Winnipeg Jets signing Scheifele and Hellebuyck is a big win

Dec 3, 2021; Winnipeg, Manitoba, CAN; Winnipeg Jets left wing Kristian Vesalainen (93), Winnipeg Jets center Mark Scheifele (55) and Winnipeg Jets goaltender Connor Hellebuyck (37) celebrate their defeat of the New Jersey Devils at Canada Life Centre. Mandatory Credit: James Carey Lauder-USA TODAY Sports
Dec 3, 2021; Winnipeg, Manitoba, CAN; Winnipeg Jets left wing Kristian Vesalainen (93), Winnipeg Jets center Mark Scheifele (55) and Winnipeg Jets goaltender Connor Hellebuyck (37) celebrate their defeat of the New Jersey Devils at Canada Life Centre. Mandatory Credit: James Carey Lauder-USA TODAY Sports /

The speculation is over, the ink has dried, and the Winnipeg Jets will keep the franchise’s two biggest stars, Mark Scheifele and Connor Hellebuyck, until 2030-31.

The deals are identical 7 year contracts with an AAV of $8.5 million.

Winnipeg entered the offseason with numerous questions regarding their number one centerman and goaltender.

Are they even good enough to win, and is it worth keeping them? Should the Jets change direction and get younger? Would Hellebuyck, one of the best goaltenders of this generation, even be willing to stay with a franchise that has been floundering since the summer of 2019? And is Scheifele really the true number one center he once seemed so capable of becoming?

None of those questions matter now. Kevin Chevyldayoff and ownership made their analysis clear: They believe they can win with them.

Handling the two-headed monster Scheifele-Hellebuyck question has been interesting. Given the nature of goaltending, the thought would naturally be that if you can keep the elite netminder, then you try and keep the center too.

But Scheifele’s value has been questioned of late, and is the real wild card of this equation here.

He’s a top line but non-elite centerman who is 30 years old with defensive question marks.

Can the Jets find the top of the Central Division with him as the guy? Is it even possible at this point for his defensive game to improve, or are the Jets destined to continue their current fate of icing strong attacking forwards with defensive holes that are masked by an elite netminder?

Let’s dig in.

Chevyldayoff and ownership send clear message to fans

Chevyldayoff was blunt and direct when asked about the goals for the season and how they were related to Hellebuyck and Scheifele’s pending UFA status.

“We’re trying to win,” he said at a media availability before camp.

And nothing walks that walk more than signing the team’s two biggest stars to contracts that will likely see them play out their entire careers as Winnipeg Jets.

The Jets deal with speculation often about whether they can maintain and attract star power. In my opinion that is a bit overblown, as the majority of players they’ve drafted and developed have gone on to play most of their 20s in Jets uniforms.

Yes, Jacob Trouba and Pierre-Luc Dubois forced their way out of town before they turned 25.

But the list of players who have signed contracts to play through their mid-20s as Jets is lengthy and impressive: Mark Scheifele, Josh Morrissey, Nik Ehlers, Kyle Connor, Blake Wheeler, Dustin Byfuglien, Connor Hellebuyck, Adam Lowry, and Bryan Little. Even Evander Kane signed a 6 year deal when he was 21 years old.

Patrik Laine is an interesting case, given that he too, forced his way out of town early. I believe his choice was more locker room and depth chart based than anything against Winnipeg, especially given that he recently signed a four year extension to stay in Columbus. Which isn’t exactly New York City.

The point is, Winnipeg has had good success in keeping their talent. They won’t ever attract an Artemi Panarin like free agent, and that’s okay. Players that they draft and develop tend to stay.

And by locking up both the first draft pick in Jets history (Scheifele) and the best draft pick in Jets history (Hellebuyck) to identical, 7 year contracts, the Jets are well on their way to having star players become career Winnipeg Jets.

That’s a huge win.

Mark Scheifele is the only polarizing piece of the puzzle moving forward

The Winnipeg Jets lock up their long-term franchise center for the balance of his career, keeping Scheifele in town through 2031.

It’s a huge success that a top line center is projecting to play his entire career in Winnipeg, and it’s a nice story for the franchise.

But far beyond today, Scheifele will be the story of this news day. Anyone can see the logic of keeping Hellebuyck around long term.

Scheifele will invoke a different conversation.

He’s a clear first line talent and an excellent offensive creator. He has a high skill level, good cycling abilities, and depending on his linemates, can adjust to play the part of sniper or playmaker. He’s had seasons of being the goal scorer, scoring 42 last year and 38 back in 2019, and has also had more assist-heavy seasons, such as the North Division season where he scored 21 goals and 42 assists. Scheifele can do it all in the attacking zone, and is a worthy top line center in that regard.

But a player’s perception is often driven by expectations and whether a player can meet or exceed them. And the challenging thing for Scheifele nowadays is what his trajectory appeared to be, compared to what it has been.

Scheifele posted his first point-per-game season in 2016-17 at 24 years of age, his fourth full season in the NHL. All accounts of Scheifele back then suggested he was a rink rat, a human being born to play hockey who also craved the challenge of trying to become the best. He seemed like the perfect number one center for the young Jets to build around, a player that could perform on the ice and also lead in the dressing room as someone so dedicated to his craft.

