Over the next six weeks, we’ll be taking a quick look at each of the 30 NHL clubs — examining their major storylines, pivotal players and the most important questions they need to answer heading into the 2016-17 season.
By the time we’ve hit every team, it will be mid-September. And that, of course, means it will be time for training camps to open. Perfect timing, really.
Today, it’s the Winnipeg Jets…
A year after making the playoffs and putting up a better fight than most teams do when they’re getting swept out of the first round, the Winnipeg Jets missed the postseason entirely in 2015-16. But the talent is in place for a quick climb back to relevance in the Western Conference.
The problem, of course, is that Winnipeg plays in the vaunted Central Division. It’s not exactly easy to make a move up the standings when the teams in front of you include the Stars, Blackhawks, Blues and Predators.
That said, the Jets ended last season with just 78 points, and they have too much young skill on the roster to be finishing tied for the 24th-best record in hockey. There’s work to be done, and the fact that they were the second-biggest winners in the draft lottery certainly helps nudge them in the right direction.
Is this the year Connor Hellebuyck takes over in net?
Hellebuyck has been considered one of the sport’s top goalie prospects for a few years now. And he really jumped onto everyone’s radar when he posted a 1.37 goals against average while backstopping Team USA at the 2015 World Championships. When he finally got the chance to make his mark at the NHL level this past season, he went a respectable 13-11-1 with a 2.34 goals against average and a .918 save percentage in 26 appearances.
He made the most of his opportunity and was pretty clearly Winnipeg’s best option between the pipes. But the Jets still have Ondrej Pavelec under contract for one more season, and Michael Hutchinson locked in through 2018. Do they really want to lean on a 22-year old netminder when they’re already paying two vets? Did I really just answer the burning question with another question?
NOTABLE SUMMER ACQUISITION
Patrik Laine (via draft)
Yes, the Maple Leafs were the big winners when the ping-pong balls fell in the draft lottery. After all, they landed a generational talent in Auston Matthews.
Toronto had the worst record in the league though so, in theory, they needed Matthews the most. With that in mind, a case could be made that Winnipeg was the real “winner” of the lottery because — even in a year where the Jets underachieved — they still finished five spots ahead of the Leafs in the standings.
That didn’t stop them from moving all the way up to pick second though. Which means they get to add the ultra-skilled Laine to an already impressive collection of prospects. Not a bad consolation prize for a down year.
Patrik Laine (drafted: No. 2 overall in 2016)
This really could just be an entire story on Laine, though plenty of those have already been written. Winnipeg has a solid crop of gifted young players that either aren’t that far from breaking through to the NHL level (Kyle Connor), already got a taste and are looking to evolve their game (Nikolaj Ehlers) or are now making a significant impact with the big club (Mark Scheifele).
Depending who you talk to, Laine could very well end up being the best of the bunch. Many scouts believe he’s capable of pouring in 30-40 goals in the not-too-distant future. And he’s almost certain to step right in and start playing in two months as an 18-year old.
BIGGEST CAP HIT
Dustin Byfuglien ($7.6 million)
Byfuglien is pretty much the biggest everything. And that includes being the biggest cap hit on the roster. That’s just fine though, considering he’s a 6-foot-5, 265-pound physical presence that can put the puck in the net and plays defense or forward.
FREE AGENT TO KEEP AN EYE ON
Throughout this entire summer preview series, this spot has been reserved for potential 2017 free agents. But that pattern gets broken for the Jets because they don’t really have any major UFAs set to hit the open market next summer and Trouba is too valuable to remain unsigned at this point.
As a restricted free agent, it’s not like Trouba is going to just up and walk away from the club. But his RFA status isn’t something that kicks in a year from now — he’s already hit it. And there have been rumors that Winnipeg might be interested in dealing him soon, rather than investing more money in an already expensive blue line.
Problem is, the only way to really get equal value for a 22-year old, right-handed defenseman who was a top ten pick in the draft just four years ago and still has plenty of untapped potential is to get a young D-man with upside back. And teams aren’t trading those.
This could easily be Byfuglien, because his nickname may as well just be “the x-factor.” But Ehlers gets the nod because the Jets still don’t know exactly what his ceiling is. He was widely considered one of the NHL’s best all-around prospects just 12 months ago, and he used his blazing speed to tally 15 goals and 23 assists as a rookie last year.
That’s not his ceiling, though. If anything, that’s probably his floor. And while he understandably had some ups and downs in a season that began when he was just 19 years old, there were other nights when Ehlers looked unstoppable. Stay tuned.