The Jets celebrate advancing to the second last year above, which was realistically their ceiling in 2021. Can a revamped blueline lead them to greater heights in 2021-22? (Fred Greenslade / The Canadian Press)

After Addressing Biggest Flaw, Are The Jets Back? 2021 NHL Previews

The last four seasons of Jets hockey can be divided into two distinct two-year categories. In 2017-18 and 2018-19, Winnipeg was one of hockey’s best teams. They ranked fourth in regular-season points over that span thanks to an elite offense and outstanding goaltending. The Jets made a remarkable run to the 2018 Western Conference Final despite having never won a playoff game in their brief history up to that point. An organization plagued by mediocrity dating back to their Atlanta days seemed to finally be on the up-and-up.

The Jets didn’t exactly fall off the face of the Earth over the last two years. But their days of dominance quickly became a thing of the past. In the 2019 offseason, cap troubles, a trade request, and a stunning retirement cost the Jets four members of their starting defense. GM Kevin Cheveldayoff did very little to replace them, and as a result, the Jets became a defensive mess.

That aforementioned amazing goalie and their high-end forwards kept them from bottoming out. In fact, the Jets were the nine seed in the West when the 2019-20 season was cut short due to COVID (they could’ve made a decent run in the bubble, but lost two of their top players to injury and that was that). And they were even better last year; third in the North Division, with a surprising sweep of Edmonton their climax before the Canadiens skated laps around them in a dominant sweep of their own.

The Jets did their best to hide their flaws behind timely scoring and Connor Hellebuyck. But they could only do so for so long. Winnipeg was built on an extremely unstable structure destined to collapse before long. Solidifying that structure was necessary for the Jets to be a legitimately very good team moving forward. They may not be perfect, but this year’s version of the Jets is much better designed than last’s. So another leap forward is money in the bank? Well, let’s take a deeper look at that.

Forwards (New Players in Bold)

Kyle ConnorMark ScheifeleBlake Wheeler
Paul StastnyPierre-Luc DuboisNikolaj Ehlers
Andrew CoppAdam LowryKristian Vesalainen
Jansen HarkinsRiley NashDominic Toninato

I just finished writing our Calgary Flames preview, and in a lot of ways, the Jets forward core is the very opposite of theirs. Over the last three years, the Jets are eight in the NHL in goals per game despite ranking just 22nd in expected goals per 60 in all situations and 29th in the same department at 5v5. Winnipeg is chalked full of high-end finishers who couldn’t spell “play drivers” that give back more in the defensive zone than they create. It’s an extremely uneven equation that only works if you receive top-notch goaltending. Fortunately for Winnipeg, they have, but even that only takes you so far.

At least last year, Nikolaj Ehlers was the best of this bunch. He was “only” third on the team in scoring at 46 points in 47 games (a career-best points per game). But Ehlers was one of just four Jets to finish with a Corsi For% above 50% and one of three regulars to reach the same mark in Expected Goals. And he was 33rd in Corsi and 36th in Expected Goals when looking at relative to teammate numbers at over +5% in each category.

In other words, the Jets had about 45% of shot attempts and expected goals when Ehlers was on the bench and about 51% when he was on the ice. That’s a massive discrepancy and for one player to make such a difference is massive. He also delivered an overtime winner in the playoffs in his first game back from an upper-body injury. He was fantastic last year. Andrew Copp was among Winnipeg’s “best” play drivers, finishing in the 48% range in terms of Corsi and xG (ranking third among WPG forwards in the latter figure). But he took a huge step forward offensively, tallying a career-high 39 points in just 55 games. That’s a 58-point pace in 82 games, and his 13% shooting percentage isn’t ridiculously far from his career average. Copp stabilizing as a 50-point player would be huge for Winnipeg.

Copp is set up in this projection to play alongside Adam Lowry, a partnership the Jets should avoid at all costs. Their numbers together (in 311 5v5 minutes) were flat out ugly; 42% Corsi, 39% Expected Goals, 44% actual goals for. Both players were significantly better in every department away from each other. The same goes for Copp in 2019-20. Paul Statsny is listed as a left-winger here; but either moving him to 3C and Lowry (whose 5-year, $16.25 million extension kicks in this year) to 4C or just flipping him with Copp would be a smart move by Paul Maurice. The 35-year old Stastny is still serviceable (29 points, nearly a 50% Corsi last year), but his best days are obviously behind him.

