The Winnipeg Jets will enter the 2023-24 season in an odd state.
On one hand, there is the consistency and loyalty True North values so highly evident everywhere; our first ever draft pick, Mark Scheifele, is still on the team over a decade after being selected. And the team’s five best players, Scheifele, Josh Morrissey, Kyle Connor, Connor Hellebuyck, and Nikolaj Ehlers are all drafted and developed players. Kevin Chevyldayoff is the team’s only GM ever, and he’s been around since 2011, too.
From that lens, it feels like another status quo summer.
On the other hand, I can’t help but feel that there is a disturbance in the air. A distinct feeling that this season will be the first domino to fall in determining the real future of the Jets. What the team will look like not just the following season, but down the road in 2026 or 2027.
The series’ of choices if, say, both Hellebuyck and Scheifele stick around, will be completely different if they are traded. Or worse, if they walk at season’s end for nothing.
Which way will management go?
Contradicting that state of flux is our steady core of top 6 defensemen. We’ve had the same five veterans play basically every game over the past two seasons. Since acquiring Brendan Dillon and Nate Schmidt just a day apart in the summer of 2021, the defense core has been rather consistent.
And yet our forward group is as disturbed as ever. Two massive holes have opened up in the top 9, and a team that once had either Patrik Laine or Pierre-Luc Dubois, now has a trio of forwards to show for it instead of a singular high end talent. There’s less talent, and more depth.
Oh, and Blake Wheeler left. The franchise leader in games played, assists, and points? Yeah, he’s gone now too.
This franchise is a long way removed that fateful day in 2011 when relocation was announced and the puck was dropped in Winnipeg for the first time in nearly two decades.
But boy oh boy, is it ever an interesting time to be a Winnipeg Jets fan.
Here are three reasons why.
We are right on the edge of a new Jets era starting or being ruthlessly prolonged
Two of the Jets most iconic players, Scheifele and Hellebuyck, are entering their final seasons of their contract, and there is a distinct appetite among the fanbase to send them on their way, collect a few assets, and open the door to a new era.
That is no disrespect to both Scheifele and Hellebuyck, who have been studs for this franchise since day one. But the reality is that Scheifele, while producing elite offense, hasn’t become that full-on dominant number one center. He hasn’t done what the legend of Steve Yzerman tells us top tier centermen are supposed to do: sacrifice offense at some point to play committed, defensively responsible, winning hockey.
That isn’t to take anything away from Scheif, he has been nearly everything you could hope for when it comes to a 7th overall pick and the first selection in team history. And it would be an amazing story if he signed an 8 year extension and played his entire career out in Winnipeg. You know True North would love that, given their propensity for loyalty. It just doesn’t seem like the best idea, given this team’s timeline and the fact that the coach whispered those ever-damning words last year: “no pushback”. I’m not convinced this team can win with Scheifele as the top guy.
Hellebuyck, meanwhile, is likely the best player this franchise has ever had (somewhere in Russia, Ilya Kovalchuk grumbles while sipping vodka). And at a position that is so critical to have, and so hard to find. He emerged at the perfect time for this franchise, as our young group of talent was ready to breakout in 2017. He’s won a Vezina and is a perennial candidate. And, if there were best-on-best Olympic or World Cup hockey, there’s a good chance he’d have some medals too as USA’s top goaltender.
I’d love for Helley to stay. But it’s hard to say he fits the timeline of this team. And it’s very intriguing indeed to consider what kind of return he could get at the deadline.
Ultimately, this franchise went from an Atlanta era that relied on two superstars (that didn’t work), to the Jets draft and develop era, to the minor success experienced in 2018, to.. whatever the last 5 years have been.
Chevy took a few years to retool the blueline after it was decimated by trade and devastated by Dustin Byfuglien’s lack of desire to continue. The blueline was reassembled, the team was ready to get back into contention, but unfortunately the latter never happened.
If those franchise icons are extended, then so to will this era be. If they’re moved, though, then things could get really interesting, and perhaps give the fanbase the breath of fresh air they’re after.
Our three best forwards are basically pure offense
One of the worst parts of aging and “maturing” as a hockey fan is when you realize that goals matter, but preventing them is just as important. When you realize that 40 goal and 90 point seasons are amazing to be a part of and watch, but they’re not everything. And that, yeah, stopping goals matters too.
Well. The Jets’ 3 top forwards – Nik Ehlers, Mark Scheifele, and Kyle Connor – are pretty much purely attackers without much defensive desire, and it’s going to make for some extremely entertaining hockey that coaches hate.
Scheifele is a wizard through the middle of the ice, constantly gaining the zone through intelligent weaving, and has a great shot ready to fire at any point.
Connor, meanwhile, is one of the shiftiest and quickest players in the league, with a lightning release and a set of buttery soft hands. He does everything quick, and his flowing, red-haired curtains are just a bonus.
Ehlers is the biggest tease of the bunch, having never gotten the opportunity his talent suggests. But with health and opportunity, he could explode in a big way. He’s got crazy speed, he’s a zone entry menace, and despite never scoring more than 30 goals, he’s a sniper.
Rick Bowness even played the three of them together a few times last year, which I would love to see this season.
As for all of their defensive abilities?
Good thing they can score.
Our prospect pool isn’t elite, but it’s in good health
By no means do the Winnipeg Jets have any “blue chip” prospects, or any that really project to be top line performers with any certainty. But despite only picking in the top 10 once since 2016 (when we selected Cole Perfetti 10th in 2020), there are players coming in who have a reasonable chance at becoming top 6 forwards.
You know who they are: Colby Barlow, Rutger McGroarty, Chad Lucius, and Brad Lambert. It’s a nice collection of talent with a bit of diversity. Barlow and McGroarty seem to be high character types with a nose for the net and a willingness to battle. Lucius, meanwhile has soft hands and goal scoring instincts you can’t teach. And Brad Lambert – the wildcard of them all – has a combination of speed and hands that can tempt a fan into unrealistic, best-case scenario dreams of a top line winger.
But the way prospects work is that for every 3 or 4 that you think have top line potential, only one will make it. And for every 8 or 9 that have potential ranging from top line to middle six, maybe three will hit and give you quality NHL games over a long career.
And that is the cautious excitement I harbor toward this pool.
It’s hard not to like that group though, and other names contributing to the prospect pool like Ville Heinola, Nikita Chibrikov, Declan Chisholm, Elias Salomonsson, and Domenic DiVincentiis (who I’m most intrigued about) give the pool some depth.
It’ll be fun to track them this year as McGroarty, Lucius, and Lambert could be playing their final year outside the NHL before pushing to make the squad in 2024-25.