Welcome to Puck Drop Preview 2016-17, where LastWordOnHockey.com gives you a detailed look at each team from around the NHL leading to the start of this hockey season and offers our insight and analysis. Make sure to stick around until the end of the series, where we’ll offer our full predictions for the standings in each division, and eventually our 2016-17 Stanley Cup pick. You can check out all our articles on our Puck Drop Page. Today the series concludes with the Winnipeg Jets.
Puck Drop Preview: 2016-17 Winnipeg Jets
The Winnipeg Jets entered the 2015-16 season fresh off of their first playoff appearance since moving to Winnipeg from Atlanta and looking to return. Unfortunately, they would find themselves dead last in the tough Central division and 25th in the NHL with a record of 35 wins, 39 losses, and eight overtime/shootout losses earning them 78 points.
The Jets got off to a good start in their season starting with a record of seven wins, three losses, and one overtime/shootout loss but could not maintain that momentum. With the February 29th trade deadline fast approaching, the squad being five games under .500, as well 10 points back of the Wild for second last place in the division the Jets would be sellers. The Jets would trade captain Andrew Ladd, Jay Harrison, and Matt Fraser to the Chicago Blackhawks in return for Marko Dano and a 2016 first round pick.
There were some positives to take from the Jets season, though. Drew Stafford, for example, had his best season in five years in his first full season with the Jets. Stafford would score 21 goals, 17 assists, for 38 points. In his third full season of pro hockey, Mark Scheifele would have a breakout year scoring 29 goals, 32 assists for 61 points in 71 games played. Scheifele, 23, has continued to improve every year and is turning into the player that many Jets fans had hoped for when he was drafted seventh overall in the 2011 NHL Entry Draft. In his first year of professional hockey, the highly touted Nikolaj Ehlers did not disappoint. Ehlers, a ninth overall pick in the 2014 NHL Entry Draft scored 15 goals and 23 assists for 38 points, more importantly, he seemed to adjust quickly to the NHL game. Blake Wheeler also had a career year last year scoring 26 goals and 52 assists for 78 points; it’s no surprise that he would later be named the team’s new captain. Rookie goaltender Connor Hellebuyck had a goals-against average of 2.34 as well as a .918 save percentage in 26 starts. Both of these key stats for Hellebuyck lead the Jets, despite the small sample size.
While there were some positives, you don’t finish last in your division without some negatives. Goaltending continues to be a question mark for the Jets even though they arguably have the deepest goaltending prospect depth in the entire NHL. Ondrej Pavelec would see his statistics regress to his career averages after an outstanding 2014-15 campaign and would also suffer a knee injury. Pavelec would start 31 of the 33 games he played posting a record of 13 wins, 13 losses, and four overtime/shootout losses, over the course of those games he would post a 2.78 goals-against average and a .904 save percentage with one shutout. Micheal Hutchinson would start 25 of the 30 games he would appear in for the Jets and would only win nine games and lose 15 as well as an additional four in overtime. Hutchinson posted a goals-against average of 2.84, and a slightly better .907 save percentage. The goaltending was a significant part of the teams undoing.
The Jets would enter the off-season knowing that they didn’t need to make major changes to the team, they just needed more players in the system to take the next step. There is no shortage of intriguing prospects in the Jets development system. Entering the 2016 NHL Draft Lottery with the sixth pick in the draft they would get an absolute shot in the arm when NHL Deputy Commissioner Bill Daley would announce the Winnipeg Jets had moved up to the second overall pick. The Jets only had a less than 10 percent chance to move up to the number two position in the draft and smartly used the second pick to select Patrik Laine.
2016 NHL Entry Draft
When the 2016 NHL Entry Draft arrived the Jets not only had the second overall pick but the 22nd pick as well, the Jets would move up in the draft to 18th after trading with the Philadelphia Flyers. With the second pick in the draft, the Jets selected the highly touted Patrik Laine from Finland. While some scouts had American Auston Matthews as the clear number one choice in the draft, there were many debates on if Laine was closer than some thought. That’s not to say the Toronto Maple Leafs took the wrong player but if they were not in such desperate need of center would Liane have been the better choice? The Matthews and Laine debate likely become the Sidney Crosby vs. Alex Ovechkin debate for a whole new generation of hockey fans.
