The Winnipeg Jets are squarely in a space where the organization and its fans justifiably expect to compete for the Stanley Cup. The current core announced its presence with a trip to the 2018 Western Conference final, but flamed out in disappointing fashion this past April, losing a six-game series to the eventual Cup-champion St. Louis Blues in Round 1.
It has not been a banner off-season for Winnipeg, which has seen three important defenceman leave town and has not yet been able to strike new deals with a pair of key restricted free agents in Patrik Laine and Kyle Connor.
With the already-strong Central Division looking tougher than ever, the Jets have a slim margin for error. Let’s take a closer look at the club and address the most pressing issues.
Current cap space: $16,150,836
GM: Kevin Cheveldayoff
Head coach: Paul Maurice
Assistants: Jamie Kompon, Charlie Huddy, Todd Woodcroft
Unsigned players: Patrik Laine, Kyle Connor
Will both Laine and Connor eventually return to the fold?
Any time a vital player is not signed on the eve of camp, it’s a less-than-ideal situation. That said, there seem to be different vibes around the respective Laine and Connor camps. Maybe it’s just that Laine — having a larger league-wide profile — generates more attention, but there’s a growing sense that resolution in that standoff could come in the form of a trade. Speaking to Sportsnet’s Chris Johnston in Finland last month, Laine basically shrugged and indicated he’s good with any scenario, come what may.
“You never know where you’re going to play next year so I’m just prepared for anything,” he said.
You have to believe the same goes for Kevin Cheveldayoff. Surely the GM — knowing he has a glut of good forwards — has kicked some tires around the NHL, wondering if a 21-year-old raw scorer like Laine could return a blueliner who would help solidify the back end.
Who knows, maybe both young guns will be in the lineup on opening night and Jets for life. At this juncture, though, a scenario where Connor stays and Laine goes doesn’t feel absurd.
How will the team compensate for the loss of Jacob Trouba and Tyler Myers?
A long-expected exit finally came to fruition when, very early in the summer, Winnipeg dealt Trouba to the New York Rangers in a swap that returned the 2019 20th overall pick to the Jets (it had previously been sent to New York for rental Kevin Hayes) and right-shot defenceman Neal Pionk.
Myers left as a free agent, inking a deal with the Vancouver Canucks. Trouba logged the most minutes among Winnipeg defencemen last year, Myers was second and No. 3, Ben Chiarot, also departed as a UFA, signing with the Montreal Canadiens.
As noted, the boldest back-end solution could be to deal from a position of strength at forward and find someone on the trade market. Regardless of whether or not Cheveldayoff goes down that path, expect Josh Morrissey to be a very busy boy this season. The Calgary native took a big step last year and his extended injury related absence down the stretch played a huge role in the Jets ultimately gagging up the division lead.
Sami Niku, named the AHL’s best defenceman in 2017-18, will be counted on to make a full-time NHL leap; Pionk, 24, will be pencilled in for something at least similar to the 21 minutes per night he saw with the Rangers last season; and it would be a huge plus if Dmitry Kulikov — after a pair of disappointing seasons in Manitoba — stayed healthy and rediscovered the form that prompted the Jets to sign him as a free agent in 2017.
Can Connor Hellebuyck rebound?
By no means was the big puckstopper bad last year. It’s just that, in the first season of a six-year deal that accounts for a cap hit of just over $6 million annually, Hellebuyck couldn’t replicate the numbers that allowed him to finish second in Vezina Trophy voting in 2017-18. His even-strength save percentage that year was .929, good for sixth in the NHL among goalies who played at least 40 games. Last season, it dropped to .920, ranking him 18th.
Luckily, backup Laurent Brossoit took a huge step, posting a .925 save percentage in 21 outings, compared to Hellebuyck’s .913. If Hellebuyck has some early hiccups, Brossoit could be the safety net that gives him the time required to work through things. It will be a different, panic-infused story, however, if we’re talking about struggles for the starter a quarter of the way into the season.