Winnipeg Jets' promise will be flighty in tough West without smart moves
Off The Draw
What a season that was for the Jets.
Despite being swept out of the first round by the Ducks with a 5–2 loss on Wednesday night, Winnipeg can take satisfaction in having made legitimate strides toward Stanley Cup contention this season. Young players developed. GM Kevin Cheveldayoff awoke from his three-year slumber and made a blockbuster trade (Evander Kane, Zach Bogosian and Jason Kasdorf to Buffalo for Tyler Myers, Drew Stafford, minor leaguer Joel Armia, prospect Brendan Lemieux and a 2015 first-round pick) that refocused and deepened his core. And somehow it all came together during a thrilling stretch run that earned the Jets their first playoff berth since moving to Manitoba in 2011, energizing a hockey-mad city.
But a word of advice to those ardent fans: Don’t take it for granted.
If we learned anything from a season that saw seven teams make the playoffs after missing the cut the year before, it’s that there are no guarantees. That’s especially true for the Jets, who have the misfortune of playing in the NHL’s toughest division. The Stars will push them hard for a spot next spring. So will the Avalanche. And that wild card berth will be in play with the expected revivals of the Kings and Sharks.
If Cheveldayoff gets too comfortable with this lineup, the Jets could be in line for a big step back in 2015-16.
Here are the question marks the team faces as it heads too soon into the off-season:
He’s been a whipping boy almost from the moment he arrived in Winnipeg, but the truth is the Jets would not have made the postseason if not for the exceptional play of Ondrej Pavelec down the stretch. The 27-year-old netminder went 9-2-1 from Mar. 14 on, finishing the season with three consecutive shutouts on the road against divisional rivals.
But when it got down to crunch time Pavelec wasn’t up to the challenge. He certainly wasn’t Winnipeg's biggest problem in the series against Anaheim, but by allowing 15 goals in four games (a 3.73 GAA and .891 save percentage) he dug a hole from which his teammates couldn’t climb out. That was especially true in that must-win game on Wednesday night when he allowed goals immediately after the Jets got on the board in the first period and after Frederik Andersen made a series of game-saving stops in the third. Killers, both of them.
After Pavelec posted a career-best .920 save percentage during the regular season, the “safe” play would be to bring him back for the final two years of his contract with the assumption that he’ll play as well again. But that decision, more than any other, could doom the Jets to irrelevance. Pavelec’s highest save percentage in Winnipeg prior to this season was .906. It’s more likely that he’ll regress to that level than maintain this one.
What are their options? Backup Michael Hutchinson was inconsistent but showed signs of potential this year. He’s signed for one more season with a cap hit of just $575,000. so he’s in the mix, but he may not be ready for primetime.
Connor Hellebuyck won the Mike Richter Award as college hockey’s top goaltender in 2014 and started the AHL All-Star Game this season as a rookie. He has pro size and technique, but at 21 he’s better served by a longer apprenticeship in the minors. Eric Comrie, a second-round pick in 2013 who played a key role for the gold-medal winning Canadians at the 2015 World Juniors, is promising but still a speck off in the distance.
So if they decide to move on from Pavelec, the Jets will have to find a veteran in free agency or the trade market to tide them over. Jonas Hiller worked out nicely in that role for the Flames this season, so someone like that may be the way to go.
Jacob Trouba’s stumble-footed misplay on Emerson Etem’s jaw-dropping goal in Game 4 reminded everyone that the 21-year-old blueliner is a work-in-progress. He’s also a player who has the size, smarts and all-around tool kit to become an elite top-two defender for the next decade. Tyler Myers could join him after regaining his confidence in the wake of his trade from the Sabres. Beyond those two foundational talents, the Jets have Dustin Byfuglien, Toby Enstrom, Mark Stuart, Grant Clitsome and Jay Harrison signed through next season. Not all of them will be back.