With their second first-round pick the Jets took 6’7″ defensive defenseman, Logan Stanley. Stanley is a risky pick for the Jets because a player of that size will always stand out in junior hockey and the NHL is littered with failed prospects as teams look for their very own Zdeno Chara. The Jets would round out their draft by selecting defenseman Luke Green (3rd round 79th overall), defenseman Jacob Cederholm (4th round, 97th overall), center Jordan Stallard (5th round, 127th overall), and goaltender Mikhail Berdin (6th round, 157th overall).
The Jets are generally quiet in free agency, and the trade market and this offseason have been no different. There is one big outstanding issue for the Jets general manager Ken Chevaldayoff though, and that is getting RFA defenceman Jacob Trouba under contract. Trouba who is coming off his entry-level contract and the Jets appear not to be on the same page on his new deal. While neither camp has said anything, officially the rumors have ranged from disagreements on money, term, ice-time and usage to simply not wanting to stay in Winnipeg. With the Jets currently holding nearly seven million dollars in cap space he likely won’t see an offer sheet. It also appears that negotiations are on hold until after the 2016 World Cup of Hockey in Toronto.
The Top Six
With so many moving parts it is nearly impossible to pick what the Winnipeg Jets lines will look like when the puck drops to start the 2016-17 NHL campaign with 16 forwards trying to lock down 12 spots. Nikolaj Ehlers showed good chemistry with Mark Scheifele and Blake Wheeler as the season wound down. No one, however, would be shocked though to see Patrik Laine start on a line with those players.
Laine was electric being an impact player where ever he played last year and scored 17 goals and 16 assists in 46 games for Tappara in the Finnish SM-Liiga adding an additional 10 goals and five assists in 18 games on route to the Liiga championship.
He opened plenty of eyes in the IIHF Under-20 tournament (or World Junior Tournament) leading his team to a gold medal with seven goals and six assists in just seven games. Finally, he would be a part of the silver medal-winning Finnish Entry in the Men’s World Championships where he would score seven goals and five assists in 12 games. With all due respect to the very talented Nikolaj Ehlers, Laine is the most exciting prospect that this franchise has ever had since moving to Winnipeg.
After Scheifele had his breakout season last year, there is a good chance the Bryan Little could shift down to the second line where he will likely play with Drew Stafford and whoever is left from the Ehlers and Laine battle for the first line. Little was 4th in team scoring last year with 24 points after having his season cut short by injury playing his last game at the end February. Even with the addition of Liane, he will be an important part of the top six going forward.
The Bottom Six
The bottom six is where things get messy. There are going to be a lot of players fighting for those spots, and this will be an entertaining battle to watch though training camp. Kyle Conner has no pro game experience but don’t be shocked for him to at least get his nine-game audition to see if he can succeed at the NHL level. If not he will play top minutes for the AHL affiliate, Manitoba Moose. Another big question is who is going to play center in these roles. Alexander Burmistrov, Mathieu Perreault, Andrew Copp and Adam Lowery are all players who can fill this role. Perreault saw a decent amount of the time on the wing and would be a nice steady veteran presence on a line centered by Burmistrov and Connor to start the season.
Andrew Copp had a better showing than Adam Lowery last season and with a good camp should be able to edge Lowery out of the final center position. Shawn Mattias is probably a lock to make the final roster leaving Marko Dano, Joel Armia, Nic Petan and maybe Lowry looking to fill the last wing position. Dano will likely get a good look in and out of training camp now on his third NHL team of his young career after previous stops with the Columbus Blue Jackets who drafted him and the Chicago Blackhawks. He has yet to approach the 21 point season he had in 35 games with the Blue Jackets in the 2014-15 NHL season. The 21-year-old Nic Petan could be a dark horse to make the roster out of camp, but some more seasoning in the AHL would not hurt his development path. Chris Thorburn and Joel Armia will be waiting to fill in should any of the young player’s falter.
The Jets defense could be its downfall again this year with Jacob Trouba not attending training camp to awaiting a trade they are terribly thin on the left-hand side of their defense pairs. Tobias Enstrom will likely need to line up beside Dustin Byfuglien, where many had probably penciled him in on the middle pair. Josh Morrissey is going to get a real opportunity in camp to earn a spot beside Tyler Myers. If Morrissey is unable to lock down the spot on the second pair, 27-year old Paul Postma could fill on either the middle or bottom pair leaving Ben Chiarot looking for an opportunity to make his way in the lineup if needed.
