Roster Assessment: Can Winnipeg Jets return to 2018 form?

Sean Reynolds & Ken Wiebe discuss the latest moves made by the Winnipeg Jets. Plus, how GM Kevin Cheveldayoff will navigate the rest of the off-season.

WINNIPEG -- In many ways, it seems like Paul Maurice is playing the role of Doc Brown as he tries to put the Winnipeg Jets into the time machine and go back to the future.

Given how things have gone during the last two early exits from post-season competition, it can be easy to forget the Jets are just two years removed from a trip to the Western Conference Final.

And while that five-game series with the Vegas Golden Knights ended with the first three and eventually four-game losing streak of the entire season, it remained a watershed moment for an organization that began that playoff run with precisely zero post-season victories in franchise history.

Not just zero series victories, but zero games won whatsoever, dating back to the days of the Atlanta Thrashers (who were swept 4-0 by the New York Rangers in 2007).

There are no banners handed out for being a finalist in the conference final, but the spring of 2018 resulted in a number of valuable lessons being learned by the Jets.

In the two seasons that followed, however, the Jets got a crash course in disappointment -- losing a heartbreaking six-game series with the St. Louis Blues (who went on to capture the Stanley Cup in 2019) and a four-game exit in the qualifying round against the Calgary Flames.

Jets general manager Kevin Cheveldayoff went into this off-season with two clear goals in mind: upgrade the defence corps and seek a solution for the second-line centre position.

Both of those areas were addressed, with Paul Stastny returning to the fold in a trade with the Golden Knights and the retention of Dylan DeMelo highlighting the signings on the back end that also included bringing in Derek Forbort and bringing back Nathan Beaulieu and Luca Sbisa.

There’s been plenty of chatter and debate about whether or not the Jets have done enough to the defence corps -- and that answer won’t be fully known until games start getting played.

One of the overriding concerns about the Jets as currently constituted, at least on paper, is that the group is far too similar to last season -- the one that relied heavily on elite goaltending and was clearly defined as a bubble team.

It’s a valid argument on a number of levels.

The counterpoint to that opinion is the prospective group also closely resembles the Jets roster of 2017-18. This isn’t to suggest there aren’t going to be challenges or growing pains on the horizon. For every player or two that takes another important step forward in his progression, there’s a chance someone else takes a step backward or doesn’t meet the expectations.

That’s simply the reality of the situation, even before the great unknown of when next season starts or how individuals are handling things during a global pandemic.

The Jets are not a Stanley Cup favourite like they were entering the 2019-20 season either.

This looks like a bubble team, at least that’s the best guess right now since there are many unknown variables left to sort through.

However, it’s worth exploring further whether this edition of the Jets will resemble the group whose ability to deal with adversity was exemplary but whose faults were glossed over by elite goaltending last season or how they might stack up in comparison with the cast of characters from 2017-18.

Quality of the masked men

2020-21 projected roster 2018 playoff roster
Connor Hellebuyck Connor Hellebuyck
Laurent Brossoit Steve Mason

The last line of defence is essential to success and the formula for the Jets remains the same: this group isn’t going to go far without getting above-average to elite goaltending.

Connor Hellebuyck is the reigning Vezina Trophy winner and was nominated for the award twice during the past three seasons.

It’s probably not a coincidence the season sandwiched between those came after Hellebuyck signed his first big-ticket contract, a six-year pact worth $37 million.

It’s natural for any player to push himself to show that he’s worth the money and many goalies have gone through a similar experience during their career.

Hellebuyck, who entered 2017-18 as the backup to veteran Steve Mason, has two seasons under his belt since then and his game is clearly trending upward.

His improvement has been evident in a number of areas and he’s determined to continue to grow. The next step for him will be to enjoy additional playoff success and Hellebuyck is putting the work in to make that happen.

Hellebuyck had zero playoff experience at the NHL level going into the post-season in 2018, but recorded nine wins and won a Game 7 on the road while the guy who won the Vezina that year, Pekka Rinne -- was pulled in the first period of that deciding game.