Cheveldayoff needs to clear some space for the team’s developing young talent, including steady Ben Chiarot and 2013 first-rounder Josh Morrissey, who almost made the team out of camp this season and could be the offensive firestarter it lacked in this series.
Who goes? Enstrom is the best bet. Injuries have cut deeply into three of his past four seasons and he was a non-factor in the playoffs—full value for that –3 in the finale. With Morrissey on the verge, the Jets have options to handle Enstrom’s offensive duties. Byfuglien is another option. There were stretches this season when Big Buff was Winnipeg’s best player, and his positional flexibility makes him the game’s most unique weapon. But he’s also a player whose lack of on-ice discipline down the stretch could make him expendable. The asset(s) he’d fetch could help this team take the next step.
Here’s where things could get interesting.
If the Jets re-sign pending UFA Drew Stafford, who probably earned a deal with an excellent stretch of play after the trade with Buffalo, the Jets have an above-average top-six in place to start next season. As a group they make up for the absence of a gamebreaker by being big, fast and hard on the forecheck. Mark Schiefele and Bryan Little offer an excellent 1-2 punch down the middle. Third-line center Adam Lowry opened a lot of eyes with his rugged and savvy two-way play. He may never be a big scorer, but he has some upside and should benefit greatly from this playoff experience. Mathieu Perreault brought speed and veteran experience to the bottom six.
Beyond them, though, this group could be in flux. Pending UFAs Jim Slater, Lee Stempniak and Jiri Tlusty are unlikely to be resigned. Adding some veteran presence will be key, but Cheveldayoff needs to create opportunities for youngsters as well. Nik Ehlers, the ninth pick in 2014, is all but a lock to start next season in Winnipeg. He dominated the QMJHL this season, scoring 101 points in just 51 games. With his speed and finishing touch, he might be the missing piece for the top six. Nic Petan, who had 74 assists in just 54 games for Portland of the WHL, could earn a job in camp. He was brilliant for Team Canada at the World Juniors. Joel Armia, Andrew Copp or J.C. Lipon could step into a depth role and provide some speed, character or secondary scoring.
And that may be the key to the development of this group. The Jets scored only nine goals in this series. The Ducks scored that many in third periods alone. After finishing 16th during the regular season at 2.72 goals per game, this is an area that cries out for help. Whether they find it internally or externally is the biggest question that Cheveldayoff has to answer this summer.
The numbers game
• The Ducks came back from a deficit of at least one goal during each game of their sweep of the Jets and became the first team in NHL history to win three straight games (1, 2, 3) of a playoff series after trailing after the first 40 minutes. Anaheim led for only 38:26 during the series, the least amount of time any team has ever enjoyed a lead during a four-game sweep in the postseason.
• Ottawa is now the second team in NHL history to avoid being swept in a best-of-seven series by winning Game 4 by a score of 1–0. The other: the Avalanche in the 2004 Western Conference Semifinals against the Sharks, who still went on to win in six.
• Kevin Hayes is the first Ranger to score his first career playoff goal in overtime since April 13, 1978 when Don Murdoch connected against the Sabres. Hayes is also the third Blueshirt rookie to pot a postseason goal in extra time. The others: Alf Pike (1940 vs. the Maple Leafs) and Chris Kreider (2013 vs. the Bruins). Hayes’s tally made the Rangers 9-1-1 in their last 11 games against the Penguins dating back to Game 5 of their second round playoff meeting last year. New York has allowed one goal in all six of its postseason wins over Pittsburgh during that span.
• You won't believe what else Wayne Gretzky had to say about McDavid after pronouncing him "as good as I’ve seen in the last 30 years.” From a guy who tends to steer clear of hype, this is a stunning endorsement of the kid’s potential.
• This former player let his dogs chew on one of the most iconic relics of Canada’s sporting history. Which is kind of perfectly Canadian.
• Much like Sir Mix-A-Lot, NHL players appreciate a big butt.