Welcome to Puck Drop Preview 2020-21, where Last Word on Hockey 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 2020-21 Stanley Cup pick. Today the series continues with the 2020-21 Winnipeg Jets.
2020-21 Winnipeg Jets
Last season can be summarized as a series of unfortunate events. The Jets were one of the best teams in the league over the past two seasons, but they took a step backwards last season. Two of their defencemen, Tyler Myers and Ben Chiarot left as free-agents. Jacob Trouba wasn’t willing to sign long-term in Winnipeg, so the Jets had to trade him because he was a restricted free agent. Right before the season start, their top defenceman Dustin Byfuglien didn’t want to play. The reason isn’t clear. In April, the Jets and Byfuglien agreed to terminate his contract.
Only three defencemen remained, Josh Morrissey, Dmitry Kulikov, and Nathan Beaulieu. The massive turnover on defence showed. Winnipeg allowed the second-most shots on goal and the third most scoring chances last season. To make matters worse, second-line centre Bryan Little missed most of the season, and their third line-centre, Adam Lowry, missed 21 games. The poor position the Jets found themselves in led them to be one of the worst puck possession teams in the NHL.
But there were some heroes as well. Most notably, their starting goaltender, Connor Hellebuyck. Nobody faced more shots or high danger chances than him. Even with a large workload, of goalies who played over 40 games, Hellebuyck had the second-best save percentage at .922. Hellebuyck was expected to allow 151 goals but he only allowed 140. His stellar play kept the Jets alive and won him the Vezina Trophy as the league’s top goaltender.
The Jets finishing the season in the final wild-card spot. But because the NHL season ended prematurely due to the Covid-19 pandemic, the post-season expanded and the Jets played the Calgary Flames in the play-in round. More bad luck followed. Mark Scheifele and Patrik Laine were out with injuries after Game 1, and it was too much for Winnipeg to overcome. They lost the best out of five series 3-1.
The Jets entered the off-season with $15.58 million in cap space to work with. A lot of that money was used to re-sign players. The notables being Dylan DeMelo, Laurent Brossoit, and Nathan Beaulieu. The notable players that didn’t come back are Cody Eakin and Dmitry Kulikov.
The Jets weren’t busy in free agency. They signed defenceman Derek Forbort to a one-year $1 million dollar contract. Forbort will be slotted as their second pairing left defenceman. They also signed 36-year-old veteran Nate Thompson to a one-year $750,000 contract to be their fourth-line centre.
Their most notable trade was acquiring Paul Stastny from the Vegas Golden Knights for Carl Dahlstrom and a fourth-round pick. Stastny played for the Jets two seasons ago and centred a line with Patrik Laine and Nikolaj Ehlers in the playoffs. Stastny finished fourth in team scoring in the playoffs with 15 points in 17 games. With Little still hurt, he will be counted on to fix their centre depth issue.
In the draft, the Jets got lucky and selected highly-regarded prospect Cole Perfetti, who fell to them at the 10th pick.
There are two ongoing offseason issues that may be resolved during the season. The most pressing is doing something with Jack Roslovic. Roslovic is an unsigned restricted free-agent and has requested a trade. Something will happen with that situation before Feb.11, the last day he can sign before skipping out on the whole season. It was also reported that Patrik Laine’s agent felt a trade was mutually beneficial for both sides. Laine becomes a restricted free agent with arbitration rights at the end of the season, so he could be moved sometime this year.
Kyle Connor – Paul Stastny – Patrik Laine
Extras: Jack Roslovic, Mathieu Perrault
The 2020-21 Winnipeg Jets top six is one of the best groups in the NHL. Wheeler is tenth in league scoring over the past three seasons and fourth among right-wingers. Scheifele is 22nd in league scoring during that span and 12th among centres. Connor and Laine are two of the best goal scorers in the league, they both finish 10th and 11th in goals over that same time period. Ehlers is one of the fastest players in the league and was on pace to score 60 points over a full season (82 games) for the third time in his five year career. Stastny is a dependable two-way centre who had success in Winnipeg two years ago. He scored 13 points in 19 regular-season games and 15 points in 17 playoff games.
These are the consistent lines in training camp, and they match previous line combinations except at left-wing. Ehlers and Connor have switched. The Athletic’s Murat Ates believes this is for two reasons. Ehlers’s speed allows him to be the best Jet at carrying the puck through the neutral zone, therefore giving Scheifele and Wheeler more time to play in the offensive zone. Stastny badly out-chanced his opposition last season, so Winnipeg is looking for the magic formula of combining a fantastic possession player in Stastny to lead for more chances for snipers Connor and Laine.
For the bottom six, the centre and left-wing positions are secure, it is the right-wing where the fun begins. There are three players battling for three spots: Mathieu Perrault, Mason Appleton and Trevor Lewis. Perrault was originally on the third-line in camp and according to Ates, skated well with them. However, he has dropped to the fourth line after being hurt and has since been put on waivers to get the Jets under the cap. But he’s expected to come back once he clears waivers. It is a salary cap technicality that Ates understands much better than I do.
