NHL’s 30 in 30: Winnipeg Jets

For the month of June, Last Word On Sports will be covering each team in our 30 in 30 series. Once a day, we take a look at an NHL team’s past season, what their off-season looks like, and what they could hope to achieve before the start of their 2015-16 season. Everybody wants to get better and improve upon last season’s success or downfall and NHL’s 30 in 30 gives you that analysis and preview you need to get you by during another long and grueling summer season. 30 days in June, 30 teams to cover. Starting on June 1st we start from the bottom and make our way to the very top.

Today’s team: The Winnipeg Jets. Check out our previous 30 in 30 articles here.

NHL’s 30 in 30: Winnipeg Jets

Finishing 14th overall, the Winnipeg Jets posted a record of 43-26-13 to end up with 99 points. Their home record (23-13-5) accumulated for 51 points, tying them for the second-least amount of points earned among playoff teams, with the Ottawa Senators and Washington Capitals. Their away record (20-13-8) was reasonable enough to earn them enough points to make the dance. The Jets were in a tight battle with the Los Angeles Kings for the final wild card spot in the West. Down to the last few games, the Jets, Kings, and Minnesota Wild were battling for two playoff spots, and Winnipeg managed to squeak by and grab a wild card berth, eliminating the defending Stanley Cup Champions from playoff contention.

The 2014-15 Regular Season

For the first time since their return to the city, the Jets made it to the post-season. Unfortunately, they were matched against one of the best teams in the Western Conference, the Anaheim Ducks, and couldn’t catch a break. The Jets were swept in quick fashion, but they led the score in the first three games going into the third period, before ultimately losing their grip. If there’s one positive that Jets’ fans can take from their first-round exit, it’s that they gave the Ducks a fight and led the score in the series more often than not.

General Manager Kevin Cheveldayoff built up a reputation of not making trades involving NHL players, but that ended last season when he pulled the trigger on a deal that sent shock waves through the league. Disgruntled winger Evander Kane and defenseman Zach Bogosian, along with goaltending prospect Jason Kasdorf, were dealt to the Buffalo Sabres in exchange for a package consisting of veteran Drew Stafford, defenseman Tyler Myers, prospects Joel Armia and Brendan Lemieux, and a 2015 1st-round draft pick. While they didn’t receive a player of Kane’s skill, they got some nice pieces to build on for their promising future.

While the stories of Kane were somewhat of a distraction, it didn’t stop captain Andrew Ladd from having a great season. The two-way forward played exceptionally well at both ends of the ice and put up a career-high 62 points. Blake Wheeler remains one of the most consistent big guys in the league, having missed just seven games in the last seven seasons and posting a team-leading 26-goal campaign. Mark Scheifele is continuing to progress into a good top-six forward. The 2011 7th-overall pick has made himself into a steady second-line center at just 22, but could improve in the face-off circle. Adam Lowry also played himself into an important role, working as the team’s shut-down center. A big boy, at 6’5, Lowry fills out what could be an organizational strength – depth at the center position.

Mathieu Perreault came in via free agency didn’t cost the team much, and exploded in the second half of the season, scoring 38 points in 43 games. He dealt with some injuries and suffered from a slow start, but his end to the season looked promising enough for another look. While he doesn’t put up number-one center production, Bryan Little‘s two-way game is enough to cover up his lack of putting points on the board. He’s very consistent in terms of controlling the puck and keeping it way from his own zone, and his work ethic rubs off on his line-mates, which is an added bonus.

Dustin Byfuglien‘s transition from wing to defense was the right move, at all facets of the game. Statistically, he possessed great numbers and the team around him was better when he was on the ice, controlling the flow. His heavy hits made highlight reels on a weekly basis, but he’s also heading into the final year of his contract at the age of 30. Coming over in the Kane/Bogosian trade, Myers stepped in and can expect to play a top-four role next season. He’ll need to improve the defensive side of his game, as his puck possession numbers took a slight dip after his move to Winnipeg, a complete opposite of what was expected. Jacob Trouba and Tobias Enstrom can also provide stability to the Jets top-four. Enstrom is a left-handed shot, which makes him beyond important to the team, and Trouba’s puck-handling and skating is essential to the Jets game.

Surprisingly enough, goaltender Ondrej Pavelec posted a career-high .920 SV% in what was the best season of his career to date. He’s had his fair share of poor seasons, and expecting another good season to follow may be met with certain skepticism. Michael Hutchinson was phenomenal before the All-Star break, but he came crashing down soon after, conceding the net back to Pavelec. There’s also Connor Hellebuyck, who had an exceptional season in the AHL and then experienced a true coming-out party with the U.S. National team at the World Championships.

Apart from the Kane blockbuster, Cheveldayoff made two small deals to add some depth to his line-up. First, he traded a 2015 5th-round pick and a 2016 3rd-round pick to the Hurricanes for Jiri Tlusty, and he followed it up by dealing 24-year-old prospect Carl Klingberg to the Rangers for Lee Stempniak.

The Off-Season and Free Agents

Heading into the off-season, the Winnipeg Jets have a total of twelve free agents to decide on. Of the eleven free agents, only three are restricted to the team, including defensemen Paul Postma, Keaton Ellerby and Ben Chiarot. Forwards Stafford, Michael Frolik, Tlusty, Jim Slater, Stempniak, Matt Halischuk and Eric O’Dell, and defenseman Adam Pardy are the upcoming unrestricted free agents. In terms of non-roster players, Cheveldayoff will have to decide on four restricted free agents and three unrestricted free agents. Chase De Leo was the most recent signing, inking a three-year entry level contract, until the Jets announced this morning that tough guy Anthony Peluso had inked a two-year deal, worth $675k per year.