The loss of Trouba is huge and if he is traded a left shot defenseman should be high on Kevin Cheveldayoff’s wishlist. Speaking of Chevaldayoff, the Jets claim that they will not necessarily honour the trade request of Trouba. If both parties wait for the other to blink that may end up having the worst impact on the team overall.
Goaltending is another place where we should see a changing of the guard as Ondrej Pavelec enters the last year of his contract. Outside of the 2014-15 NHL season, Pavelec has been underwhelming as a starting goaltender in this league, and while I would not go as far as to blame all the Jets problems on him, he is not a part of the solution either. If all goes as planned Connor Hellebuyck will complete his transition this year into an NHL starting goaltender. The Jets are a team that allowed 239 goals last year, so an improvement in goal is a must for this team to succeed. Don’t be shocked if Pavelec is used as trade bait if another team suffers a goaltending injury.
The rise of Hellebuyck has kind of left Michael Hutchinson in limbo, Hutchinson who still has another year remaining on his contract struggled last season. Hutchinson is a quality backup goaltender though who should easily reclaim that role once Pavelec moves on but could have trouble seeing ice time in the AHL should he be sent down as not to interfere with the development of Eric Comrie. Again the ideal move would be to get Pavelec out of the picture completely. But with a $3.9 million dollar cap hit that is easier said than done.
Players to Watch
Ehlers entering only his second year of pro hockey has also now become the second most exciting young player that the Jets have with the addition of Patrik Laine. Now Ehlers is likely going to have to fight for top minutes with him as well. That competition aside though Ehlers is still a dynamic player who will continue to grow regardless of which line he plays on and is only going to get better as the years go on. The speed that he possesses is impressive and will continue to lead to highlight-reel plays.
Without repeating too many of the things already said about Laine in this article being the second overall pick will always draw attention. Laine has already played in the IIHF World Championships and the 2016 Word Cup before even entering an NHL training camp. That alone should be enough for Jets fans be excited to watch him, but when you look at his previous body of work, anything less than an immediate impact from Laine will be a disappointment.
Players on the Rise
Connor Hellebuyck came into the NHL last season and outperformed long time starter Ondrej Pavelec by nearly all metrics it was one of the few bright spots in an otherwise dismal season for the Jets. Hellebuyck will get a chance to continue that momentum this year as the heir apparent continues on his path to be the Jets starting goalie as many predicted he would when he was drafted.
Since he earned his spot in the NHL Scheifele has done nothing but improve his game and after a career year last year as well as being a member of the Team North America Squad in the 2016 World Cup of Hockey the 23-year-old is still entering the prime of his career. Scheifele will be counted on to continue his improvement which should not be too difficult when he will likely be centering Ehlers or Laine and Blake Wheeler.
Players on the Decline
The future does not look bright for Ondrej Pavelec. Statistically, he has been among the bottom of the pack of starting goaltenders over the course of his career. It’s hard to see another starting job waiting for him once his contract with the Jets expires on July 1st, 2017. Pavelec will likely have to settle for a backup job in the NHL, jump over to a European league or at absolute worse hope for a professional tryout (PTO) to resume his NHL career. If the Jets could find a partner, it would come as no surprise to see him traded mid-season.
2016-17 Season Prediction
The Winnipeg Jets have a team that should be in the conversation as the Western Conference dark horse. They will be hard pressed to unseat the Dallas Stars, Chicago Blackhawks, and St. Louis Blues to break into the top three seeds but it’s not an impossible task. Likely they will battle with the Colorado Avalanche, Minnesota Wild, and Nashville Predators for a wild card slot.
The Winnipeg Jets have for many years now preached patience as players developed through the system. Now many of those players are in positions to make an impact and the Jets need for that to happen. Regardless of how tough the division is to play in the Jets faithful need to see that their patience has not been in vain, and while the management group isn’t in jeopardy at all there needs to be real signs that this team is going to turn the corner finally. Finishing last in the Central Division isn’t an option and missing the playoffs in particular by a considerable margin should be considered a failure for this team as well.