Jets Prospect Report: More youngsters will push for NHL spots in 2018-19

Kyle Connor scored his 30th goal of the season and the Winnipeg Jets defeated the Montreal Canadiens in overtime for their 50th win of the season.

Over the past two seasons, the Winnipeg Jets have graduated four players from the AHL’s Moose to the NHL roster and four of their top five scorers are under the age of 25. Given the Jets roster is so young already, there isn’t a great need to rush anyone else from the farm.

The salary cap, however, could lead to another promotion or two.

Winnipeg currently has $55 million committed towards next year’s salary cap which is expected to rise as high as $80 million. But at the same time, there are 14 players on the pro roster who are either RFA or UFA and in need of a new contract. Some of those, such as Paul Stastny, are probably long shots to stick around, but others – Jacob Trouba, Josh Morrissey, Connor Hellebuyck – are key pieces due significant raises. In another year, Kyle Connor and Patrik Laine are on track to break the bank.

The ensuing crunch may force the Jets to fill up the bottom forward units and defence pairs with cheap NHLers, and they could continue to find those players in their own farm system. With that in mind, here are a few players who could potentially make the jump if the Jets have a lineup need next October.

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REASONS FOR OPTIMISM

Sami Niku, D: The 14th-last pick of the 2015 draft earned a call-up this week and scored his first NHL goal against Carey Price. Not a bad start. Niku, a six-foot, 176-pound defenceman has 52 points in 71 AHL games to tie for the league lead in scoring among all blueliners — and it’s his first season in North America. He has grown leaps and bounds since his draft year and definitely has NHL-ready hair.

It may be better for Niku to spend another season in the AHL, though if that happens he’d likely be the first call-up at a time of need. Even if pending UFA Tobias Enstrom doesn’t return to Winnipeg, there is no obvious way for Niku to get into the opening night lineup without another trade. Tucker Poolman, who was the first AHL blue line call-up this year and has spent 23 games with the Jets, may actually have the inside track for a permanent job.

Still, Niku isn’t far off. He’s a great skater, puck mover and his production in the AHL is undeniable. The last similar player in age and production to Niku in the AHL is Anaheim’s Brandon Montour, who scored 57 points in 68 games as a 21-year-old in 2015-16. Today, at 23, he’s the second-highest scoring blueliner on the Ducks. The Jets won’t rush him, but Niku isn’t far from being ready for a permanent NHL position.

Tucker Poolman, D: As mentioned above, the 24-year-old Poolman was given the most opportunity of all the AHL blueliners, though he’s had limited exposure in the NHL with an average ice time under 13 minutes. With two points in 23 NHL games, Poolman doesn’t have numbers that jump out at you, but he also didn’t receive any power play time. In terms of advanced stats, Poolman’s 53.92 per cent Corsi was the highest on the Jets and he had the second-highest CF% relative to his teammates at 2.18 at 5-on-5. With Poolman on the ice the Jets control play more often than not, which is a positive indicator of his future contributions with more minutes.

Kristian Vesalainen, LW/RW: The big six-foot-three, 209-pound winger is playing in the Finnish League playoffs right now, but once those are over all indications are Vesalainen will sign his entry-level deal to play for either the Jets or Moose next season. Vesalainen had 43 points in 49 regular season games, which was good enough for 18th in Liiga scoring and 10 points more than the next highest-scoring under-20 player. Vesalainen turns 19 in June and though the Jets likely won’t lose any top-six wingers this summer, he’ll be given a long look in camp and could potentially find a home on the third line if Jack Roslovic slides to his natural centre position.

Brendan Lemieux, LW: For a more traditional checking-style winger on one of the bottom-two forward lines, the Jets could also turn to Brendan Lemieux, son of Claude. Lemieux scored at better than a point-per-game rate in each of his last two junior seasons, then, after struggling to produce as a first-year pro, broke out with 40 points in 46 AHL games this season, earning nine games in the NHL. He’s more of an agitator than some other prospects mentioned here and he still needs to become a more disciplined player. In two AHL seasons, Lemieux has amassed 277 penalty minutes.

Nic Petan, C: Similar to Lemieux, if Petan makes next year’s Jets, it’d be more as a bottom-six checker than top-six offence driver. The 23-year-old took his own big step forward in production this season, accumulating 52 points in 51 AHL games. The knock here is that Petan actually went backwards in his development, spending 54 games with the Jets in 2016-17, but getting just 15 this season. He’s also a negative player in terms of possession so it’s possible his chance with the Jets at least has passed him by as others build their own cases for promotion.

Mason Appleton, F: Another great story from the collection of 2015 draft picks, Appleton’s 61 points in 71 AHL games is good for fourth in league scoring and the rookie lead. This being his first pro season outside of college, and with the NHL roster so stacked with youth and top-six players already, Appleton may still get another season on the farm. At the very least he’ll be a popular call-up in 2018-19 and has a chance to build his case even further with a strong playoff for the Moose.

“Every round you play in the playoffs, when you evaluate your players at the end of the year, is like a full year evaluation,” Moose coach Pascal Vincent told the Winnipeg Sun. “Seeing how they will react. Because everybody’s tired, everybody’s excited, everybody’s playing for something bigger than just two points … it’s a huge evaluation, not only on the character, but where the player is at this time in his career.”

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