It was too much to expect the Winnipeg Jets to get lottery lucky again.
Last year at this time, the Jets held the sixth-best chance at winning (7.5 per cent) and ended up in the No. 2 slot behind Toronto, using the opportunity to grab sniper Patrik Laine, a Finnish prospect who had made a late-season charge up the rankings, capped off by being named tournament MVP at the 2016 World Championship.
Safe to say Winnipeg won’t get a prospect like 36-goal-man Laine in 2017. In fact, perhaps no one will land a high-impact teenager who will be a key cog right away in what is regarded as a relatively weak draft year. At least in that there are no ready-made superstars.
With the 13th overall pick the Jets may end up with another defenceman, whether it’s Cale Makar, Nic Hague, Miro Heiskanen, Juuso Valimaki or Cal Foote, son of former NHLer Adam Foote. If they land a forward, perhaps it’ll be Lias Andersson, Eeli Tolvanen, or Owen Tippett. In any event, these aren’t players to expect in the Jets’ lineup for the 2017-18 season.
And that’s OK.
They already have a strong base for the future, led by Laine, uber-focused Mark Scheifele, 21-year-old Nikolaj Ehlers, and 23-year-old defenceman Jacob Trouba, who rescinded his trade request early this season. Each of those players were top 10 picks in the draft. Josh Morrissey, 21, was the 13th overall pick in 2013 and averaged nearly 20 minutes a game in his rookie season.
Winnipeg made two first round selections in both the 2015 and 2016 drafts — Kyle Connor (17th overall in 2015) and Jack Roslovic (25th overall in 2015) were able to make the jump to the AHL this season since they weren’t drafted out of the CHL and the two finished top 20 in rookie scoring.
This isn’t a team in the foundation phase of a rebuild, as are the Vancouver Canucks, or at a crossroads, as are the Colorado Avalanche. They’re very much in a “trust the process” stage, where you can see the talent and how it should all come together soon. The challenge now is making it happen.
The future here is bright. They didn’t need a big win on lottery night, although that fortune would have been welcomed. The game plan in Winnipeg is about how to move this thing forward. It’s nice to have this nucleus of sub-25-year-olds, but with 30-year-old Blake Wheeler, 29-year-old Bryan Little and two 32-year-olds Dustin Byfuglien and Tobias Enstrom also key parts of the current core, the Jets must have the present in mind. Enstrom and 27-year-old Tyler Myers are heading into the final seasons of their contracts before they become UFAs.
As is the case with conference and country rival Calgary, the Jets need to address goaltending concerns this summer. Connor Hellebuyck, 23, still figures to be a central piece of the up-and-coming team, but they can’t go into another season with just him and career backup Michael Hutchinson, or 21-year-old Eric Comrie. Some experience is needed at least as a safety net, if not as a tandem option.
Any analysis of this team will key in on the goaltending this summer, but don’t underestimate the need to add more skill to the bottom-six forward unit. Gone are the days where you can think of the third line as a one-dimensional checking unit — now, it’s as important for that trio to be a collection of strong skaters capable of scoring as it is for them to be responsible on the defensive end. The Jets lack in this department.
We can discuss all the potential additions the Jets could and should make to get better this off-season until the cows come home and we’ll revisit those before July 1. However, when a team does get it right and reaches the playoffs, they still need to be successful at the draft table to keep the momentum going. You’re going to run into a situation where a contract or two becomes untenable under the cap, and in need of a capable replacement on an entry-level deal.
Good teams over the long-term have successful records picking further down the first round and on into the later rounds of the draft. In this sense, the Jets have been average at best.
In six years since returning to Winnipeg, Hellebuyck, Andrew Copp and Adam Lowry are the only post-first round picks the team has made to stick on the NHL roster. That’s not a lot of time to allow these less-polished prospects to make their way up and although Winnipeg does have a few who look promising, including Tucker Poolman or Chase De Leo, there’s certainly no sure-thing talent there.
This is something the Atlanta Thrashers struggled with that the Jets must avoid. Aside from getting Tobias Enstrom in the eighth round in 2003, the Thrashers didn’t hit on much after Round 1. Darcy Hordichuk’s 542 career games are the most of any other Thrashers post-first rounder, although Ondrej Pavelec was probably the best player of the bunch.
It’s just a reminder that while building out your core and drafting well in the first round is a path to success, far more than that goes in to attaining a successful team.
The Jets didn’t need to hit the jackpot in this year’s lottery. More important for them is pushing the present in the off-season, and doing the little things right to keep up the momentum.