Are the Winnipeg Jets legitimate Stanley Cup contenders?

In 2015, “The Hockey News” magazine headlined a rather cheeky cover story. It featured Mark Scheifele, Nik Ehlers and Jacob Trouba and included the caption “Meet your 2019 Stanley Cup Champions – Yes, we mean the Winnipeg Jets”. Don’t believe me? Check it out for yourself.

Unsurprisingly, Winnipeg Jets’ fans were both dumbstruck and ecstatic with the postulation. The Jets are seldom recognized in the national media and rarely discussed in Stanley Cup circles. The article’s premise was that despite the Jets being perpetually mired at the bottom of the league, the organization had drafted adeptly, and the future was promising.

Regrettably, “The Hockey News” lost its bet, and the bold prediction proved incorrect. The 2019 Jets fell in the first round of the playoffs to the eventual Stanley Cup champions, the St. Louis Blues. Many of the players that were highlighted in the article are no longer with the Jets, including Evander Kane, Jacob Trouba, and Andrew Copp. Eight years later, a promise so brazenly predicted, failed to materialize.

That brings us to the 2022-23 season. As fate would have it, the Winnipeg Jets are off to their best start in 2.0 history. They are habitually ranked in the top 10 in the league and are healthy for the first time since the opening puck drop. It is now not unrealistic or fanciful to entertain Stanley Cup aspirations.

But do the Jets have what it takes? To determine that query, we need to characterize what “it” is. There is no universal magic recipe, but one key is not winning the President’s Trophy. Only 2 teams in the last 10 years have won both the President’s Trophy and the Stanley Cup (Lightening and Blackhawks). Anecdotal anomalies aside, what real factors play a role in winning it all?

Winnipeg Jets: Goaltending

‘Goaltending wins championships’ is sacred cannon. That said, it is not the certainty it once was. Darcy Kuemper had a “Goals Saved Above Expected” (GSAE) mark of -4.2 in last year’s playoffs and Colorado still prevailed. Similarly, Jordan Binnington had a modest 3.9 GSAE during the Blues’ 2018-19 Stanley Cup win. In both instances, average goaltending was not prohibitive to winning a Stanley Cup.

But go back through the years and look at the teams that have won multiple Cups: the L.A. Kings had Jonathan Quick; the Pittsburgh Penguins had Marc-Andre Fleury; the Chicago Blackhawks had Corey Crawford. All of them were stars in their prime.

It is certainly then a huge asset to have elite goaltending come playoff time. Goalies can steal the series. Just ask Coach Bones – his Dallas Stars nearly defeated the Calgary Flames in the first round of the 2022 playoffs on the back of goaltender Jake Oettinger.

Connor Hellebuyck is as good as they come and is in the Vezina race once again. The Winnipeg Jets are in good hands. Goaltending is their best asset and has been for some time.

Winnipeg Jets: Possession Game

Anyone clinging to the antiquated notion that advanced stats don’t matter is ignoring irrefutable evidence to the contrary. Stanley Cup winners – the Avalanche, Lightning, Blues, Capitals and Penguins ranked as follows in 5-on-5 score-adjusted Fenwick over the last seven seasons: 9th, 7th, 6th, 7th, 24th, 6th, and 5th. The outlier here was the 2018 Capitals (24th). The link between winning the shot-attempt game and winning the Cup is strong.

This is where things turn a bit grim. The Jets currently sit 19th in this possession metric. In fact, the Jets haven’t been in the top 10 in adjusted Fenwick since their 2017-2018 season. Not coincidentally, that was the best year in Winnipeg Jets 2.0 history, where they succumb to the upstart Golden Knights in the Conference Finals.

Possession stats are not 100% causal, but the Winnipeg Jets will need to improve their possession game to legitimately compete for the NHL’s grandest prize.

Winnipeg Jets: No. 1 Defenseman

Stanley Cup-winning teams get contributions from their blue line and typically have a clear No. 1 defender. Makar for the Avalanche, Hedman for the Lightning and even Carlson for the Capitals (who has finished top 5 in Norris votes multiple times) all fit the bill.

Until this year, we would have been hard-pressed to identify a standout on the Jets blueline, but that has all changed. Josh Morrissey qualifies in spades, and just secured his first All-Star appearance. He has finally met and exceeded his lofty expectations, and will need to be in top form for any extended playoff run.

Winnipeg Jets: Third and fourth forward line contributions (unsung heroes)

Depth and contributions from depth players are imperative. Look no further than the Edmonton Oilers – who arguably have the best 2 players in the league, and yet perennially struggle come playoff time.

Last year’s Avalanche got solid production from the likes of Nikhushkin, Toews, Lehkonen and Kadri. All guys who fill out the roster without much acclaim. A team’s star players obviously need to play well, but there is a reason Corey Perry keeps getting signed despite being past his age apex. One of the best acquisitions made by the Jets 2.0 was picking up Paul Stastny before the 2018 playoffs. The “Stastny” types are often the difference between winning and losing.

The Jets bottom-six forward crew is much improved from years past. Barron, Strenlund, Jonsson-Fjallby, Maenalanen, and Gagner have all played key roles this year. Even the now-claimed Eyssimont and the Moose-bound Harkins made some leaps. But can these guys be counted on in a tight playoff match-up?

I strongly believe that the Jets need to make one or more acquisitions before the trade deadline. They don’t need elite stars necessarily, but more solid depth pieces that can contribute meaningfully. Is that Jonathan Toews or Bo Horvat? Both would be good additions to this roster. If Ville Heinola isn’t going to play, trade him for someone who will. The Jets got better, but reinforcements are almost mandatory.

Winnipeg Jets: Defence

Much like goaltending, defence also wins championships. But does it?

You can find statistical analysis that supports both sides. Harvard Law School (weird, I know) ran a regression analysis to estimate team offence (regular season GF) vs team defense (regular season GA) in Semi-Finals and Finals-Series from 1980 to 2013. The outcome gave a slight preference to goals for as a predictor of the probability of winning a Finals series.

Puck Luck Analytics came to the differing conclusion that solid defense does appear to be a common trait of championship teams.

The mathematical correlation between defensive prowess and winning Stanley Cups is somewhat nebulous, but it doesn’t hurt. Right now, the Jets are allowing the second-fewest goals per game (2.36). Coach Bones has the Jets playing a sound defensive game and their penalty kill is one of the best in the league. Both factors bode well for playoff success.

Winnipeg Jets: Luck

Every team that has won a championship needs a little help from Lady Luck. As of right now, the Boston Bruins are the class of the league. They seem unstoppable, but as noted above, the best team in the regular season often fails to be the best team in the playoffs. Luck can include good bounces, injury luck, and round-by-round opponent seeding.

That last one is key. Not all opponents are created equal. Some teams match up better against others, and traditionally the Jets have struggled against the likes of say Calgary and Washington. The road to the Stanley Cup is long and winding, but the hockey Gods can help straighten the path. Getting the first overall seed in the Central Division would surely help.

The attributes above are not exhaustive, nor any sort of guarantee, but the Jets are in a good spot. With a few additions, this team is a legitimate Stanley Cup contender. Maybe “The Hockey News” wasn’t wrong after all – just a little late.