It’s been one step forward and two steps back for the Jets this season. After making the playoffs last spring for their first time since the franchise's relocation from Atlanta, Winnipeg has stumbled through its 2015-16 campaign, delivering a disappointing setback to its passionate, boisterous fans.
The youthful squad got off to a solid start, going 7-3-1 through the first month, but a combination of injuries, poor goaltending, undisciplined play, and players not living up to expectations grounded the Jets. Their 2–1 loss to the Western basement-dwelling Edmonton Oilers on Sunday left Winnipeg 2-6-2 in its last 10 games with a mid-April tee time looming nearer by the day.
I visited the MTS Centre in late October when things looked quite promising. Winger Nikolaj Ehlers appeared to be a Calder Trophy candidate and forward Nic Petan had played his way up to a spot with the big club. “It’s a teaching process each and every day,” Jets GM Kevin Cheveldayoff told me. Unfortunately, the kids have largely flunked out with Petan being sent down to the AHL’s Manitoba Moose and Ehlers cooling off (only 13 goals through 63 games) with an eye injury now threatening the rest of his season.
So where should the Jets go from here? There are pieces to build around, for sure, but right now this roster simply can’t hack it in the tough Central Division. Winnipeg has developed a strong identity as a big, physical outfit but in a division that features fast scoring teams such as Dallas and Chicago, the Jets haven't gotten the points against their Central rivals that they need. They’ve won just six of their 15 division tilts as of this writing.
If the Jets want to maintain that rugged identity, re-signing Dustin Byfuglien, a premier all-around defenseman, was a step in the right direction. Awarding a player of Big Buff's physical style with a five-year extension that keeps him on until he's 36 indicates that Cheveldayoff sees him as one of the pillars of the team's veteran core moving forward.
Two other key vets, forwards Blake Wheeler and Bryan Little, are edging close to 30. Wheeler is signed through 2018-19 at a cap hit of $5.6 million per; Little, who went down for the season in February with a fractured vertebrae, through 2017-18 at $5 million per. Both have no-trade clauses and even at their best, they’re still not the kind of offensive duo that can hold its own against some of the better pairs in the Central, such as Patrick Kane and Artemi Panarin in Chicago and Jamie Benn and Tyler Seguin in Dallas.
If the Jets are going to consider this season a blip on the radar and regroup for next season, they do have some interesting possibilities moving forward. Cheveldayoff took his time to start making sizeable trades as GM, but if he is serious about winning as quickly as possible, Winnipeg is exactly the type of team that will have to start shipping bodies in and out during the off-season. One of the first to go should be goalie Ondrej Pavelec, but finding a taker will be difficult. A buyout is an option, but that's been a discussion in the Peg for the past two years. It’s probably more feasible now as they'd only owe him $3 million over four years, so the cap hit wouldn't be too bad and Connor Hellebuyck looks close to being able to assume the starting role with Michael Hutchinson as backup.
The Jets are also in the enviable position of having two first-round picks in this summer’s entry draft after receiving Chicago’s in the Andrew Ladd swap at the trade deadline. If the remainder of their regular season continues the way it is going, they’ll likely be awarded a high, maybe even top five, pick in the lottery.
Now, depending on how the lottery plays out, Jets fans will likely want Cheveldayoff to think long and hard about shopping that pick. If Winnipeg is awarded any selection outside of the top three that offer a shot at one of the NHL-ready players (Auston Matthews, Patrik Laine or Jesse Puljujärvi), flipping the pick to bolster the lineup and address depth scoring and defensive needs is certainly an option. An example was when the New Jersey Devils traded their ninth overall pick in 2013 for cornerstone goaltender Cory Schneider. Why not shop it to teams that are looking to rebuild now and try to get a roster player who can impact the team immediately? Otherwise, it’s likely to be more of the same for the Jets in 2016-17.
As difficult as it has been, this season did show that there are interesting, talented pieces to be excited about in the future, and the organization boasts one of the league's top prospect crops. Winger Kyle Connor is having a great season at the University of Michigan and is arguably one of the 10 best prospects not currently in the NHL. Forward Jack Roslovic is coming along nicely at Miami of Ohio as well. This is a deep and well balanced organization.
That said, the Jets are still probably three years away from taking on the big boys in the Central, especially with the talent in Chicago and Dallas being in, or on the verge of, its prime. Trading picks now doesn't make much sense unless the Jets can acquire solid 21- or 22-year-olds in exchange, and those aren't easy to come by.
So win-now isn't likely to be Winnipeg’s approach. The Jets are working more kids into the mix (Petan, Marko Dano, Josh Morrissey) and that means they're probably looking at a couple more years of growing pains. That's probably not what Jets fans want to hear, but Cheveldayoff has been selling "slow and steady" from the start. Don't be surprised if that’s how it goes.