The Winnipeg Jets entered this off season front and center in the rumor mill, with the futures of marquee players openly up in the air.
As usual, only about a third of those came to fruition, with Pierre-Luc Dubois being moved and both Mark Scheifele and Connor Hellebuyck staying put.
Though temporary resolutions appear to have been met, there are still plenty of questions for a Winnipeg Jets team coming off a teaser of a season.
How much of the last year’s hot start can be used for optimism?
What about the stumble toward the finish line?
And who the heck is going to play as the second line center?
We all have questions.
And, at least for today, we have the answers.
Here are 5 big questions for the season.
How much of an impact will the contract year have on Hellebuyck and Scheifele?
Plenty of keyboards will be clacking out the letters that spell Hellebuyck and Scheifele this season (which are already wearing thin on my keyboard), and, while I could speculate on their futures and what the Jets should and could do, this question is more about performance.
Specifically, the bump in performance players tend to get when in the final year of their contracts.
Now, this being a Canadian fishbowl market, playing the season as a pending unrestricted free agent can certainly have an averse affect on the mentality of the player as they answer the same questions over and over and are subject to public scrutiny. Heck, Auston Matthews and William Nylander have already been getting those questions (before Matthews signed a four year extension), and they have rarely, if ever have openly questioned their futures as Maple Leafs the way Hellebuyck and Scheifele have as Jets over the past two summers.
But the reality is that the Jets will have two very motivated stars wearing their uniform this season.
Hellebuyck, in particular, will be battling against the growing perception that elite, franchise goaltenders are not worth paying over $8 million for, as the most recent examples – Sergei Bobrovsky and Carey Price – haven’t exactly gone as planned. That, in combination with a team like Vegas winning with an unproven ‘tender like Adin Hill, means teams are respite to hand out term and dollar for arguably the sport’s most important position.
But Hellebuyck will do what Hellebuyck does. Which is likely lead the league in saves over the season (he’s done that four of the past five years), and provide 30+ wins for a good team in front of him.
He knows that this is his chance for a big contract though, and a superhuman Hellebuyck is a possibility. If that’s the case, the Jets could be in for a few extra wins on the broad shoulders of the netminder.
When it comes to Scheifele, it gets more interesting. He’s already coming off a career high in goal scoring, surpassing the 40 mark for the first time in his career. He’s also been playing on one of the league’s best contracts, locked in at a $6.1 million AAV contract through multiple point per game seasons as a number one center.
It’s clear that he hasn’t been the 1C to take this team over the edge, and the narrative around his defensive impact and will is well documented and only growing. His former center ice partner, Pierre-Luc Dubois, just got $8.5 million per year. Scheifele doesn’t have youth on his side, but is that the number he’s after?
If so, Scheifele could be in line for his biggest season yet. Or, more importantly, his most complete season. All he needs is one dominant year to shift his narrative, and if he really is contemplating leaving Winnipeg, then he’ll be wanting to put his best foot forward. That means full effort in all three zones every single shift.
Which is only good news for Jets fans.
Can the penalty kill remain in the league’s top 10?
One of last season’s most refreshing developments was the reemergence of a top tier NHL penalty kill. It feels like ages since the Winnipeg Jets iced a confidence inducing penalty kill, and last year was definitely that, finishing 7th in the league with an 82.4% kill rate.
Which, after finishing 29th, 13th, 22nd, and 22nd over the previous four years, marks a massive and much needed improvement.
Rick Bowness and his coaching staff can certainly take credit for that, as can the team’s top penalty killers. Last year, it was was the Dylan squad – Brendan Dillon, Dylan DeMelo, and Dylan Samberg – who led the team in penalty killing ice time, and performed well doing so. Dillon and DeMelo are free agents at season’s end, making it critical for Kevin Chevyldayoff to retain at least one of them – or risk losing a valuable defender.
Neal Pionk also helped out the Dylan squad, playing the fourth most penalty kill minutes per game. Nate Schmidt was the 5th man rotating in.
At forward, it was the unheralded Adam Lowry who made the biggest impact on the kill, leading the forwards in penalty kill time by a significant margin, with 188 total minutes. Mason Appteton, Kevin Stenlund (now departed to Florida), Morgan Barron, David Gustafsson, and Saku Maenalanen rounded out the group, all averaging over 1:24 per game.
Other than Stenlund and Maenalanen, that entire group should be back to build off of a great season on the kill.
This team’s power play hasn’t been great over the past half decade, so if it can keep winning this half of the special teams battle, it’ll go a long way to maintaining playoff status.
Which half of the Central Division will Winnipeg find themselves in?
