The Winnipeg Jets had an ambiguous summer and things picked up over the last few weeks. Not only did the franchise sign restricted free agents Patrik Laine and Kyle Connor over the past weekend, they still don’t know what’s going on with Dustin Byfuglien. That’s cast a shadow over the imminent season, to say the least.
Laine signed a bridge deal for two years and that’s a load off. Connor inked a seven-year deal worth $49.98 million. He’s coming off a 34-goal season with a total of 66 points, a career-best run reinforced by 227 shots on goal. Both players are – or at least should be – fundamental components of the Jets’ offence.
Defence is another matter and that’s where things tumble apart. The Jets lost a small army of players, so that’s why Byfuglien’s become such a banner issue. He requested personal leave at the start of training camp and was granted it, rightly so. Injuries have limited him and may be the cause of his possible retirement.
Winnipeg’s in a tight spot. Tyler Myers, Ben Chiarot and Jacob Trouba already breezed out the door this summer, so losing Byfuglien on the eve of the 2019-2020 season is going to sting. That would leave the Jets without four of their top five defenders from last season.
Winnipeg scored 272 goals last season, putting them third in the Western Conference behind the San Jose Sharks and Calgary Flames. The Jets had three players with over 30 goals, including Laine, Connor and Mark Scheifele. Laine had the worst season of his career, scoring 30 goals and piling up just 50 points in 82 games.
If Laine took a step back, Blake Wheeler took a step up. The 33-year-old scored 20 goals, his lowest total since a 48-game campaign in 2012-2013, but he piled up 91 points for the second season in a row. That made him one of just four players with at least 90 points in each of the last two seasons, with Nikita Kucherov, Connor McDavid and Nathan MacKinnon also on that list.
Scheifele put up career-highs in goals, points and power play points last season. He and Wheeler were among the most productive duos in the league. Throw Connor in the mix and the line was responsible for 34 percent of Winnipeg’s goals. The 22-year-old has scored at least 31 goals in each of his last two seasons.
23-year-old Nikolaj Ehlers has also been collecting points. He scored 21 goals last season for a total of 37 in 62 games. Injuries were an issue, but Ehlers skated with Scheifele and Wheeler a little during preseason play. That won’t last long and there are rumours that the forward could be packaged up as part of a deal to snag a defenceman, maybe from Carolina. Watch this space.
Defence is, without a doubt, going to be a problem. Without Byfuglien, the Jets will start with a top four of Josh Morrissey, Neal Pionk, Dmitry Kulikov, and Nathan Beaulieu. If Winnipeg makes a trade, that could shuffle the deck. If not, fans could see more action from prospects like Sami Niku and Tucker Poolman.
Right now, it looks like Pionk and Morrissey are due to be the top D pairing. Pionk isn’t a bad collaborator, as he’s got 40 points in 101 games with the Rangers. He went undrafted into the NHL (ironically, he might’ve been drafted the same year as Morrissey) and was picked up by New York after a great NCAA run.
With Chiarot with the Habs, it might be time for Niku to shine in the NHL. He’s been moving in the right direction and was named the AHL’s top defenceman to conclude the 2017-2018 season, plus he’s got loads of international experience representing Finland. The 22-year-old was stellar playing for Liiga’s JYP Jyväskylä.
Like many other Jets, goalie Connor Hellebuyck saw regression in the stats department last season. The 26-year-old started 62 games, two fewer than the previous term, and won 34 – 10 fewer than the prior season. He posted a .913 save percentage, a 2.90 goals against average and just two shutouts.
Hellebuyck is due a bounce-back season, but Laurent Brossoit is the backup plan. The 26-year-old signed a one-year deal in May of 2019 and has been solid in relief of Hellebuyck. Brossoit won 13 of 19 starts last season, with a .925 save percentage and a 2.52 goals against average.
The Jets are in tough along the blueline and that will lead to problems down the road, particularly if they can’t make a trade. It will take some time to hammer out the D, plus a lot will depend on which Connor Hellebuyck comes to play. They’ll get their goals, but they may not get their wins.
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