NHL Scout's Analysis: Could the Winnipeg Jets seek change this off-season?

Sportsnet's Sean Reynolds joins Nick Kypreos and Justin Bourne to discuss the reactions of the Winnipeg Jets players, fanbase, and media to the Jets' disappointing season.

For the first time since their return to the NHL in the summer of 2011, the Winnipeg Jets franchise finds itself in unchartered waters.

On Dec. 17 Paul Maurice resigned as head coach of the Jets, feeling he had taken the team as far as he could and believing the group required a “new voice” to lead them moving forward.

Dave Lowry took over as interim head coach following Maurice’s departure, but wasn’t able to lead the Jets to the playoffs this spring. He was given the opportunity to interview for the permanent head coach position, but it seems clear the team is moving in another direction.  

Barry Trotz became available after his surprising dismissal from the New York Islanders. He would have been a perfect fit for the organization, but Trotz has decided he needs time to regroup and spend more time with family for the time being.

Meantime, some of the core players have expressed concern over the direction of the team. It’s fair to say some of the exit interviews with the media were eye opening with their tone (specifically Mark Scheifele).

It wasn’t long ago that the Jets were considered a Stanley Cup contender. They made the conference final in 2017-18 before bowing to the Vegas Golden Knights in five games. But then opening round defeats in 2019 and 2020 were followed by a second-round exit in 2021 and a miss on the post-season completely in 2021.

Now GM Kevin Cheveldayoff has a lot on his plate heading into the summer.

Here is an unbiased analysis on where the Jets are and what is on the horizon:

HOCKEY OPERATIONS

The Jets are a stable franchise. Ownership has remained consistent with its belief in its management group.

Cheveldayoff has been the general manager since the team returned to Winnipeg in 2011.

Craig Heisinger is nothing short of a staple in Winnipeg. Heisinger was the GM of the Manitoba Moose before teaming up with Cheveldayoff and the Jets. He holds the title of senior VP & director of hockey operations/assistant general manager.

Heading up the scouting staff is Mark Hillier. Hillier joined the Jets in 2011 as their head scout and has been their director of amateur scouting since 2015-16.

Winnipeg is an organization that has been built through the draft and some crafty player personnel trades and signings.

But when a team feels it’s on the cusp of a Stanley Cup they attempt to push the organization over the top by acquiring players through trades and free agency. Sometimes the cost of doing business includes moving out draft picks.

In the case of the Jets, both scenarios have taken place in recent years.

For a team that needs to develop its own draft picks Winnipeg has only selected 13 players over the course of the last three drafts. They have seven picks for next week's draft in Montreal, including two in the first round (15 and 30). The Jets also have single picks in rounds two (STL), three (CBJ), four (AZ), six and seven (both WPG).

The way their draft board has been assembled is an example of a team finishing in “the muddy middle” of the standings. It’s not ideal to be picking in the No. 15 slot. It says your team wasn’t quite good enough for the playoffs, but also not poor enough to have an opportunity to select an elite player in the top five of the draft.

The good news is Cheveldayoff, through trades, has acquired extra draft capital. The Jets moved Andrew Copp to the Rangers at the trade deadline and certain conditions were met that resulted in Winnipeg landing the Rangers' first round selection. Other picks in the third and fourth rounds have been acquired from teams that finished well below the Jets in the standings. Those picks give Hillier and his staff a chance to draft earlier in those rounds and potentially acquire more valuable assets.

There is potential for Cheveldayoff to listen to offers for some of his roster players at the draft as well.

The rest of the heavy lifting will be in the form of free agency. Pierre Luc-Dubois is an RFA who requires a new contract, but has indicated he wants to test unrestricted free agency when eligible in the summer of 2024. He is priority number one for the Jets this July and it will be interesting to see how things evolve.

This off-season for the Jets has potential to resonate for years to come and will test the creativity of Winnipeg’s management group as they lay a new foundation for future success.