That may all have been true, but at some point, Scheifele peaked as a centerman without any of us realizing it.

From 2015-16 (his first 60+ point season) to last year, Scheifele ranks 14th in points among forwards with 561 points in 567 games. For what it’s worth, he’s also +26. Even more impressive is his 410 even strength points over that span, putting him 8th in the league, behind Sidney Crosby and ahead of Brad Marchand.

Scheifele has been one of the league’s most consistent forwards since he first broke out.

Despite such accolades, there is a nagging, dissatisfied narrative around him, and it certainly undermines how good he has been.

And that’s where we get back to expectations.

Scheifele’s trajectory reminds me of a lot of top, young offensive players. Taylor Hall or Phil Kessel come to mind. The types of players who at 21 or 22 find their way to 30 goals or 80 points and make you think, “gee, we could really build around this guy”.

But at some point, you realize that they don’t have the “it” to really become the guy. That they’re great complementary pieces, but need to be a part of a successful bigger picture. That they’re not the type of leaders to drag a team to higher success. That they’re not franchise cornerstones. Or, in Scheifele’s case, that they’re a one-dimensional talent with porous defensive results.

That’s where the frustration lies today and will always lie for Jets fans. It seemed that, based on his rink rat persona and his undying passion for the game, that strong defensive results would eventually come as he gained more experience.

That just hasn’t happened. Which leaves Scheifele as a capable number one center, but certainly not above average.

And today, at 30 years old, you have to wonder how the back half of this contract will age.

Consider The Athletic’s player tier rankings:

Mark Scheifele is tied for 32nd with Dylan Larkin, JT Miller, and Nick Suzuki. You can agree or disagree, but it’s no stretch to conclude he is not a top 20 centerman in the league. Which is what most (all?) Stanley Cup winning teams have.

Regardless, by committing to Scheifele in tandem with an elite goaltender, the Jets can still regularly make the playoffs and see the light at the end of the tunnel being a Stanley Cup – no matter how dim that light may be.

Scheifele appears destined to retire as the franchise leader in games, goals, assists, and points, and surely already is one of the great Winnipeg Jets.

But how it feels to fans may be something entirely different than that.

Still, I see this as a good move for the Jets.

There’s no point in signing the franchise goaltender and moving on from your number one center. But management will need to acknowledge that they need to build a deep team around Hellebuyck in order to win anything meaningful.

Their top tier talent will not “out-talent” other Stanley Cup contenders, and Scheifele sticking around doesn’t change that.

Jets lock up Hellebuyck to a long term, no brainer contract

Starting next season, Connor Hellebuyck will have the 4th highest cap hit among goaltenders, trailing Carey Price, Sergei Bobrovsky, and Andrei Vasilevskiy.

Bobrosvky and Price seemed to be overpaid for the majority of their contracts, until surprise runs to the Stanley Cup Finals made everyone pause and say, “well, I guess that was always possible with talent like that”.

And that is exactly what the Jets have with Hellebuyck. For the remainder of this decade, the Winnipeg Jets will keep the chance of catching lightning in a bottle alive.

Hellebuyck is without a doubt among the league’s best between the pipes, and plays a calm, low movement style that instills confidence in team and fans alike. He’s not flashy or overly athletic, he just gets hit by the puck a lot and swallows up rebounds like a vacuum.

Among goalies who have played a minimum of 150 games since 2015-16, Hellebuyck is 2nd in wins with 238 and 11th in save percentage with a .916 rate.

Hellebuyck routinely faces high quality shots due to the lack of defensive quality in front of him, and has successfully masked the defensive deficiencies this team has been plagued with.

Like any player signing a seven year deal at thirty years old, the AAV is a little higher than you want, particularly as he finds the wrong side of 35.

But Winnipeg locks down one of the best goaltenders in the game, and with it, keeps the chances of routinely making the playoffs high, and the chances of winning a Stanley Cup greater than zero.

Is Winnipeg poised to capitalize on Hellebuyck’s capabilities?

The question is no longer “are they going to rebuild”, but is now, “can they meaningfully compete for a Cup?”

Which is the exact debate that was raging on through the summer in Winnipeg. Whether this team should move on, or double down on it’s current core.

They doubled down, but was it wise?

I’d argue it is. The moment you move on from a player like Hellebuyck, you spend the next dozen years trying to replace him.

What immediately comes to mind for me, though, is the fact that this is an offensively skilled team with mediocre defensemen and a franchise goaltender.

Back in 2015, the Jets originally had a plethora of young, attacking forwards backed by a great defense core on excellent contracts and an emergent Hellebuyck.

Now the team’s two best players are Hellebuyck and Morrissey. Is it time this team tried to slowly shift it’s identity? Should this team try and build from the back out?

Winnipeg’s three best forwards, Scheifele, Ehlers, and Connor, are all defensively questionable, and the defense core isn’t great.

Over the coming years, the Jets would do well acquire some more defensive acumen and play to their strengths. They have the franchise goaltender. They have an excellent number one defenseman.

What they now need is a team that can capitalize on those strengths, rather than mask the weaknesses of the forward group.

But for now, the Jets have to keep building piece by piece towards a team that can find playoff success.

Today, they got two steps closer.