That’s not a shot at Rinne, as much as a reminder that in a winner-takes-all outing, things can go sideways for anyone -- even a guy who was the best goalie in the NHL in a certain year.

In what figures to be a condensed schedule, you can count on Hellebuyck still being a workhorse, but Laurent Brossoit is going to need to provide consistent performances like he did during the 2018-19 campaign in order for the Jets to be a playoff team.

Brossoit had some rough outings -- most of which came under trying circumstances -- but there were also some encouraging signs in the second half of last season.

Brossoit bet on himself by staying with the Jets on a one-year deal and still believes he can become a starter, so you can expect he will be ready when his number is called.

Forward group is better

2020-21 projected roster 2018 playoff roster
Mark Scheifele Mark Scheifele
Blake Wheeler Blake Wheeler
Kyle Connor Kyle Connor
Patrik Laine Patrik Laine
Nikolaj Ehlers Nikolaj Ehlers
Paul Stastny Paul Stastny
Adam Lowry Adam Lowry
Andrew Copp Andrew Copp
Mason Appleton Brandon Tanev
Mathieu Perreault Bryan Little
Jansen Harkins Mathieu Perreault
Kristian Vesalainen Joel Armia
David Gustafsson Shawn Matthias
Dominic Toninato Marko Dano
Marko Dano Matt Hendricks
Jack Roslovic** Jack Roslovic

* Roslovic is a restricted free agent.

This is a bold claim, but it’s one that can be backed up.

The top-six is identical to the group from the 2018 playoff run and while captain Blake Wheeler (34) and Stastny (34) are two years older, they remain more than capable and the other four players have taken strides forward, either in terms of raw production or all-around game.

Mark Scheifele has seven full seasons under his belt, he’s coming off four consecutive seasons of being a point-per-game player and remains be in the prime of his career.

Since producing 31 goals as a rookie in 2017-18, Kyle Connor scored 72 additional times and recorded 139 points in 153 games.

Patrik Laine isn’t coming off a 44-goal freshman campaign, but he remains an elite goal scorer and has taken the necessary steps to grow into more of a power forward.

Nikolaj Ehlers was on pace for his first 30-goal season and continued to be dynamic in the post-season, snapping a lengthy drought while erasing a tired narrative about whether or not he would be able to score when it matters most.

One of the big questions for Maurice to answer in the coming months will be what are the optimal combinations he can send out. Having several options at his disposal is something the cosh will welcome, even if it can make for difficult decisions at times.

Adam Lowry and Andrew Copp make up two-thirds of an effective checking line and while the Jets miss some of the qualities Brandon Tanev possessed during the playoff run, there are internal options like restricted free agent Jack Roslovic and Mason Appleton that provide the potential for the line to be even more dangerous offensively.

When it comes to the fourth line and remaining depth, the Jets have a nice blend of emerging young players like Jansen Harkins and David Gustafsson to go along with experience from Mathieu Perreault and Nate Thompson.

Special teams rebound required

When the Jets finished second to the Predators in the chase for the 2017-18 President’s Trophy, they ranked fifth in the NHL on the power play (23.4 per cent) and tied for seventh in penalty kill percentage (81.9 per cent).

Last season, those numbers were dramatically different -- slipping slightly to 15th (20.5 per cent) with the man-advantage, while dropping to 22nd (77.6 per cent) while shorthanded.

The Jets' puck movement on the power play wasn’t as quick or crisp when compared to 2018 and the loss of Dustin Byfuglien and Jacob Trouba as the shooting threat at the top of the 1-3-1 alignment was a factor.

Neal Pionk did a good job of getting pucks through and led the Jets in power-play points, but needs to firm up the direct pass to Laine on the left-wing circle for the one-timer. The Finnish sniper went from scoring 20 of his career-high 44 goals in 2017-18 on the power play to getting eight of his 28 with the man-advantage last season.