2021-22 JETS ROSTER ANALYSIS

Forwards

Blake Wheeler: Wheeler is signed for two more years with an AAV of $8.25 million and he’s the captain of the team. It’s been a nice run in Winnipeg. Wheeler’s 35 years old and still produces nearly a point per game. This past season he scored 17 goals and 60 points in 65 games. Over 30 per cent of his offence comes on the power play. He doesn’t generate a ton of shots on goal and his three zone game has much to be desired on given nights. There seems to be a disconnect with the leadership group in Winnipeg right now and sometimes things run their course. It might be time to look for a fit outside of Winnipeg for Wheeler. He has a modified no-trade clause in which he can submit a list of five teams to which he'd accept a move. The Jets might have to retain some dollars in a potential trade, but a new leader in the room might energize the entire team and be worth the investment.

Kyle Connor: Connor was the Jets' best player this season and it wasn’t really close, producing 47 goals and 93 points. He’s a dangerous player off the rush and creative in tight areas. On the power play, Connor scored eight goals and 28 points. He generates a ton of scoring chances and gets pucks to the net, averaging over four shots on goal per game. Connor is signed to a fantastic contract that carries an AAV of $7.142 million through 2025-26. He doesn’t have trade protection, but it doesn’t matter. This is a Winnipeg franchise cornerstone for years to come.

Nikolaj Ehlers: It’s interesting to note that Ehlers scored 28 goals and 55 points in 62 games, but only four goals and nine points on the power play. On one hand it’s reassuring that he scores at even strength. On the other, the team would like him to produce more with the man advantage. Ehlers plays a fast, skilled, competitive game and is capable on both wings. As an added bonus, Ehlers is mostly responsible on the defensive side of the game as well (plus-18). He’s signed to a nice contract that carries an AAV of $6 million through 2024-25. He has a modified no-trade clause in which he can submit a list of 10 teams to which he won't accept a move. I can’t see any scenario the Jets entertain offers on Ehlers, though. He and Connor are their most valuable forwards.

Mark Scheifele: His year-end statements to the media certainly grabbed everyone’s attention. Schiefele plays the middle, produces offence, and he’s a right shot. Players in the NHL who score 29 goals and 70 points in 67 games are attractive targets if they ever become available for trade. Schiefele has two more seasons left on his current contract at an AAV of $6.125 million. He’s affordable. He also has an elevated opinion of his all-round game. He was nothing short of a disaster some nights defensively and literally quit on the back check or cheated in his zone. I appreciate his element and understand his value to this team, but he’s on record stating he wants to see the direction this team is moving before committing. If I’m the Jets I’m asking him the same question. He needs to buy in more as well. Scheifele has a modified no-trade clause in which he can submit a list of 10 teams to which he won't accept a move.

Adam Lowry: Lowry is a big, strong, power forward who doesn’t back down from a challenge. His contract, on the surface, might seem like a bit of an overpayment when analyzing his offensive output (13 goals, 21 points) but he enjoys playing in Winnipeg and he plays a role that teams value around the league. His AAV is $3.25 million and he’s signed through 2025-26 with a modified no-trade clause.

Dominic Toninato: He is signed for one more year with a cap hit of $750,000 and is a depth forward who will pitch in occasionally with some offence. He scored seven goals and 14 pointsin 77 games this season with the Jets. Toninato can play all three forward positions if needed. He is what he is: A fourth-line player who skates around 10 minutes per night on average.

Pierre-Luc Dubois: He recently informed the Jets he intends to test UFA in the summer of 2024, so it will be interesting to see how the Jets react and what unfolds in the coming weeks. The bottom line is pretty simple: Dubois is a 6-foot-3, 218-pound centre who produces offence (28 goals, 60 points this season) and plays a heavy style. By the time 2024 rolls around he could be one of the most coveted free agents on the open market and he knows it. In the meantime, he's an RFA this summer and the Jets can expect to provide him with a raise from his current deal that averaged $5 million, but paid him $6.65 million (cash) last season. Dubois has arbitration rights. Matt Barzal’s AAV is $7 million, so I have to believe Dubois is going to fall somewhere around $7.5 million. The Jets need this player on their roster for the time being. Perhaps, with some other changes in their lineup, he has a change of heart and warms to the idea of a long-term extension.

