Welcome to our latest series here at Last Word on Hockey. The Puck Drop Preview series takes you through each team as the season is fast approaching. The preview will focus on the narratives surrounding the team ending last year, during the offseason, and heading into the 2021-22 season. Puck Drop Preview also focuses on what the season has in store for each team from a roster and expectations perspective. Join us, as we look at all 32 teams before the season starts. Today, we take a look at the 2021-22 Winnipeg Jets.
2021-22 Winnipeg Jets
The Winnipeg Jets had an adventurous start to the 2020-21 season. They made a blockbuster trade four games into the season, sending sniper Patrik Laine and centre Jack Roslovic to the Columbus Blue Jackets for a big number one centre in Pierre-Luc Dubois. However, Dubois never got comfortable. The combination of being on a new team, quarantining for two weeks and an injury prevented him from finding this rhythm.
Unlike Dubois, the Jets had no issues finding their rhythm. They didn’t drop more than two games in a row until the last month of the season. The last month was tough. They lost nine out of their last 12 games and limped into the playoffs as the third seed in the North Division.
The streaky Jets continued their ways in the playoffs. They surprisingly swept the Edmonton Oilers, a team riding on the high of Connor McDavid’s spectacular 105 point season in 56 games. The Jets got swept themselves in the second round by the Montreal Canadiens. The series was overshadowed by a brutal hit Mark Scheifele delivered to Jake Evans in Game 1, which suspended him for the rest of the series and the season opener for this year.
The Jets never recovered from the 2019 offseason when they lost defencemen Dustin Byfuglien, Jacob Trouba, Tyler Myers and Ben Chiarot. The defence has been a real weakness ever since, and only by the grace of their spectacular goaltender, Connor Hellebuyck, have they kept making it to the postseason. The Jets decided to fix their defence problem this offseason. First, they traded 2022 and 2023 second-round picks to the Washington Capitals for a big and reliable defensive defenceman Brenden Dillon. They also traded a third-round pick in 2022 to the Vancouver Canucks for another reliable defenceman in Nate Schmidt.
The Jets also re-signed centre/left-wingers Paul Stastny and Andrew Copp to one-year deals and brought in Riley Nash as a fourth-line centre. Leaving the team are Mason Appleton, Mathieu Perreault, Derek Forbort, Trevor Lewis, Nate Thompson, Jordie Benn, Tucker Poolman, Sami Niku and Laurent Brossoit.
Andrew Copp – Pierre-Luc Dubois – Nikolaj Ehlers
Connor, Scheifele and Wheeler are a reliable top line. Connor has never scored below 30 goals in a season. He was on pace for 38 goals over 82 games last year. Scheifele consistently scores 70-85 points a year as the top-centre. Wheeler might be declining a bit as a 35-year-old, but he is one of their best playmakers.
The second line should see Dubois and Ehlers carry this line offensively, with Copp providing a good amount of secondary scoring but being the defensive conscious. The key is can Dubois have a bounce-back season? I think he can with a more typical year.
The left-wingers and centres are set. Stastny and Lowry are both two-way players who can provide a good amount of secondary scoring. On the fourth line, Harkins and Nash have those spots. Harkins is a fast, hard-working player, and Nash is a defence-first centre. What’s left to be decided is right-wing. On the third line, it’s Kristian Vesalainen’s job to lose, but Evgeny Svechnikov is making a push with a goal and three assists in the pre-season. Dominic Toninato and David Gustafsson will battle for the final spot. Both are defensive first forwards. I see Toninato’s experience edging out the much younger Gustafson.
Josh Morrissey – Nate Schmidt
Brenden Dillon – Neal Pionk
With Schmidt and Dillon joining the roster, this is an entirely different looking top four than the past two seasons and should make the team much better. Morrissey has struggled the past few years, mainly because he hasn’t had a consistent partner since Jacob Trouba left. Hopefully, Schmidt’s presence allows Morrissey to settle down. Trouba was the primary puck mover with Morrissey, a skill that Schmidt is good at too.
The Dillon-Pionk pairing is your classic opposites attract defence pairing. Dillon is a big and excellent defensive defenceman, while Pionk is smaller and can drive offence. In theory, the two should complement each other well.
Stanley and DeMelo played 228 minutes of even-strength hockey together last season, according to Natural Stat Trick. During that span, they had a 52.69 Corsi for percentage and outscored their opponents 13-6. If they carry that momentum into this season, they will be a very good pair.
Nathan Beaulieu is the team’s seventh defenceman. He’s not great, and usually, the Jets give up more chances than they take when he’s on the ice. However, he’s a veteran and can step into the lineup easily if need be.
During the past two seasons, Connor Hellebuyck has the eighth-best save percentage among goalies who have played at least 3,300 minutes, according to Natural Stat Trick. He allowed 19 fewer goals than expected while facing 152 more high danger shots than the next closest goalie. Hellebuyck has proven to be one of the best goalies in the league, and that shouldn’t change.
Who plays behind him is a bit of a question. Right now, it’s Eric Comrie, who has done his time in the AHL, playing for the Manitoba Moose since the 2015-16 season. However, he hasn’t proven he’s good enough for the NHL. In nine games, he has 4.07 goals-against average, and a .873 save percentage.
Players to Watch
No player will be watched more than Dubois this season. High expectations were placed on him after the trade and for good reason. For three seasons, Dubois has been Columbus’s top centre and scored 10 points in 10 playoff games in 2020. Dubois said on 32 Thoughts the Podcast that he was knocked off his stride last year. The trade request, quarantining during the season, and an injury prevented him from finding his groove. He only scored 20 points in 41 games as a Jet. With a more typical year, the Jets will look for him to bounce back. He’s a restricted free agent at the end of the season, so it’s a good bet he will.
The Josh Morrissey-Nate Schmidt pairing
I cheated a bit here and took two players instead of one, but this pairing is crucial to the success of the 2021-22 Winnipeg Jets. From last season, we can expect the Stanley-DeMelo pairing to be good. Even though Dillon and Pionk haven’t played with each other, they’re both excellent defencemen, and it is reasonable to expect them to make it work. The Morrissey-Schmidt pairing is a bit of a mystery. The early returns are promising. With 45 minutes of even-strength ice time together in the pre-season, they have a Corsi For percentage of 53.95. I think they can work if both can be defensively sound, with Schmidt being the primary puck mover.
Prediction for 2021-22 Winnipeg Jets
If the defence plays strong, I think the Winnipeg Jets can bounce back into Stanley Cup contention. They already have the forwards and goaltending to do it. The Colorado Avalanche has this division secure going in, so it will be interesting to see where the Jets fall afterwards. If they live up to their team on paper, Winnipeg should finish second in the Central. But the Dallas Stars, Minnesota Wild, Chicago Blackhawks and St. Louis Blues will challenge for that spot.