It’s Kool-Aid season folks.
As we sip on our sugary, hopeful drinks, we can easily find plenty of reasons as to why this year’s Jets will be so good. The tantalizing possibility of potential is abound, and it’s easy to turn almost any unknown into a positive. Cole Perfetti is gonna break out this year, I swear. Or, Scheifele is going to be a beast in his contract year.
And a million more possibilities exist.
Well, it’s a hot summer day, and I’m completely parched.
Let’s drink some Kool-Aid, and gauge where the Winnipeg Jets Hope-o-Meter is for the 2023-24 season.
Why the 2023-24 Hope-o-meter is through the roof
We’ll start with the optimistic, happy take on our beloved Jets.
And that optimism for me starts in the two most critical positions in hockey: center and goaltending.
For now, Connor Hellebuyck is set to wear his number 37 for the Jets this season. Any team that employs Hellebuyck for his outrageous 65+ game work load knows that they have a chance to win any night. That even in an early season game against the future Stanley Cup Champions, he can stand on his head and deliver 46 saves like he did last season on October 30th against Vegas.
To boot, Helley is in his contract season, motivated as ever to get the $8 or $9 million cap hit that he probably deserves, but teams are wary of.
A motivated Hellebuyck sounds very good for all Jets supporters.
When it comes to the center ice position, you go immediately to Mark Scheifele. And the same sentiment applies to him as Hellebuyck. He’s obviously not in the same stratosphere as Hellebuyck when it comes to being an elite center, but he’s a darn good offensive producer, and, in a rather frustrating way, can be a decent two-way center when he wants to.
Well, at the end of his 8 year deal he signed way back in 2016, he’ll be looking to get his final payday after playing on one of the best contracts in the league. And that means we just might see a decent two-way center wearing number 55 this year.
Beyond those two, there are plenty of reasons – particularly at forward – to allow that Kool-Aid’s sweet, sugary flavor to hit your blood stream.
Which is why any one seeing a successful Jets season has to be excited about Gabe Vilardi and Cole Perfetti. We all know fans love young players with potential. And that’s exactly what those two are.
Perfetti was very unlucky to have his season cut short by injury. He has such great poise with the puck, and clearly thinks the game at a level superior to most. As he continues to adjust to the NHL pace (he’s only played 69 NHL games, after all), you can expect his vision, hands, and poise to continue to shine. A high Hope-o-Meter has me seeing a 20 goal, 60 point season as a distinct possibility.
Vilardi, meanwhile, comes to Winnipeg as an extremely interesting addition to the team. Fresh off a mini-breakout season where he scored 23 goals while playing primarily on the top power play and 3rd line, Vilardi, stylistically, is an intriguing fit with the team. Winnipeg boasts plenty of depth, and I could see his game meshing well with a high powered cycling line alongside Scheifele, or playing a more powerful, net driving game alongside Nino Niederreiter or Adam Lowry. A best case scenario has him as a lock for 30 goals and 30 assists.
Lastly, though this team subtracts Blake Wheeler and Pierre-Luc Dubois from last year’s roster, the Jets also begin this season with five good forwards they did not start with last year: Vilardi, Niederreiter, Alex Iafallo, Vlad Namestnikov, and Rasmus Kupari. Those players range from quite good to solid middle six players, and will give this team a depth it hasn’t had since Brandon Tanev, Andrew Copp, and Adam Lowry were wrecking the opposition on the third line.
One final piece of hope: Nik Ehlers explodes (and stays healthy) this year with more opportunity, and scores 35 goals and 80 points.
If all that happens and the defence core can carry its weight, the Jets finish 2nd in the Central and lock up home ice in the playoffs.
Why the 2023-24 Hope-o-Meter is completely lacking
The more disparaging take on this year’s Hope-o-Meter starts with the fact that, after such a tantalizing 50 game start last year, this team fell apart down the stretch. And after an exceptional game one in our series against Vegas, the team never came close to that performance again.
How did Rick Bowness describe it again? Something about pushback?
And that’s where the pessimistic take on this team can go. Yes, we have worthy top line talent in Ehlers, Kyle Connor, and Scheifele. But their defensive record is rather paltry, and when they’re not scoring, they’re not doing much else useful. Does anyone see any of those three players engaging physically to spark a team lacking emotion and will?
I sure don’t.
The other, plain reason for the Kool-Aid having minimal effect on a hopeful Jets fan is that after spending two years retooling the defense – acquiring Dylan DeMelo, Brendan Dillon, and Nate Schmidt – this team’s defense still just might not be good enough. The Lightning had Michael Sergachev as their 3rd best d-man behind Victor Hedman and Ryan McDonagh. The Jets do not have that.
And that pessimism can extend through the entire lineup: sure, we have sufficient depth at forward and at defense. But the lack of high end talent is what stops this team from getting back to the brief heights we climbed back in 2018.
Oh, and Gabe Vilardi will struggle as a Jet, failing to handle the increased quality of competition as he plays an entire season in a top 6 role.
If all that happens, then Winnipeg stumbles its way to a 12th place finish in the West, and we’ll all have to refill our jugs of Kool-Aid for the summer of 2024.
My actual 2023-24 Hope-o-Meter
Those scenarios represented the best and worst-case scenarios the Jets could find themselves in. And, though done somewhat in jest, actually do accurately assess the wide range of scenarios available to the team this year.
So I present to you my actual Hope-o-Meter for this season: Cautiously High.
As said in the high Hope-o-Meter take, this team has the most depth up front it’s had in years. Cole Perfetti and Gabe Vilardi both give reasons for optimism, as do Niederreiter and Namestnikov. I loved the fit Niederreiter had as a powerful, hard shooting winger, and Namestnikov did a great job fitting in with Ehlers while being a skilled swiss army knife.
On the back end, the team remains largely the same. With some expected growth from Dylan Samberg, and the return of the penalty killing unit that helped us finish 7th last year (we were 0.3% off of 3rd), this team could defend well enough, and continue to have Hellebuyck bail them out in critical times.
The power play last year was streaky at best, and I see a lot of room for Bowness and Co. to tinker with last year’s 23rd best power play. Morrissey was a wizard up there last season, and that should continue. With the holes left by Wheeler and Dubois, there will be room for opportunity, and with less “star power” ego in the forward ranks, power play time should become more based on merit rather than defaulting to the collection of forwards who were the best back in 2018.
With both ends of possibility being considered, I see this team competing for a Wild Card spot all year, and finishing 7th. I acknowledge that they could also take a real step backward and finish 10th or 11th.
And thus, that final Hope-o-Meter rating: