After successfully building an elite core through the draft from 2011-2016, culminated by a 52 win, 114 point season in 2018, the Winnipeg Jets rightfully earned a reputation as an astute drafting and developing team.
Over the past five years, however, as the Jets have tried to make do with the final years of that core, the emphasis has decidedly been one of trying to win now. There hasn’t been a ton of space for young players to make mistakes and grow into their game.
The prime example comes on the blueline, which, since Brendan Dillon and Nate Schmidt joined the team in 2021, has had very little opportunity. The Jets have had seemingly good enough talent in the farm system to promote players from within, but it has rarely happened.
Ville Heinola is the easy case to draw from, a player clearly too good for the AHL, but one who can’t get a foot hold on an NHL job. The Jets also lost a Winnipeg drafted and developed defenseman in Jonathan Kovacevic last year on waivers to the Montreal Canadiens. He ended up playing 77 games.
It should be noted, however, that both Logan Stanley and Dylan Samberg won top six jobs out of camp that past two years – the latter outplaying the former last season.
On the forward side of things, it’s been David Gustafsson – he of 74 career NHL games – who has been tracking to become one of the few recent AHL graduates to the big team, alongside Cole Perfetti.
With the general lack of opportunity and the emphasized focus on trying to win, combined with a general lack of top 15 draft picks, it’s been reasonable to wonder whether Winnipeg could still rightfully claim the title of a “draft and develop” team.
Which is why, after Rick Bowness gave us all immense clarity on his ideas for the lineup, it was so refreshing to see some focus on getting to know some of the younger players and learn what they can offer in certain positions.
That is most interesting for two players in particular: Rasmus Kupari and Cole Perfetti.
Cole Perfetti will get a chance to play second line center at 21 years of age, and with it, make a ton of mistakes. That is the same leash that Mark Scheifele, Nikolaj Ehlers, Josh Morrissey, and Kyle Connor got to join Winnipeg with nearly a decade ago. Somewhere over the last five years, that leash shortened significantly.
This is a good thing for the Jets, given the space for movement within their forward group and the subtraction of key players like Dubois and Blake Wheeler. There really is a lot of combinations that Bowness can come up with.
When it comes to Kupari, he is the biggest unknown when it comes to the return in the Pierre-Luc Dubois trade, which included Gabe Vilardi, Alex Iafallo, and a 2nd round pick. Vilardi is a scorer with real top line upside. Iafallo is a steady as she goes winger, capable of moving around a lineup and providing defensive stability.
But when it comes to the 23 year old Kupari, who was selected 20th overall in 2018, the diagnosis is less clear. Sure, he has first round pedigree. And yes, he’s already played 130 games in the NHL so far, at least suggesting he is an NHL talent.
So where does he fit amongst the current Jets group?
Rick Bowness made it pretty clear.
“Rasmus (Kupari) will start in the center on that fourth line, but again we don’t, he may move up.” he told reporters.
“We don’t a lot about him (Kupari) because he wasn’t used a lot in L.A. So we’re going to give all those three a great opportunity to find the chemistry with the right guys. But we’re certainly going to give Rasmus a lot more ice time so we can figure out exactly what we have to work with.”
That openness to an increased opportunity and role is what has been lacking in Winnipeg for a while. Kupari has talent, but may need some time to put all together.
I remember watching Kupari when he suited up for Finland at the World Juniors in Vancouver-Victoria back in 2019. He stood out among his peers then, primarily for his six foot two frame and skating ability and decent, if unspectacular hands.
He has the tools to become a useful third liner, but I also like that Bowness left room for him to climb the lineup. There is some offensive capability in there.
Kupari has started training camp alongside Morgan Barron and Vladislav Namestnikov on the fourth line. Given that both of those players can play center, it’s a demonstration of intent to play and keep Kupari down the middle. To give the lad some time to grow.
And hopefully develop into a useful piece of the puzzle over time.