Paul Stastny: He had a nice year for the Jets. The 36-year-old won’t push the pace of play, but he’s a crafty thinker who showed he can still produce, with his 21-goal, 45-point season the most he scored since 2015-16 when he was in St. Louis. Stastny was paid $3.75 million this past season, provided a solid return on investment and can be used in a middle-six role at even strength and on one of the power play units. With some other unknowns on the roster for next season, and if he accepts the same salary, I see one more year of Stastny on the Jets roster as an option.

Kristian Vesalainen: After producing decent numbers in the AHL in 2019-20 (12 goals, 30 points in 60 games) it looked as though Vesalainen was turning the corner and trending positively. Unfortunately, things haven’t worked out that way and he’s now an RFA coming off a year in which he produced only two goals and three points in 53 NHL games, and six points in 17 AHL games. It feels like other prospects are about to pass him by and it's time for the Jets to move on from the player.

Adam Brooks: A role player who hasn’t established himself as a point producer at the NHL level, Brooks is a Group 6 UFA. The Jets can shop elsewhere.

Jansen Harkins: He’s only 25 and the Jets have invested in his development over the years. An RFA this off-season, a one-year deal at $750,000 isn’t outrageous to extend him. He scored seven goals this past season and if he gets to 10 or 12 it’s a bonus for this depth player. He plays hard, is mostly reliable defensively, and looks destined to be a fourth-line contributor at the NHL level. I’m not sure about his fit moving forward in Winnipeg, however.

Evgeny Svechnikov: He was originally drafted as a potential top-six forward by the Red Wings, 19th overall in 2015. Things haven’t worked out that way at the NHL level, though. Having said that he is still only 25 years old and just completed his first full year in the NHL. One or two more years at a reasonable salary ($775,000) is worth the risk for this RFA. There were times this past season when he looked on the cusp of more production.

Mason Appleton: Another player the Jets brought back in a trade from Seattle. This is an example of how the Jets do business. They developed Appleton in their system, they trust him and he knows his role. An RFA this summer, I would be surprised if he doesn’t return as a bottom-six forward who commands a salary of around $925,000.

Zach Sanford: A player who looks capable of more than he provides, Sanford scored a career-high 16 goals and 30 points in 58 games with St. Louis in 2019-20, but hasn’t come close to those numbers since. If the Jets think a full year in Winnipeg might get him back close to those numbers offensively it might be worth the risk to re-sign him as a UFA, but at the league minimum.

Defencemen

Josh Morrissey: A minute muncher who is deployed in all situations, Morrissey is also sneaky physical. This past season he averaged over 23 minutes per game in ice time. The Jets have him under contract through 2027-28 with a contract that carries a cap hit of $6.25 million. He is a core piece of the team moving forward.

Nate Schmidt: Plays a role in the Jets' top 4 defencemen. He averages around the same amount of ice time as Morrissey and skates in all situations, producing four goals and 32 points in 77 games this past season. Schmidt isn’t a punishing defender. Like the entire group, he too went through some ups and downs this season and struggled with detail at times. A character teammate who keeps things light around the room. Schmidt is signed through 2024-25 with an AAV of $5.95 million. He has a modified, 10-team no trade clause. In my opinion Schmidt is a nice-to-have, and not a need-to-have, with some of the youth the Jets have in their system. He’s a player who could be moved in the off-season to fill a void somewhere else in the lineup.

Neal Pionk: Part of the trade that sent Jacob Trouba to the Rangers in 2019, Pionk is rounding into form as a useful NHL defender. He has played over 300 games in the league and is now clearly defined as a two-way transitional defenceman. Pionk distributes well on the PP and has the skill to walk the line and elude pressure. He’s an area defender with an active stick who is also being used on the penalty kill. He is signed through 2024-25 and carries an AAV of $5.875 million.

Brenden Dillon: Dillon was acquired from the Washington Capitals in exchange for second round picks in 2022 and 2023. His role is clearly defined as well, playing a heavy two-way/defensive defenceman style and producing three goals and 20 points this season. His heavy lifting occurs when matched up against top six forwards from the opposition and on the penalty kill. Dillon is signed through 2023-24 with an AAV of $3.9 million. Although his deal doesn’t have trade protection, I can’t see any reason the Jets would move him in a trade scenario. Dillon plays a valuable role.