In theory, Pierre-Luc Dubois’ best days should be ahead of him. That’s good news for the Jets, who had to be disappointed with Dubois’ production after acquiring him for Patrik Laine and Jack Roslovic. There are legitimate reasons for his struggles; Dubois undoubtedly felt the rust of a mandatory 14-day quarantine from crossing the border due to the trade. Then he suffered an injury two games into his Jets tenure.

The 23-year old Dubois finished with just 20 points in 41 games; easily the worst offensive output of his young NHL career. Dubois was roughly a 60-point player each of the two years prior with only a minor drop in his production after his most common winger went from Artemi Panarin in 2018-19 to Oliver Bjorkstrand the next year. He’s a very talented player; it’s just a matter of putting it all together. With his feet already wet in Winnipeg, I think he’ll figure it out. But he’s an obvious X-factor for Winnipeg’s present and future.

There may not be a player I’m more fascinated to watch this year than Mark Scheifele. He fits into the same aforementioned “lots of points, lots of D-zone time” basket that also contains Blake Wheeler and Kyle Connor, three players with an xG percentage below 47% last year (Scheifele was actually the best at 46.52%) but who also finished top-50 in points. But that’s not why I’m singling him out. No, it’s how annoyed Scheifele is at what turned out to be a season-ending suspension (also including this year’s season opener) for this hit on Jake Evans late in Game 1 of the second round. Star players playing pissed off generally isn’t good for opponents, and Scheifele is already one of the game’s best scorers; he ranks 11th in the NHL in points since 2016-17, just behind Wheeler.

I’m also intrigued to see if Kristian Vesalainen can take a step forward this year and finally justify his Medium Elite potential from noted prospect gurus EA Sports. The 2017 1st round pick has just two assists in 17 NHL games (1 in 12 contests in 2021); if he could be even a 35-40 point player this year, it would be huge for the Jets and his development. At 22, this is a massive year for his future; he needs to show he can be a productive NHLer by season’s end.

That’s especially since the team runs of depth fast, in part thanks to a career-ending injury to Bryan Little in 2019-20. Jansen Harkins and Dominic Toninato are pretty uninspiring fourth line choices. Riley Nash is still a good defensive center and PKer, but is pretty one-dimensional. Like Vesalainen, David Gustafsson was very productive playing in Finland and in the AHL, but struggled to contribute for the big club. 19-year old Cole Perfetti scored at nearly a point-per-game rate in the AHL last year; maybe he pushes for a top-nine spot right out of camp.

Finally, while their poor 5-on-5 play is definitely worth noting, Winnipeg does have one of the game’s more man advantages. The Jets narrowly missed out on ranking top ten in expected goals per 60 on the man advantage for fourth straight year in 2021, finishing 11th. Over that span, they rank 4th in PP% and 2nd in Net PP%, which accounts for short-handed goals allowed. It’s a catalyst for their success dating back to the glory days of this core. Though no power-play is good enough to fully mask 5v5 results as awful as Winnipeg’s were the last two seasons.

Defensemen

Josh MorrisseyNate Schmidt
Brenden DillonNeal Pionk
Logan StanleyDylan DeMelo

Let’s get this straight: Nate Schmidt and Brenden Dillon aren’t world-beaters. For the vast majority of teams, they wouldn’t even move the needle. That they do here speaks more to how bad Winnipeg’s blue-line was before than how good either player is. They are significant upgrades on Derek Forbort (a decent third-pair defenseman) and Tucker Poolman (a number six at best who Vancouver threw millions of dollars at because Benning). And they allow the existing pieces on Winnipeg’s blue-line to better slide into place. They aren’t prime Dustin Byfuglien and Jacob Trouba, but they’re solutions to Winnipeg’s biggest problem. Especially if Schmidt can bounce-back from a nightmare season in Vancouver and be the quality number two or three well-rounded defenseman he was in Vegas.

A Dillon-Pionk pairing, joining a defensive and offensively minded defenseman, looks great on paper. Pionk has been quite the reclamation project for the Jets, going from an analytical whipping boy at the start of his career with the Rangers to a pretty productive player. His points per 60 has gone from 0.46 to 0.69 to 0.98 at 5v5 over the last three seasons, and his 35 PP points over the last two years are tied for ninth among NHL defenders. However, I think the Jets might be better off prioritizing reducing Josh Morrissey’s role. He’s struggled mightily the last two years, holding the weight of the world on his shoulders as basically the only well-known Jets blue-liner. Putting him alongside either Schmidt or Dillon in a second-pair role could help get him back to the promising form he showed in his first three NHL seasons alongside Trouba.