The Central Division can be debatably broken up into three tiers:
- The Contenders
- Dallas Stars
- Colorado Avalanche
- The Hopefuls
- Winnipeg Jets
- Minnesota Wild
- Better Luck Next Season
- St. Louis Blues
- Nashville Predators
- Arizona Coyotes
- Chicago Blackhawks
It’s possible that St. Louis puts last year’s disaster behind them (though I don’t trust their goaltending or team defence), but it looks like the Jets have a real chance to find their way into the third spot in the Central Division, avoiding any Wild Card play. Nashville is in the midst of a reset, and don’t seem capable of making the playoffs – despite last season’s surprising surge.
Arizona and Chicago are self-explanatory (though Arizona might surprise people).
That leaves four teams with playoff aspirations.
Dallas looks poised to be one of the best teams in the entire league for a few seasons on the strength of their newly minted elite core, buoyed by the emergent Wyatt Johnston and the stellar play of Jake Oettinger.
Colorado wasted no time getting more experienced, shipping young players like Alex Newhook out in favor of more NHL impact and ready now players a la Ryan Johansen. It remains to be seen how they cope with the season long loss of their captain, Gabriel Landeskog, but counting out any team with Nathan MacKinnon, Cale Makar, and Mikko Rantanen seems foolish.
And that leaves us with Minnesota and Winnipeg.
Minnesota is always a team I look forward to watching Winnipeg battle against, and this season it could have some extra importance. In theory, the winner of this duel is the team that guarantees the 3rd seed in the Central, and thus a playoff spot. The other team will have to hope that a suddenly revitalized Pacific Division doesn’t send five teams to the post-season.
All this means is that the way the division is shaping up, with both St. Louis and Nashville seemingly in decline, that this could be a more top heavy division than normal.
It is distinctly possible that the Winnipeg Jets contribute to that top heaviness, and book their spot to the post-season in the process.
How will the Winnipeg Jets depth movement fare?
The top end of the Winnipeg Jets forward group over the past 5 seasons has been fairly consistent: Mark Scheifele, Kyle Connor, Nik Ehlers, Blake Wheeler, and either Patrik Laine or Pierre-Luc Dubois.
Only the first three remain.
With that comes massive intrigue and, to me, one of the big storylines of the Jets this year. With Wheeler and Dubois subtracted, the Jets will ice four forwards who didn’t start last season with the team in Nino Niederreiter, Vlad Namestnikov, Gabe Vilardi, and Alex Iafallo.
Add Cole Perfetti to the mix, given he’s played just 69 NHL games to this point, and you have the makings of a completely redone forward group. One that should have substantially more depth than previous years, and lots of room for players to truly earn their ice time. Wheeler and PLD’s departure leave massive opportunities.
I think it’s pretty exciting.
There will be a distinct redistribution of the pecking order, and with dynamic wingers like Ehlers and Connor available, Rick Bowness is going to have tons of combinations at his disposal.
Does he want a power combination of Vilardi skating between Niederreiter and Morgan Barron? How about a purely skilled arrangement, like Namestnikov centering Perfetti and Ehlers? Or Scheifele centering a stacked top line with Connor and Vilardi?
Don’t forget about Adam Lowry and Mason Appleton playing with Iafallo as a plus-checking unit, either.
The possibilities are endless, and, as long as this group can maintain some semblance of health, the Winnipeg Jets’ 12th forward should be as good as their 9th forward in previous years.
Not to mention the breakout possibility that Cole Perfetti is teasing us all with.
I like the depth of this group a lot.
Can Rick Bowness avoid the dreaded ‘new coach’ bump?
Last year’s tale of two seasons could over simplistically be described as a 50 game “new coach bump” followed by a 37 game “this is what we actually are” dose of reality.
In the same way that our Canadian friends in Vancouver have experienced real and powerful jolts in play from new coaches, only to stumble the following October, one can wonder if by January last year, Bowness’ fresh, new, demanding message started to lose its flavor to a locker room that hasn’t always exactly sounded synchronous.
It’s imperative that doesn’t happen this season. That they come out in October with same gusto as last year.
I can see this team playing with a chip on its shoulder though, wanting to erase the narrative of last season while also proving they can still be really good without PLD and Wheeler. I see Namestnikov and Niederreiter joining their new Jets teammates, Vilardi and Iafallo, motivated to prove to their coach that they can produce in those vacant top 6 roles.
That seems beneficial to Bowness, who already has motivation and communication among his list of strengths.
This team has less top tier firepower though, so it will be critical he gets the most out of Winnipeg’s top guns – Scheifele, Connor, and Ehlers – to make this forward group as lethal as possible. He stacked all three of them on a line last year a few times, and I wouldn’t be surprised to see it again come October. Hopefully they can keep the puck out of their net.
He also helped improve the team’s penalty kill dramatically, as noted above, and that same style and performance will be critical. A boost to the power play is the only thing he hasn’t done yet – they ranked 22nd last year – which should have plenty of opportunity available for the new/newer guys.
It needs to be clear right from day one that this is Bowness’ team. And that last year’s final two month fizzle was not the sign of a coach who was losing the room.
Or Winnipeg could be in for a long, long season.