Somewhat hidden behind the 2019 collapse of the Tampa Bay Lightning at the hands of the Columbus Blue Jackets was Winnipeg’s equally disappointing run. The Jets were coming consecutive finishes within the top four of the Western Conference standings and were definite favorites to win the title. So when the eventual Stanley Cup champions from St. Louis took down the Jets in four games, it’s fair to wonder, “What if?”
But then the Jets took a big step back in 2019-20. By the time the regular season was put on hold in March, the Jets sat fifth in the Central Division and ninth in the Western Conference, a performance that wouldn’t have been enough to make the post-season under normal eight-team conference final. Was everything the team built over the past decade to become one of the most feared clubs coming apart without any glimpse of real success?
That’s at least partly true. The Jets were swept by Anaheim in 2015, the team’s first playoff appearance since being relocated from Atlanta in 2011. Winnipeg finally came close in 2017-18, the team’s second playoff appearance, but fell to Vegas in the conference final. The Jets then lost to the Blues in 2019, only to get knocked out in the qualification round by a score of 3-1 against Calgary, another team coming off of a struggling campaign after winning the Western Conference title the year before.
What happened? Since the strong 2018 run when the Jets were at their peak, the Jets lost nearly their entire top-four defense core with the departures of Jacob Trouba (NYR), Tyler Myers (VAN), Ben Chiarot (MTL), and Dustin Byfuglien (injury/UFA). Paul Stastny departed for Vegas before eventually returning this off-season, Patrik Laine had an on-again, off-again relationship with consistency and injuries limited Bryan Little’s action over the past few years. In terms of the departures, the Jets haven’t come close to filling the gaps with equivalent talent, knocking the club down a few pegs this past year.
Quickly, the empire Kevin Cheveldayoff built in a short period of time quickly started to suffer and portrays a shell of what could have been.
Not all hope is lost, of course. Much of the team’s core – forwards Blake Wheeler, Kyle Connor, Patrik Laine and Mark Scheifele, defensemen Josh Morrissey and Neal Pionk and goaltender Connor Helleuyck, highlight a group that still has so much potential, but in need of a few safety nets along the way to keep the plane moving on the runway.
Preparing for cap-management hell
Here’s what we know: the NHL has a flattened salary cap for the 2020-21 season, staying consistent at the same $81.5 million we had this past campaign. There’s a good chance that could repeat in 2021-22, which could truly throw teams for a loop moving forward.
That’s especially true for the Jets, who have just 10 players signed for 2021-22 at this stage in the game. Many of the club’s pending free agents are depth players or older veterans the Jets can move on from, but the next deals for forward Patrik Laine and defenseman Neal Pionk will definitely come into question. If the Jets retain both of them (more on Laine later), that could tie up close to half of Winnipeg’s projected $30 million in salary space between two players. Filling eight spots – including a potential second-line center to replace Paul Stastny – with around $15 million in cap space could be a bit tricky.
At the very least, the Jets should get some cap relief in the form of prospect Kristian Vesalainen ($894,167 cap hit), who’s been putting up strong numbers on loan to the KHL this season. If Vesalainen turns out to be the real deal, that’ll provide a bit of relief on the wing should the Jets move on from Laine or someone like Mathieu Perrault. But after that, the Jets will need to get a bit creative. Cole Perfetti, selected in the first round by Winnipeg back in October, is unlikely to crack the roster for at least another year. After that, most of Winnipeg’s top prospects reside on the blueline in the form of Ville Heinola, Dylan Samberg and Logan Stanley, but they’re still a little away from being regular NHLers. Usually, players on entry-level deals are perfect for fixing cap issues, with the alternative being veterans on low-cost, likely low-reward deals.
The one calming factor is that, of the team’s free agents next off-season, very few of the players will command big salaries. Sure, if you want someone like Adam Lowry, it’ll cost you another $3 million at the minimum, but that can be arranged.
Trade Laine or stay Pat(rik)?
