Every GM outside the circle of contenders fantasizes about waking up one morning to find a bundle of effervescent, talented players at his disposal. An NHL front office wants to acquire as much aptitude as possible (by draft, free agency, trade, and overseas) and figure out the details later. But what happens when your wish is granted? When there is prodigiousness in your midst, responsibility is demanded from the caretaker. The Winnipeg Jets have succeeded at collecting a hoard of skilled players. Now comes the next step: harnessing their capabilities.
Mark Scheifele, Nikolaj Ehlers, Patrik Laine, Blake Wheeler, Bryan Little, and Dustin Byfuglien are inconsistent in the amount of visceral excitement they arouse, but the common thread is that they are skilled, franchise-building players. Nic Petan, Jacob Trouba, Mathieu Perreault, Drew Stafford, Josh Morissey, Marko Dano, Toby Enstrom, and Adam Lowry all contribute and add potency to the sum. Some are solid veterans, others are electrifying newbies – but where they overlap in the Venn Diagram is that they don’t suck. That’s 14 players and Kyle Connor, Jack Roslovic, Logan Stanley, and Brendan Lemieux (who all have puck skills and draft pedigrees) haven’t yet been mentioned. And the injured Tyler Myers also fit in nicely in Winnipeg when he was healthy. That is nearly 20 players! The Jets are blessed.
Still, the Jets are dangerously close to being the third worst team in the conference from a points perspective, only ahead of the moribund Coyotes and Avalanche. They are below average at controlling shot attempts at 5v5, and their ranking sinks lower when adjusted to close-game situations. They still play undisciplined hockey, ranking second in the league in Minor penalties. They have a -8 goal differential. The Vancouver Canucks have few playmakers and little depth and have a nearly identical record to the Jets.
Before prescribing a few remedies, it must be asked: How did the Jets construct this roster? What GM Kevin Cheveldayoff pulled off is a hard feat. In the rebuilding years, Cheveldayoff identified Wheeler and Little as indispensable players whom he needed to sign. Neither player had won much at the NHL level, but both had tools that enabled them to score with frequency. Cheveldayoff recognized that locking these veterans in would provide a nice bridge as the Jets reloaded, even if the initial AAV seemed too high. It was a good bet. The Byfuglien extension doubled down on that philosophy.
The Jets discovered their future core in draft picks (Laine, Scheifele, Ehlers) and found more value in the first and second round (Trouba, Petan, Morrissey). They signed and traded for Perreault, Dano, Stafford, and Myers. Fortuitous drafting and recognition not to gut the roster allowed Cheveldayoff to incorporate youth with the incumbent nucleus. Synthesizing the past with the present provides an offense that can start with a flicker and, in the snap of a finger, illuminate an arena. Size, speed, playmaking, finishing. Every box gets checked.
But something is wrong. The Jets lose to bad teams and blow leads. They allow far too many goals. And the offense is plagued with inconsistency. A better product is expected.
Changes need to be made so that the Jets’ core can start acquiring playoff experience. New contracts will need to be inked in the next few seasons, and that prized depth will deteriorate. The Blackhawks, Kings, and Lightning can all attest the squeeze of the salary cap. The postseason is a different animal, and getting more repetitions at an early age is invaluable. Even with Laine hurt, any moves the Jets make will be with eyes on their future. And that macro outlook recognizes that a weak Western Conference from middle-to-bottom means a Wild Card spot is attainable this season. So what are a few steps to accelerate the process?
The Jets have possibly the worst goaltending in the NHL and their even-strength save percentage is bumping around the basement of the league. They could trade for someone like the Lightning’s Ben Bishop. With the career of their center Steven Stamkos possibly in peril, the Lightning are no doubt looking to restock the cupboard with some young promise, so they may be willing to trade Bishop for one of the Jets forwards. Bishop is injury prone, but more than capable when healthy. Thirty isn’t young, but Bishop likely has three-to-four good years left, and that’s sufficient time for the Jets to groom their next goalie starter. But he needs a new contract, and this thought experiment is all based upon the premise that a contract is agreed upon before he is traded to the Jets. It seems unlikely that the Bolts would part with their other starting goalie Andrei Vasilevski, who is signed until 2020, but the Jets could make a huge offer with a package of talent and see if the Bolts bite. Both Bishop and Vasilevski have awful save percentages this season, but their larger bodies of work suggests that either netminder would be a significant upgrade on the status quo.
Another alternative would be a trade with the Devils. Their forward group is a travesty. By proffering Kyle Connor and a valuable draft pick in exchange for Cory Schneider, the Jets would gain a warden of the crease and the Devils a blue-chip player to help their critical rebuild.
Next, the Jets’ defense needs to be bolstered. Winnipeg native Travis Hamonic, considered by many to be among the best people in the NHL, deserves a plane ticket home. For those who enjoy hockey schadenfreude, the Islanders are the league’s best comic tragedy; each move they make puts them further from contention. By trading Hamonic, maybe they buy some good karma, and the Jets have the pieces to help them stabilize their future. Hamonic is not a star, but he’s reliable and will help re-slot the Jets’ defensive group. With his skating and intelligence, he would be a valuable addition to an already explosive transition attack.
Finally, the era of Paul Maurice as head coach needs to end. The Jets aren’t winning enough. The underlying metrics are inadequate. They aren’t consistent, and slipshod coaching is evident in the propensity to take penalties and by the breakdowns in all three zones. This team flashes brilliance because the personnel is special. These are only suggestions, but some moves need to be made soon to capitalize on a great opportunity. Otherwise Cheveldayoff will find out that the dark underside of a blessing is a curse.