Because of this, it looks secure that Appleton will line up on the third line. At 6′-1″, Copp is the shortest player on that line, so they should be able to grind and play a cycle game. All three of them can provide decent secondary scoring.
The fourth-line sees Jansen Harkins play his first full NHL season along with veterans Thompson and Lewis. In training camp, Ates has noticed Harkins has been ferocious on the forecheck and has developed chemistry with Lewis. They should be a hard-working and defensively responsible line. The speedy and gritty Perrault could join this line as well, and move up to the third line too.
Josh Morrissey – Tucker Poolman
Derek Forbort – Neal Pionk
Nathan Beaulieu – Dylan DeMelo
It is surprising to see Morrissey and Poolman paired together in training camp after a disappointing season. Of the eleven Jets defensive pairings who played over 100 minutes with each other last year, this one finished seventh in Corsi For percentage at 46.53. The Jets gave up 50 more shots than they shot themselves with this pairing on the ice. The one good thing about them is the Jets only allowed one more goal than they scored with them on the ice. With a year of experience together, it will be interesting to see if they can hang on to being the top pair for the 2020-21 Winnipeg Jets.
The second pairing of Derek Forbort and Neal Pionk is more understandable. Forbort is a big stay-at-home defenceman who had success playing top-four minutes for the Los Angeles Kings. Pionk is a smaller defenceman but unquestionably Winnipeg’s best offensive rearguard. This will be a stereotypical pair where Forbort will stay back and be the anchor defensively. His defensive stability will allow Pionk to rush offensively and create offence.
This pairing is expected to be excellent. DeMelo is a brilliant defensive defenceman who can read the play, break-up offensive chances and transition the puck out of his own zone. Last season he split his time between the Ottawa Senators and Winnipeg Jets and finished as the best puck possession defenceman on both teams. He’s used to doing this against the opposition’s top forwards, so he should excel even more in a third-pairing role. Beaulieu is a steady defenceman who can defend, skate and has some grittiness to his game.
DeMelo and Beaulieu played 107 minutes with each other last season and excelled. They had a 51.16 Corsi For percentage and outshot their opposition 55-40.
What more can be said about Connor Hellebuyck? He won the Vezina Trophy as the best goaltender in the league last year. The issue the Jets have is they relied heavily on him to bail them out. If Hellebuyck isn’t at the same world-class level he was at last year, will they be alright? If Hellebuyck is as good as last year, it will give the 2020-21 Winnipeg Jets best goaltending in the league. This will give them a strong shot at the post-season.
In a compressed schedule, the Jets are going to have to go to Brossoit frequently. Unfortunately for them, Brossoit didn’t have a good season. He had a .895 save percentage and a 3.28 goals-against average. This was a down year as he had a .925 save percentage the year prior. The reason for his downfall is Brossoit didn’t handle the larger load of high danger chances coming his way very well. His .771 high danger save percentage was ninth-worst out of the 74 goalies who played 150 minutes or more last season. The 2020-21 Winnipeg Jets didn’t drastically change their defence in the offseason, so they’re going to need Brossoit to be better at stopping scoring chances.
Players to Watch
There are two new developments in Patrik Laine’s career that makes him interesting to watch. The first is that he has two new linemates in Paul Stastny and Kyle Connor. Stastny is better puck possession wise than the former second-line centre, Bryan Little, but doesn’t drive noticeably more offence than him. Connor has been one of the best offensive forces for Winnipeg over the past few years but has done it on the top-line. It will be interesting to see how these three meshes with each other. What makes Laine stand out is he has to deal with new linemates on top of trade rumours. Will he succumb to the pressure? Or rise to the challenge of proving he’s worth the high price the Jets are probably asking for a team to acquire him.
Morrissey was expected to be Winnipeg’s top defenceman last season after losing Byfuglien and Trouba in the offseason. He arguably was, he played against the opposition’s top players and was second in average ice-time to Neal Pionk, but Morrissey struggled. When he was on the ice, Winnipeg got out-chanced by 100 scoring chances and high danger chances. However, his numbers are usually much better, but that was when he was paired with Jacob Trouba. With a year of experience playing with Tucker Poolman, and the option to play with Dylan DeMelo, it will be interesting to see if Morrissey can get his game back and live up to his $6.25 million dollar cap hit.
The 2020-21 Winnipeg Jets don’t look a lot different from last year. Their offence is still great, but it may slow down with an un-signed Jack Roslovic, a distracted Patrik Laine, and an ageing Paul Stastny and Blake Wheeler. Their defence has slight improvements with DeMelo and Forbort playing the full-season there. But neither of them are sexy options to fix a bad blue-line, so it will fascinating to see how well they do. Also, will Connor Hellebuyck continue to be the best goalie in the world or will he step back? There are many unanswered questions. They play in the North Division, a battleground of mediocracy, so it’s hard to place them. They could finish anywhere from second to sixth, but I have them at fifth, just outside the playoff picture.
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