With around $22 million in cap space, and seven forwards, seven defensemen and two goaltenders currently under contract, Cheveldayoff will be one busy GM this off-season. He’ll first need to address his holes on offense, as the team needs to fill out the five or six spaces currently empty. It could be as easy as retaining the likes of Frolik and Stafford and giving some youth a chance, such as Nikolaj Ehlers and Joel Armia. It could also get real tough, if most (or all) of the Jets unrestricted free agent forwards test the market and sign elsewhere. Fortunately for the team, they have ample cap space to make some serious bids.

Armia (22), Ehlers (19), and Nic Petan (20) should be tested during training camp and pushing for a chance to grab a roster spot, as the Jets have quite a promising pool of prospects who could make an impact in the next two-three years. The same can be said on defense, as the likes of Josh Morrissey and Jan Kostalek have the skill and ability to make it at the next level. The pack of 20-year-old defensive prospects are tied for another three years to the club, and could be on the team within that span. They’ll be in tough this year, as the Jets have seven defensemen signed already.

Which leads us to the case of Byfuglien. On the final year of his contract, set to make $5.2 million, Cheveldayoff has to be weighing his options. While Byfuglien is a leader on the ice and the Jets have enough cap space to lock him up to a long-term deal, Byfuglien is 30 and may regress in the next few years, especially given his high-level of physical play. If there was an opportunity to move him now, the Jets could receive a nice package for the defenseman who can both destroy opponents physically and put up offense. It’ll be interesting to see if Cheveldayoff can get him signed to an extension during the summer.

And the goaltending position is one big conundrum when it comes to what could happen for next season. Pavelec played well last season, in fact it was the best year he’s ever had, but there could be temptation to move him now that his stock is higher than it has been for the last few  years. The problem is, the Jets would then be depending on a possible duo of Hutchinson, who is two years younger than Pavelec but much less experienced, and a 22-year-old back-up in Hellebuyck. Hutchinson provided excellent play early on but slipped after the All-Star break, which has to be concerning when you’re considering him as a number one goaltender after moving Pavelec.

The Draft Table

Cheveldayoff and his scouting staff should be pretty busy at the upcoming draft, as the Jets hold nine picks in seven rounds. Despite having no 5th-round selection (which was sent to Carolina in the Tlusty deal), Winnipeg has three picks in the top-50, including two first-round choices, and four in the top-100.  In all the Jets select 17th, 25th, 47th, 78th, 108th, 168th, 182nd, 198th and 203rd. However, it is important to mention that the 198th pick is conditional, and it is not yet known if the Jets actually hold the pick.

The 17th selection is quite an intriguing pick to hold. Names like Kyle Connor and Timo Meier, two prospects expected to go in the first 15 picks, could slide down and Cheveldayoff would be thrilled to have either one. Realistically though, a prospect like Nick Merkley at this spot would be a viable option. His mix of speed, determination and heart is exactly the kind of character that the Jets love to have in their organization. Travis Konecny is also similar, and although he’s undersized, he’s a blue-collar kind of guy. If there’s a need for a two-way center that can log big minutes and take on tough assignments, Colin White could receive some heavy consideration.

Then at pick #25, there are a few gems for the Jets to snatch. Brock Boeser is big, a strong skater and has a great shot and release. He projects as a Kyle Okposo-type winger, and who wouldn’t want that kind of player on their team? Besides, he’s a fan of One Direction, so he could seek solace with Trouba and Scheifele. Evgeni Svechnikov is also a big kid with a great shot and projects to go right around the mid-20s. However, as the Jets have a talented pool in the forwards department, a defenseman could also be a good route to take, considering kids like Jeremy Roy and Jacob Larsson could both be available. Drafting a defenseman of their caliber could come down to what their defense looks like, going into next season. Both Myers and Stuart have multi-year contracts, and both Byfuglien and Trouba are in the final year of theirs. If both are extended, and the Jets have four multi-year contracts given out on defense, it could impact the opportunities for some of the more promising, on-the-rise prospects who are looking to make an impact in the NHL.

A way out of that is to trade Byfuglien and possibly land another first-round pick. The Detroit Red Wings have the 19th overall pick and could sure use a top-four defenseman in their mix. If the Jets could land that 19th pick and pick up one of the aforementioned prospects at the 17th spot, perhaps it makes their 25th pick expendable, allowing Cheveldayoff to trade down and pick up a pair of second round picks to add to his 47th pick. A few teams have two 2nd-round picks and the likes of Calgary and Columbus have three of them.

At the 47th pick, there are a few names out there that could interest the team. Scratch goaltending prospects off the board, the Jets are quite stacked on that front, with Eric Comrie, Hellebuyck, and Jamie Phillips in the pipeline. Blake Speers may be an interesting choice, providing another talented prospect on the wing. There’s also Alexander Dergachyov, who is a solid two-way forward who is less on the safer side and more of a boom-or-bust type. If it’s time that the Jets need for a prospect to develop, Vince Dunn at this spot would be spectacular. With some proper development to his all-around game, Dunn would become a regular in the NHL and an above-average puck-moving defenseman.

The 2015 draft will be entertaining to view if you’re a Winnipeg Jets fan. There are numerous possibilities, quite a few names that could be in play and a future that looks as promising as their 2014-15 season.

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