Dylan DeMelo: Has always played to an identity. He’s a steady two-way defenceman who doesn’t produce much offensively, but is also a sound skater who can get to pucks ahead of opponents and outlet efficiently. There is nothing eye popping about his game and that’s a good thing. DeMelo is signed through 2023-24 with a cap hit of $3 million, which is money well spent for a defenceman who takes a responsible shift at even strength and is used on the penalty kill.

Logan Stanley: He’s a giant of a man who is still finding his legs at the NHL level with 95 career games under his belt. He’s 24 years old and entering the last year of a deal that pays him $900,000. His skating will always be scrutinized, but he gets places on time. His long reach is also a tool that allows him to take away space. He’s a bottom pairing defenceman, but he’s capable with the puck. It will be interesting to see how he is used next season with a new coaching staff arriving in Winnipeg.

Dylan Samberg: He skated in 15 games for the Jets last season in a depth role. He’s a good-sized defender who plays a pretty simple, low risk, game. He outlets fine, but doesn’t look to lead the rush or take risks as a late threat off the rush. Samberg produced five assists in 12 NHL games and 12 assists in 32 AHL games this past season. He is entering the last year of a contract that pays him $925,000, but could rise to $1.175 million if he reaches his performance bonuses.

Goalies

Connor Hellebuyck: Like many of his teammates, Hellebuyck would want some games back from this past season. The Jets' No. 1 goalie played 66 games in 2021-22 and posted a save percentage of .910 and a GAA of 2.97, his worst numbers since 2016-17. He’s signed through 2023-24 at an AAV of $6.166 million. It’s interesting to note that Hellebuyck doesn’t have trade protection in his contract. Having said that, there is zero chance he is moved, and I expect him to have a bounce back year in 2022-23.

Eric Comrie: His career has already been a journey. He’s had stops in the AHL with the Manitoba Moose and Tucson Roadrunners, and his NHL home cities have included Winnipeg, Detroit, New Jersey, and Winnipeg again. That’s a lot of packing and unpacking for a goalie who’s only 26 years old. Comrie is a unique case. He’s a UFA due to the fact he is over 25 years of age and didn't meet the required games played threshold to be RFA. In the 19 games he played for the Jets this season he posted a .920 save percentage and 2.58 GAA. I’m not sure there are much better backup options available on the open market this summer. If there is a deal to be made it makes sense to sign him and give him a home he can count on.

In the system

Ville Heinola: Sooner than later the Jets need to give this kid a full-time NHL opportunity. Heinola is a two-way transitional defenceman who can skate on the second power play unit. His defending is average plus. He’s a smart player who needs volume at the NHL level. He’s done everything that has been asked of him and he’s signed to a contract that comes with an AAV of $1.075 million (bonuses included) through 2023-24.

Cole Perfetti: He has two more years left on his entry-level contract that carries an AAV of $895,000, but could go as high as $1.627 million if he hits his bonuses. His year was cut short due to injuries. Assuming he is healthy come training camp I expect Perfetti to compete for an elevated role. He projects to be a top-six scorer for the Jets in time and his element is definitely offence.

Morgan Barron: Acquired in the trade with the New York Rangers that sent Andrew Copp the other way, Barron is a big body (6-foot-4, 220 pounds) who can play both centre and the wing, but he isn’t a punishing player. He has better than average skill overall and could push someone for a job at the bottom of the Jets lineup next fall. He’s signed for one more year with an AAV of $925,000, with bonuses that could push that to $1.775 million if he were to reach his targets.

Chaz Lucius: He will begin his full-time pro career in the fall. The Jets first round pick in 2021 (18th overall) is an interesting prospect. He’s a bit of a streaky scorer who doesn’t require a lot of time or space to release pucks on net. He has a quick stick and the sense to find quiet ice to get open. He also has some grind to his game. He will need some time to develop, but he projects to be a player who can be used in a variety or roles in my opinion.

