Comb through the Winnipeg Jets’ draft record and one thing becomes apparent quickly: This team knows how to turn first-round picks into players.
Kevin Cheveldayoff has overseen nine drafts in his tenure as Winnipeg GM, beginning with the 2011 event that saw Mark Scheifele become the first selection of the Jets 2.0 era. That shrewd pick was definitely a harbinger of things to come in terms of identifying first-round talent. And it’s not like the team has been dining out at the very top of the draft table. Aside from some lottery luck that returned Patrik Laine second overall in 2016, Winnipeg hasn’t made another top-five pick and its top-10 selections are Scheifele (seventh in 2011), Jacob Trouba (ninth in 2012) and Nikolaj Ehlers (ninth in 2014).
In all, Cheveldayoff has called 10 names in the first round and the only two who haven’t worked out to some degree so far — Kristian Vesalainen and Logan Stanley — still have time to prove their worth.
From Day 1, Cheveldayoff preached a ground-up approach when it came to constructing this team. Selecting and developing young talent was always going to be paramount. With that in mind, let’s rank the nine drafts on Cheveldayoff’s watch.
This might be a controversial pick given what the runner-up year delivered, but hear me out. Winnipeg selected Trouba ninth overall at this draft and used the 130th overall pick to nab Connor Hellebuyck. That’s a right-shooting, top-four defenceman and a franchise stopper from one weekend.
Trouba was actually one of eight blue-liners taken in the top 10 that year. (The only non-defencemen were winger Nail Yakupov at No. 1 and centre Alex Galchenyuk at No. 3.) Pittsburgh whiffed with Derrick Pouliot right before Trouba at No. 8 and Tampa missed at 10, taking Slater Koekkoek. The only defencemen from that draft who you’d definitely take ahead of Trouba now were taken ahead of Trouba then, that being Morgan Reilly (fifth) and Hampus Lindholm (sixth).
Goalies, more than any other position, are a draft crapshoot. The scouting staff sure got it right when they plucked Hellebuyck — the Vezina runner-up in 2018 and a contender for the award again this season — from the North American Hockey League’s Odessa Jackalopes.
Scheifele was not only the first pick of the new Jets, he remains the most important. Finding a beastly, point-per-game pivot with an out-of-this-world work ethic is a win if you hold the first overall selection, let alone the seventh. Scheifele was a late-bloomer as a teenager, too, so the Jets were rolling the dice a bit on a guy who played Jr. B the season before his draft-eligible year, which was spent taking huge strides with the OHL’s Barrie Colts.
The other find in that draft was third-rounder Adam Lowry, who’s become a dependable third-line centre with an imposing frame. Had the Jets hit on anyone else in this draft, it would top this list. However, the five other picks Winnipeg made that year played a combined one NHL game. (The answer to that obscure bit of trivia, before you ask, is goalie Jason Kasdorf.) Unfortunately, the inability to find impact players outside the first round — especially when it comes to skating positions — has been a bit of a theme for Winnipeg.
The Jets entered what turned out to be the draft of the decade with two first-round picks thanks to the deal that sent Evander Kane to the Buffalo Sabres in February of that season. With its own selection, Winnipeg nabbed Kyle Connor 17th overall. In that spot, that’s not a home run — it’s grand slam. Connor has scored at least 30 goals in each of the past two seasons and was on pace to lead the team with 44 over 82 contests when this year was interrupted.
Jack Roslovic has yet to realize his full potential, but the 25th pick from 2015 was making strides this year and may yet add to the Jets’ already impressive arsenal of forwards — or become a valuable trade chip for a club looking to upgrade on the back end.
Of the five players taken after Roslovic in the first round that June, only New York Islander Anthony Beauvillier has shown more at the NHL level.
Winnipeg also did its best work beyond the first round in 2015. Three other players from that draft logged games for the Jets this year, including Jansen Harkins (47th overall), Mason Appleton (168th) and offence-minded defenceman Sami Niku, who may yet be a real steal at 198th overall in the seventh round.