While the Jets forward core gets thin kind of fast, the team is actually blessed with quite a bit of depth this year. Logan Stanley and Dylan DeMelo is a very good third pair. The 6’7”, 2016 1st round pick Stanley had a respectable rookie year, scoring 13 points in 37 games and driving play alongside the underrated DeMelo at a 52% clip in Corsi and Expected Goals, with an even better 68% on-ice goals for% to show for their efforts.

There’s plenty behind them, too; a quality veteran third-pair option in Nathan Beaulieu, 2018 AHL defenseman of the year Sami Niku, 2019 1st rounder Ville Heinola (who was productive in the AHL and overseas last year and already has 13 NHL games under his belt), and 2017 2nd rounder Dylan Samberg, just to name a few. Suddenly, Winnipeg’s Achilles heel has become at least passible, with the potential for the position to become a real strength moving forward.

Goaltenders

Connor Hellebuyck
Eric Comrie

You already know how good Connor Hellebuyck is. The 2020 Vezina Trophy winner (and a top-five finisher in voting three of the last four years) is rivaled only by Tampa Bay’s Andrei Vasilevskiy as the game’s premier netminder. Over the last four seasons he’s stopped 19.3 (1st), 24.2 (1st), -6.9 (65th; a clear outlier), and 10.6 (12th) goals above expected. As Winnipeg’s defense got worse, Hellebuyck actually got better, rising to the task despite a ridiculously heavy workload; Hellebuyck’s 231 games played since 17-18 are 21 more than the next closest goaltender (Vasilevskiy).

Unfortunately, I doubt that will change this year with the unproven Eric Comrie backing him up. He has a .873 career save percentage in nine games scattered across five different seasons(!) and three organizations. This is actually his third different stint in the Jets organization after being picked in the 2nd round in 2013 by the club; maybe he finally proves he’s more than a number three goaltender. There’s little to fall back on within the organization if he struggles.

The Verdict

There’s little dispute that the Jets aren’t a better team this year than last. The team is bringing back almost everybody up-front, plus they’ll have a full season of Pierre-Luc Dubois. And after years of trying to fix the gaping holes on their blue-line with cheap Band-Aids, Winnipeg finally has a defense that looks like it can hold up. It’s a unit full of promising young players (most of which will start in the AHL) and solid veterans who can at least hold their own in the roles they’ll be asked to play. Morrissey may be an exception there if Maurice asks him to stay on the top-pair. But even he should improve alongside the reliable Dillon or a potential bounce-back candidate in Schmidt. After two years of relying on a flawed process to achieve at best a moderate amount of success, Winnipeg’s foundation is finally sturdy.

The problem is that life around them is getting much harder. The Jets are leaving the North Division for a much deeper Central Division. Including the Jets, five of the eight teams reached the playoffs last year. That also includes Colorado, a universally regarded Cup contender. One of the other three are Dallas, who reached the Stanley Cup Final in 2020. Another is Chicago, one of the league’s most improved teams this summer. The other is Arizona, which won’t be a factor, but you get the point. Despite their improvements, there’s a good chance the Jets won’t go as far in the playoffs this year as last.

Check out our (now second) most recent NHL preview, focusing on the rising New Jersey Devils.

Even if that’s the case, it won’t mean the decisions they made this summer were the wrong ones. In the long run, a good process generally yields good results. Winnipeg managed to be a decent team despite a pretty terribly constructed team, thanks nearly entirely to Hellebuyck and their high-end scorers. All of those players are still here, but their supporting cast is much better suited to address their flaws. A 2018-esque deep playoff run probably isn’t coming this year. But the Jets have at least raised their ceiling enough to the point where that’s a possibility if everything breaks right. It probably won’t, because that rarely happens for any team. But the Jets are finally back to looking like somewhat of a complete hockey team. In the long run, they’ll be better for it.

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All Advanced Stats are 5-on-5 unless otherwise stated and via Natural Stat Trick; Salary Cap Info and Depth Chart via CapFriendly