Phase 3 Training Camp Preview: Can Jets’ Hellebuyck recapture Vezina form?

Sportsnet NHL Insider Elliotte Friedman joins David Amber to break down the key points of the NHL & NHLPA’s CBA agreement. Find out who came out a winner, who won’t like the new deal, and when Elliotte plans on shaving his beard.

At the time of the pause, the Winnipeg Jets were playing some of their best hockey and had put together their longest winning streak of the season (four games), while establishing a template for how they needed to play in order to be successful.

Those qualities were on display in a 4-2 win over the Edmonton Oilers in the final game before the lengthy break. Jets general manager Kevin Cheveldayoff made a couple of astute deals prior to the NHL trade deadline without sacrificing much of the future and both paid immediate dividends. The arrival of Dylan DeMelo from the Ottawa Senators stabilized an overhauled defence corps and provided a steady partner for Josh Morrissey on the top pairing, while the addition of Cody Eakin from the Vegas Golden Knights brought experience and bolstered a talented forward group.

With camp set to open on Monday, July 13, can the Jets advance past the Calgary Flames and qualify for the Stanley Cup Playoffs for a third consecutive season, or will they be in the mix for the first overall pick in the draft lottery?

Regular season record: 38-27-6 (ninth in West by points percentage)
Goals for: 216 (16th in NHL)
Goals against: 203 (12h in NHL)
Leading goal scorer: Kyle Connor (38)
Leading point scorer: Connor, Mark Scheifele (73)

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Injury updates

Bryan Little: The status of the veteran forward remains unknown, as he missed the final 54 games of the season with a perforated eardrum that has since been surgically repaired. Little also suffered a pair of concussions this season (including one in the final pre-season game against the Minnesota Wild on Sept. 29 and another on Nov. 5 against the New Jersey Devils), so the Jets will be cautious when it comes to his prospective return to game action.

Can he get back to speed in time to make a contribution? If he gets medical clearance and plays at the level he was at prior to the injury (five points in seven games), it would be a boost for the Jets forward group.

Luca Sbisa: After blocking 71 shots and recording 91 hits in 44 games this season, Sbisa missed the final 10 games of the regular season with an upper-body ailment. He’s in the mix to compete for time on the third pairing with Nathan Beaulieu and Tucker Poolman.

Sbisa, who was claimed off waivers from the Anaheim Ducks in late October, has 32 games of playoff experience (including 12 with Vegas in 2018) on his resume and brings a physical element to the table when his number is called.

Sami Niku: In a season filled with freak injuries — including a car accident with Kristian Vesalainen on the first day of training camp — the Finnish blue-liner sustained a lower-body issue prior to the pre-game warm-up on Feb. 25 before a game against the Washington Capitals — forcing him to miss the final six games of the regular season. He’s likely to start the series on the sidelines, but has the mobility and puck-moving ability to make a contribution if an opportunity presents itself.

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Player To Watch

After a slow start (eight points in 16 games) by Blake Wheeler‘s lofty standards coming off consecutive 91-point seasons, the Jets captain was one of the most productive players in the NHL during the final 55 games, chipping in 17 goals and 57 points. That pace had him 16th in the NHL during that span.

But will Wheeler start the play-in series alongside familiar linemates Mark Scheifele and Kyle Connor? Or might he move back to the second-line centre role he enjoyed for much of the season after Little went down with the injury? That’s a storyline to monitor during the coming weeks.

One interesting stat: 25

The number of power-play points produced by defenceman Neal Pionk during his first season with the Jets after the blockbuster trade with the New York Rangers. The 25-point total left him tops on the Jets and 12th in the NHL, tied with Auston Matthews, Nikita Kucherov, Quinn Hughes and J.T. Miller. As a point of reference, Leon Draisaitl had 44 power-play points to lead the league.

Possible line combinations

Forwards

Kyle Connor – Mark Scheifele – Blake Wheeler
Nikolaj Ehlers – Cody Eakin – Patrik Laine
Andrew CoppAdam LowryJack Roslovic
Mathieu PerreaultNicholas ShoreMason Appleton

Defence

Josh Morrissey – Dylan DeMelo
Dmitry Kulikov – Neal Pionk
Nathan Beaulieu – Tucker Poolman

Connor Hellebuyck
Laurent Brossoit

The biggest question facing the Jets is…

How quickly can Connor Hellebuyck get back to Vezina candidate form?

The Jets have a goalie who is the front-runner to win the Vezina Trophy and nobody faced more high-danger scoring chances than Hellebuyck this season. Having a hot goalie is of critical importance at any time, but especially so during a best-of-five series. Hellebuyck is looking to build on his 2018 Stanley Cup playoff experience, when he led the Jets to the Western Conference final.

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