Daniel Torgersson: The 6-foot-3, 200-pound winger is ready to begin his pro journey in North America. He got a cup of coffee in the AHL in April and produced two goals and three points in four games. Torgersson is a sound skater who isn’t shy about grinding along the wall and going to the net looking for tips and rebounds. The Jets' second-round pick (40th overall) in 2020 is a player to keep an eye on in the organization. He will likely need a full year a the AHL level first, but could see some NHL games next season.

END OF SEASON ROSTER 2021-2022

LW

C

RW

Kyle Connor

Pierre-Luc Dubois

Blake Wheeler

Nikolaj Ehlers

Mark Scheifele

Jansen Harkins

Adam Lowry

Paul Stastny

Mason Appleton

Zach Sanford

Dominic Toninato

Evgeny Svechnikov

Morgan Barron

Cole Perfetti (IR)

LD

RD

G

Josh Morrissey

Dylan DeMelo

Connor Hellebuyck

Nate Schmidt

Neal Pionk

Eric Comrie

Brenden Dillon

Logan Stanley

Dylan Samberg

POTENTIAL TRANSACTIONS

• Winnipeg trades Blake Wheeler to Montreal for Josh Anderson, and retains 40 per cent of Wheeler's contract cap hit.

• Winnipeg trades Nate Schmidt to Anaheim for a fifth-round pick in the 2022 draft and retains 25 per cent of his cap hit.

• Winnipeg signs Frank Vatrano to a three-year contract with an AAV of $3 million

• Winnipeg signs Ilya Mikheyev to a three-year contract with an AAV of $3.25 million.

• Winnipeg re-signs Eric Comrie to a two-year contract with an AAV of $850,000.

• Winnipeg re-signs Mason Appleton to a two-year contract with an AAV of $950,000.

• Winnipeg re-signs Evgeny Svechnikov to a one-year contract with an AAV of $775,000.

POTENTIAL ROSTER FOR 2022-23

LW

C

RW

Kyle Connor ($7.142M)

Pierre-Luc Dubois ($7.5M)

Josh Anderson ($5.5M)

Nikolaj Ehlers ($6M)

Mark Scheifele ($6.125M)

Cole Perfetti (895K)

Frank Vatrano ($3M)

Adam Lowry ($3.25M)

Ilya Mikheyev ($3.25M)

Evgeny Svechnikov ($775K)

Dominic Tonanato ($750K)

Mason Appleton ($950K)

Morgan Barron ($925K)

LD

RD

G

Josh Morrissey ($6.25M)

Dylan DeMelo ($3M)

Connor Hellebuyck ($6.2M)

Brenden Dillon ($3.9M)

Neal Pionk ($5.875M)

Eric Comrie ($850K)

Ville Heinola ($865K)

Logan Stanley ($900K)

Roster Salaries: $72,985,000
Retained Salaries: $5,612,500
Total Cap Spent: $78,597,500
Leftover Cap Space: $3,902,500

SUMMARY

In my opinion the Jets are in need of a culture change. My goal was to retain key core pieces and bring in some fresh personalities who will hopefully energize the team.

Adding Josh Anderson in a trade reunites Pierre-Luc Dubois with an old teammate from Columbus. Anderson scored a career-high 27 goals his last year in Columbus and so, hopefully in this scenario, he and Dubois could find some magic working together on the same line. (Maybe they enjoy Winnipeg together and Dubois changes his tune about signing long term with the Jets?)

The trade comes at a cost as Winnipeg has to retain some salary.

Montreal gets Wheeler for two more seasons compared to the five years they would have been tied to Anderson. It’s my opinion this option fits their rebuild better in the long run.

The additions of Vatrano and Mikheyev add speed and goal scoring to the middle of the Jets lineup.

I believe Heinola and Perfetti are ready for full-time NHL duty. They both slide into the Jets' roster.

Moving Schmidt to Anaheim and retaining 25 per cent of his contract opened up the spot for Heinola on the back end.

Anaheim only has four returning NHL defencemen on their roster for next season. With the Jets retaining 25 per cent of Schmidt's contract the Ducks are paying only $4,462,500 for his services. Comrie, meantime, has earned the full-time back up role.

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