The Winnipeg Jets are poised to be one of the X-factors in the Western Conference next year. The franchise never has won a playoff game — even dating back to the Atlanta days. And the last postseason appearance was in 2014-15. But the lineup is packed with talented young forwards and a mismatch machine on the blue line named Dustin Byfuglien. There’s potential here.
With that in mind, here are five questions facing one of the two Canadian clubs that didn’t qualify for the playoffs last season …
Have they found the answer in net?
This is pretty much the clear-cut, most pressing concern in Winnipeg. And it has been for a while. The Jets can put the puck in the net — they finished seventh overall in that department while averaging 3.00 goals per game. That’s more than the Edmonton Oilers, Chicago Blackhawks and Nashville Predators, just to name a few teams. But what has kept them mired in mediocrity is the fact that they also give up 3.11 goals per game, which was better than just three NHL clubs.
There are a few ways the situation in net can work out, though. Maybe Connor Hellebuyck is ready to be a bona fide No. 1 option in net. He flashed glimpses of brilliance two years ago, but stumbled badly last season. Then again, he just celebrated his 24th birthday two months ago, so it’s possible he hits his stride and finds more consistency here soon.
If Hellebuyck is not quite ready, though, perhaps newly acquired Steve Mason can step in and share the duties. Or just completely take over, if that’s the only way for Winnipeg to win games. Mason’s own career hasn’t exactly been the model of consistency, but his last few years in Philadelphia have at least been better.
Either way, this is the biggest obstacle for the Jets to overcome. If they can answer only one question on this list, well, this needs to be it.
Is there enough forward depth?
Mark Scheifele is a point-producing machine who also happens to be a No. 1 center in a league where those aren’t easy to find. He’s evolved his game every year he’s been in the league, and delivered a remarkable 32 goals and 82 points in the 2016-17 campaign.
While that was going on, Patrik Laine burst onto the scene, Nikolaj Ehlers delivered a breakout effort and Blake Wheeler was his typically consistent self. Winnipeg undeniably has some impressive firepower at the top of the lineup but — like most teams — it could use some secondary scoring. Bryan Little is good but he can only do so much.
Mathieu Perreault typically chips in as well, and Adam Lowry is coming off a 15-goal campaign, so it’s not like the cupboard is bare. It’s just a matter of whether the Jets have enough weapons to be a legitimate playoff team.
Will the young players keep ascending?
One way Winnipeg can add even more scoring to the lineup is to have a high-end prospect like Kyle Connor or Jack Roslovic take the next step. Or, at the very least, make sure established NHLers like Laine and Ehlers don’t take a step back. If what they did last season was the baseline they’re going to build from, the Jets should have enough weapons to do some damage.
Winnipeg really hasn’t added much up front this summer, so the plan seems built around developing the youngsters while supplementing them with vets like Wheeler and Little who are already on the roster. Fortunately for the Jets, they can draw from one of the NHL’s better collections of young talent.
What can Kulikov offer?
Winnipeg turned some heads around the league when Dmitry Kulikov was brought in on a three-year deal worth $4.33 million per season this summer. His shortened 2016-17 campaign with the Buffalo Sabres was far from memorable, and his critics aren’t hard to find.
The Jets feel they can get more out of him, though, and they may not be leaning that heavily on him anyway. Remember, they already have Byfuglien, Jacob Trouba, Tyler Myers, Toby Enstrom and even Josh Morrissey on the back end, so defense can be a strength if everyone plays to their potential. They’ll need a better effort from Kulikov than the one he just gave in Buffalo, and they may have overpaid to get him. Regardless, they might still squeeze something out of a former first-rounder (14th overall in 2009) who’s only 26 years old.
How short is Maurice’s leash?
This one may not be fair, but it’s the reality of today’s NHL. Paul Maurice has only been the Jets coach for three and a half years — yet that makes him the fourth-longest tenured bench boss in the league. There’s clearly talent on this roster, and it’s the sort of talent that probably needs to get back to the playoffs and start making some noise soon.
It’s not like a slow start out of the gate will instantly cost Maurice his job. He’s proven to be a good coach at this level, so there’s no need to be hasty. But if the Jets spin their wheels for a good portion of the season — or miss the playoffs again — that could get the front office thinking.
- Winnipeg’s playoff hopes hang on Mason’s consistency
- Long shadow of Matthews no reason to overlook Patrik Laine