

The past 11 years have seen the Jets retain a consistent core of players. Mark Scheifele debuted full-time in 2013. Blake Wheeler made the transition from Atlanta to Winnipeg in 2011. Nikolaj Ehlers broke into the league in 2015, as did Connor Hellebuyck. 

While some important pieces have come and gone since then -- namely Dustin Byfuglien and Andrew Laad -- those four players have served as the bedrock upon which the rest of the Jets' current roster has been built. And they've even accomplished a decent amount in their time together, helping shape the Jets into a consistent playoff team that marched itself all the way to the Western Conference Final in 2017. 

But those glory days appear to be at an end. They all have to, eventually. 

In the modern NHL, you have to know who you are. The Jets don't.

This is a capped-out team teetering on the playoff bubble. The Jets are essentially in no man's land; their roster not quite good enough to run alongside the league's contenders, but not poor enough to dip into the draft lottery. 

Perhaps these Jets squeak into the playoffs in a month's time and go on a magical run that shocks the world. It's not impossible. If the 2021 Montreal Canadiens can do it, anyone can. But even in that unlikely, best-case scenario, it would be a fluke. And that's kind of the point here, isn't it? 

When Andrew Copp was dealt to the New York Rangers two weeks ago, it seemed to point the Jets in one distinct direction. Copp was in the midst of a career year at age 27, set to become a free agent at season's end when his contract expires. From an asset standpoint, he's a seller's dream -- the type of trade chip whose asking price stocks the cupboard for the future.

But the Jets' rash of post-deadline success has put a wrench in any rebuild plans. How do you convince a veteran core to ride out the season in the hopes of a high draft pick? You don't. Especially when this might be their last chance at postseason hockey in Winnipeg. 

Let's face it: Blake Wheeler is getting old. The Jets' captain is 35 and on pace to finish with his lowest goal total over an 82-game season since 2011. Wheeler might be locked in for another two years after this one, but the deficiencies in his game that were once counterbalanced by near-elite offensive production have now become harder to ignore. 

That problem isn't only contained to Wheeler, either. In fact, both Wheeler and Mark Schiefele, two of the team's three leading scorers, are atrocious defensively. The Jets have been out-scored and out-chanced with either player on the ice dating back to 2017, generating just 49.70 percent of the scoring chances and 46.8 percent of the expected goals in Scheifele's even-strength usage this year, compared to 49.7 percent and 48.38 percent in Wheeler's. 

Frankly, it's impressive that the Jets even managed to get this far despite this, given how much their pair of top-six surrenders at the defensive end. 

The bulk of Scheifele and Wheeler's two-way ineptitude has, however, been salvaged in years past by elite goaltending from Hellebuyck, whose 2020 Vezina-winning season saw him stop a ridiculous 22.4 goals above average. But Hellebuyck has not been elite this season, with the 28-year-old saving just 6 goals above average thus far while rocking a .912 save percentage. 

Which, when viewed at face value, is not terrible, really. 

Accounting for the league-average save percentage in 2021-22 being .903, Hellebuyck has actually been an above-average goaltender this year, making it pretty telling that, when only given good goaltending opposed to near-league-best, the Jets have proceeded to tumble from the top of their division and down into the wildcard race. 

In most cases, management would be able to read the tea leaves and see a rebuild is in order. But the Jets, as they are constructed, don't really lend to one. 

While Scheifele and Wheeler are either approaching thirty or on the wrong side of it, the Jets have a decent group of talented young forwards who have just entered their respective primes.

Kyle Connor has been a monster this season, leading the team with 82 points in 67 games while challenging for 50 goals. Ehlers has dealt with injuries of late but is still a terrific play driver. And the Jets sold off the only top-two draft pick in (post-2011) franchise history for Pierre-Luc Dubois less than a season ago, and he won't turn 24 until June. 

How do you hit the re-set button with those players on your roster? You don't. And even if you do, those three will likely all be at the tail-end of their primes when it's time to start winning again. 

This means Cheveldayoff will almost certainly need to thread the needle between rebuilding and rebooting in order to prolong -- or, quite frankly, re-open -- the Jets' contention window. It's a balancing act few GMs have managed to pull off in the salary cap era, especially those as averse to major roster change as Chevy. 

But the Jets will need him to try. Because if he doesn't, they'll simply continue to float in hockey purgatory for years to come. 

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