The Jekyll and Hyde showing for the penalty kill was a curious development -- as the Jets had a horrendous start to the campaign, then got on track in the New Year to be among the best in the NHL for a two-block stretch -- only to struggle once again in the qualifying round series with the Flames.

Maurice and his coaching staff go through an exhaustive video review process every off-season detailing the best practices from around the NHL and one would suspect special teams is an area that garnered plenty of attention to date.

Will the results follow? Only time will tell.

Defence can’t rest

2020-21 projected roster 2018 playoff roster
Josh Morrissey Dustin Byfuglien
Dylan DeMelo Toby Enstrom
Derek Forbot Josh Morrissey
Neal Pionk Jacob Trouba
Tucker Poolman Tyler Myers
Nathan Beaulieu Ben Chiarot
Luca Sbisa Dmitry Kulikov*
Sami Niku Joe Morrow
Dylan Samberg Tucker Poolman
Ville Heinola

* Kulikov missed 20 games in the regular season due to injury and was limited to one playoff game

This is the one area that simply doesn’t stack up to the 2017-18 roster, there is no disputing that.

The Jets were so deep that year that at times, their third pairing of Tyler Myers ($5.5 million) and Dmitry Kulikov ($4.33 million) combined for a cap hit that came in at just under $10 million.

That’s a luxury not many teams have ever had and certainly won’t have again -- especially not in a world where a flat salary cap is in play for the foreseeable future.

This season, the Jets’ projected top pair of Josh Morrissey ($6.25 million) and Dylan DeMelo ($3 million) won’t even hit $10 million.

The shocking thing about comparing the blue line is that Morrissey is the lone player remaining, outside of Tucker Poolman, who appeared in two playoff games in 2018 when Toby Enstrom was unavailable but suited up in only 24 games during the regular season.

Losing six of seven regulars (Byfuglien, Enstrom, Trouba, Myers, Kulikov and Ben Chairot) in such a short span is sure to have a lasting impact.

The current Jets blue line doesn’t feature anywhere near the same level of impact players as the 2018 group and it’s been replaced by a do-it-by-committee mantra.

After enduring some ups-and-downs last season as he took on an expanded role both on the ice and with the leadership group, Morrissey figures to be back in his comfort zone next season. And Pionk was able to exceed expectations on a number of fronts and did a nice job defensively to go along with his offensive contributions.

But when it came to the back end, the Jets were hoping to add someone with size who can contribute to the PK -- and Forbort fits the bill on both of those counts.

There’s more depth than the Jets had going into training camp last fall and you can be sure Maurice and his coaching staff are feeling better about where things stand.

Barring something unforeseen, the Jets should not need to hit the waiver twice in the opening month, unlike last October when Carl Dahlstrom and Sbisa were added.

There are three wild cards when it comes to the defence corps: Dylan Samberg, Ville Heinola and Sami Niku. As it stands right now, it’s hard to envision a scenario where more than one of them is a regular in the top-six that doesn’t include an injury or two. Heinola and Niku are similar in terms of stature and the type of game they play offensively, while Samberg would provide additional size and has a more defensive tilt to his game. That’s not to say this is a one or the other scenario and it shouldn’t be long before at least two of the three players are key contributors.

How long that takes could be what ultimately determines whether or not the Jets defence corps can close the gap in both talent level and performance when compared to 2018.

That leads to one other lesson the Jets can learn from the 2018 playoffs, although it has nothing to do with them or any of their three opponents.

After several disappointing playoff defeats -- many to the rival Pittsburgh Penguins -- the Washington Capitals found a way to exorcise some demons and reach the top of the mountain with a roster that was, at least on paper, inferior to several previous incarnations.

This is not to say the Jets are going to follow suit, but merely that this group of defence has the potential to be better than many people are projecting, especially if one of Samberg, Heinola or Niku jumps in and can carve out a significant role as the season progresses.

Should that not happen, coupled with the expansion draft looming, it’s likely several NHL teams are going to be looking to unload players earlier than they might normally.

That could present another stopgap solution, provided one is required.

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