It was lucky No. 13 to be sure for Winnipeg when the team took defenceman Josh Morrissey in that spot at the ’13 draft. Morrissey is the kind of cerebral player whose value and potential is understood by those on his team two years before the rest of us catch on. Come at me with Darnell Nurse and Ryan Pulock talk if you must, but there’s a good chance Seth Jones will be the lone defenceman from this draft who winds up with a better career than Morrissey. The latter is just beginning to unlock his offensive potential.
Andrew Copp, a fourth-rounder from 2013, has played 356 games for the Jets and keeps nosing his offensive output a tiny bit forward each season. Also, fifth-rounder Tucker Poolman established himself as a full-time NHLer on the back end this year.
Taking Patrik Laine second overall was an important development for the franchise, but it wasn’t any kind of draft wizardry given we knew the team drafting first that year was taking Auston Matthews and the next club up was getting Laine. That said, for much of the year Laine’s countryman, Jesse Puljujarvi, was viewed as a prospect with just as bright of a future. By the time the draft rolled around, though, there wasn’t much doubt about who would be the first Finn taken.
The real coup — in the first year the NHL moved to a system where a lottery is held for the top three picks — was moving up to the second spot despite having just the sixth-worst record that season.
The Jets held a second first-rounder in 2016 thanks to the deal that sent former captain Andrew Ladd to the Chicago Blackhawks at the trade deadline. They actually moved up from Chicago’s pick at No. 22 in a swap with Philadelphia to take Logan Stanley 18th overall. Laine is the only Jets pick from that draft to see NHL action thus far, though the hulking Stanley was always seen as a project and sixth-rounder Mikhail Berdin could be a backup goalie soon.
We may be jumping the gun here, but Ville Heinola looks like a marvellous get at 20th overall. Remember, Winnipeg traded its own 2019 first-rounder at the preceding deadline to get Kevin Hayes; the Jets were only able to select Heinola once they got a first back in the deal that sent Trouba to the New York Rangers. Given the way Neal Pionk — also part of the package the Jets got from the Blueshirts — performed this season, moving Trouba could wind up being a net gain for Winnipeg.
Heinola actually made the club out of training camp this past September — how often do you hear of an 18-year-old blue-liner who was not a top-three pick cracking an NHL roster four months after being drafted? — before eventually returning home to Finland. He figures to be a full-timer starting next year.
Nik Ehlers ninth overall and not much else. The Danish burner was once again on pace for nearly 30 goals this year as he continues to be a dependable producer for this club. Nelson Nogier (fourth round) and C.J. Suess (fifth) are still with the Manitoba Moose, but it’s hard to see them doing a whole lot for the big club at this point.
It’s no secret the Jets have been frustrated by Kristian Vesalainen’s stalled development. Taken 24th overall, the six-foot-four winger had a great draft-plus-one year in Finland. Since coming to North America two years ago, though, Vesalainen has yet to make it work.
The real steal here could be second-rounder Dylan Samberg. The big defenceman won NCAA titles with Minnesota-Duluth in each of the past two years and was chasing a third straight championship as a junior this season. While Samberg could opt to return for a fourth college season with the Bulldogs and become a UFA one year from now, he told the Winnipeg Sun in February he’s focused on the Jets. Given Winnipeg said good-bye to Trouba, Tyler Myers, Dustin Byfuglien and Ben Chiarot in the past nine months, Samberg would seem to have already found a perfect situation to prove himself.
The Jets sacrificed their first-rounder that year to bring in Paul Stastny, who helped the squad reach the Western Conference final. A fair deal, all things considered.
Winnipeg’s first selection in ’18 came at 60th overall. The team took Swedish centre David Gustafsson and, in 22 games earlier this season, he showed the potential to be a reliable bottom-of-the-lineup centre.