by Scott Swail

Now that the Winnipeg Jets have traded in their hockey sticks for golf clubs, us armchair QBs (mixed-sports metaphor) can now safely contribute nothing of value to the discussion. So here we go.

It is clear that the current Winnipeg Jets are not ready for a deep run in the playoffs. And, truth to be said, this team wasn’t truly playoff ready this year. Not only did the end the year with a disappointing 5-10 record in their last 15 games of the regular season (only rescued slightly with two wins in their final two games), they also won many games this year on a slim margin where they were outshot and outhustled by the other teams. I’m sure every coach in the North went into a game with the Jets with this message: “We can win tonight.” They just aren’t scary like they were three years ago.

During the 2017-18 year, teams feared Winnipeg. This was a team that in a blink of the eye could put three goals in the net. If they were losing in the third, they could pump up the volume and win the game. They were tough and fast. That year, the Jets scored more goals than any other team except for Tampa Bay. This year, the Jets were 12th in scoring. Middling. Dustin Byfuglien helped keep others at bay. Today, there is no fear, and their speed has been eclipsed by almost every other team in the NHL. If Ottawa and the Jets were to play tomorrow, I’d put my money on Ottawa. Sure, Winnipeg swept the Oilers, but the Oilers outplayed the Jets in all four games. Edmonton did everything but win.

Right now, the potential lineups next year doesn’t necessarily bode well for Winnipeg. It is a mini-rebuild because they have to bring up at least four players from the AHL. Perfetti, Vesalainen (if you consider him AHL), Heinola, Samberg, and Gustafsson could all be on the team next year. Perfetti could be kept in the AHL, but my bet he is a third or fourth liner in September. They have to bring up Samberg and Heinola at this point, and Gustafsson is arguably good enough to be in the NHL come fall. Vesalainen, who has been an inbetweener and hasn’t quite lived up to his potential, looked good enough in the last month to earn a spot on the roster. He will get better and could be a blue chip down the road. He has skills.

All of this points to real challenges for the lineup. This review assumes nothing big happens. We do not know who the Jets will lose in the entry draft to Seattle, nor do we know if a trade in the works. As always, a big trade means you lose something, too. Who do we want to lose?

For forwards, the Jets’ best players remain Ehlers, Connor, Scheifele, and Wheeler. Others have been good, but those are the leads. Dubois has been unproductive but he is 22 and will rebound. I expect him on the top two lines next year. He will not be traded unless it a blockbuster requiring several players to be moved (perhaps we send him to Columbus for Laine? Just joking. That ship sailed). Wheeler’s time on the first line is done, but he is still, by far, good enough for the second line (is there a difference?). He still has stuff in the tank, for sure, but it is time to split the Scheifele/Wheeler/Connor thing for good. It didn’t work this year.

I would put Ehlers on the first line and move Connor to the second line. A question mark is on Paul Stastny. Will he be back? Will they have him $6M again? Hard to say. I could see him gone, but he has more in the tank, too. 1-2 years.

The third line of Appleton, Lowry, and Copp is solid. Copp and Lowry are incredibly versatile, and Appleton is certainly decent. I don’t think Copp has developed enough to warrant the top six. His production was stifled and he still does not have a postseason goal. Not good enough for top six. Lowry is the one guy who could be on the second line, but he is almost too valuable on the third line to move him. Appleton is good, but I’m not sure he is as good as the credit he gets. He just doesn’t seem like a top sixer. There is talk that he could be moving to the Kraken.

The fourth line could be the entry point for Gustafsson, Perfetti, and Vesalainen. This would give them a chance to develop skills and get up to NHL speed.

1Ehlers (L)Scheifele (R)Dubois (L)
2Connor (L)Stastny (L)Wheeler (R)
3Appleton (R)Lowry (L)Copp (L)
4Gustafsson (L)Perfetti (L)Vesalainen (L)

On defense, as with the entire team, the Jets are really hampered by a dearth of right-handed shooters, and this has implications for whether trades are in the works or they let lefties play on the right side. I would simply put Morrissey and Pionk on the first D line and let them play 25-30 minutes a night. They are capable. Then put Stanley and DeMelo on the second line. To the naysayers, DeMelo is very, very solid. The third line becomes an issue because of experience. I’d put Heinola on the left, who could move up the lineup during the year. This leaves Poolman on the right, but is Poolman off to Seattle? This leaves Samberg as the 7th defenseman. They could possibly move Poolman, but that would potentially leave Winnipeg with two rookie D men on the third line. I don’t think they will do that.

1Morrissey (L)Pionk (R)
2Stanley (L)DeMelo (R)
3Heinola (L)Poolman (R)
XSamberg (L)

People will want a big trade for a D man. That may be helpful, but we have to find spaces for the “Draft and Develop” piece. As well, we need low-cost entry level people in the lineup for cap reasons.

All of this is arguable but my latest iteration of the future Jets. Sure, I’d like the Jets to acquire a top-shelf D man, but I would rather they go out and get a Mark Stone, if there is one. They need a forward who can score and punish the opposition. They don’t have that right now. When Mark Scheifele becomes the “goon” on the team, that’s not a good sign (and he didn’t deserve four games, either!). If I am Scheifele, I put on 15lbs of pure muscle this year and become a 220lb mover and shaker. He proved he can start moving people around. Become Mark Stone.

The above also means that we say goodbye to Mathieu Perreault, who is still good enough to be on this team. Unless he comes down to $2.5M/year, I think he is off somewhere to finish his career. He would be good on the fourth line with two young guys as a chaser line. We have likely seen the last of Trevor Lewis, Jordie Benn, Derek Forbort, and Sami Niku. Let Sami live a life, by all means, and give him a chance with another team. I do think Tucker Poolman is on the bubble just because of numbers. He is a better than average D man.

In goal, I would also bring up Berdin and cast out Brossoit, who has been excellent as a backup. But his game wasn’t as good this year, and Berdin has done his time in the AHL. We need to develop other goalies with the Moose. Give him 20+ games in the NHL this year. As good as Hellebuyck was for Winnipeg in the playoffs, he wasn’t as good in the regular season and have up handfuls of easy goals, especially on the first or second shot of the night. He remains one of the best goalies in the NHL (he should still have been considered for the Vezina), but the goalie game is a difficult one. Berdin could be our next big thing.

One more lineup change. The entire coaching staff. They need someone to mix up the culture of the team and certainly the on-ice systems. Who will that be? Given the conservative nature of the Jets’ management, they may stick with Maurice. He’s a good guy and solid hockey guy. But it’s time to go with a different strategic approach for systems play.

Right now, I’d bet that next year looks like this one, with perhaps a regression unless something changes. In spring 2022, this team doesn’t make the postseason.