It’s a question two years in the running. Laine is a polarizing figure in Winnipeg due to his lack of consistency and the constant talk of him looking disinterested during plays, but it’s hard to deny his abilities when everything clicks. Since entering the league since 2016, Laine’s 138 goals puts him in a three-way tie for seventh place with Patrick Kane, and John Tavares, with his 247 points trailing just Connor McDavid’s 324 among U-22 scorers in that span.
Laine is the type of player you’d hate to lose, especially since he was on pace for another 30-goal, 70-point campaign before the COVID-19 shutdown. But Laine’s $6.75-million cap hit is often viewed as frustrating given his inconsistency from game-to-game. Case-in-point: Laine had 21 goals in his first 24 games of 2018-19, including 18 goals in November alone. But in the remaining 58 games of the year, Laine had just nine goals, leaving a sour taste in the mouths of fans despite his 30-goal, 50-point final tally.
Laine’s “struggles” have made him a favorite among fans when discussing potential trades, but the Jets consider it? If I’m running the team, I understand his value and listen to offers, but I have to be very careful when dealing with his future. Pure goal-scorers are hard to come by and the fact that he has nearly 150 goals at the age of 22 suggests the best years are still yet to come. The Jets don’t have a player that can immediately replace his goal-scoring touch, and while addressing defensive concerns is still a priority for the Jets this off-season, getting equal value would be a challenge.
Laine is about to enter the final year of a two-year, $13.5-million deal and the pending RFA won’t come cheap on his extension. There’s a chance that could play well into Winnipeg’s hands: if he struggles, then maybe he doesn’t cost that much on his next deal. If he succeeds, and the Jets don’t have the room to ink him long-term, he’ll still be an RFA, so Cheveldayoff can remain patient in dealing him for assets. I fully expect that a trade involving Laine will backfire on the Jets in the long-run, and there’s certainly no reason to deal him just yet. Love him while you have him, Winnipeg.
Won’t somebody think of the defense?
This isn’t a new problem, and it might not be resolved any time soon, either,
Like I mentioned earlier, the Jets had a stout group with Byfuglien, Trouba, Chiarot, Myers and Morrissey manning the blueline. Now, just Morrissey remains, and while there are a few bright spots in Pionk and Dylan DeMelo, this is far from a good enough group to win championships.
With the Jets in potential cap hell, there’s not much the team can do right now to address the glaring need. On the fantasy hockey site Daily Faceoff, which rates every team’s lines, the Morrissey-DeMelo pairing is the fifth-worst top pairing in the NHL. while the second group of Pionk and Nathan Beaulieu sits at a team-best 12th. There aren’t any immediate boosts in the system right now, so the Jets will have to get creative.
A lot of what Winnipeg does the rest of the off-season is dependent on what happens to Laine and Pionk. The club would benefit from someone like Sami Vatanen or Ben Hutton in the lineup, with Vatanen being the only true top-four defenseman still left on the free-agent market. In Vatanen, the Jets would be getting a more reliable option in the defensive zone, albeit with less offensive potential. The injuries that prevented Vatanen from playing more in 2019-20 could force a bit of a pay cut, but he’s a significant upgrade over most of the team’s current crop and could add an extra offensive flair.
In Hutton, the Jets would be adding a depth defender with a ton to prove. Hutton has found himself searching for a new home the past two off-seasons and after a so-so campaign in Los Angeles, he needs to find a way to spice things up. At the very least, he’s a guy who, under the right circumstances, can handle a solid workload and won’t be too much of a liability around your own net. Of course, that’s not a gleaming review for the 27-year-old, but he’s the type of depth addition the Jets could truly use right now.
There’s no easy answer as to how the Jets can address their defensive situation, but there are some short-term solutions. The Jets were unable to land any of the heavy hitters this fall and will have to make do with what they have. But thank god that Helleybuck is a Vezina Trophy-winner because watching Winnipeg’s defense can be an absolute nightmare on the best of nights.