After making it to the Western Conference finals in 2018, the Winnipeg Jets took a step in the wrong direction last year.
Head coach Paul Maurice’s squad was eliminated in six games in the opening round by the eventual Stanley Cup champion St. Louis Blues, despite finishing second in the Central Division. It was a disappointing result for a team that many had pegged for a deep playoff run.
The Jets’ 2019 offseason has been defined by the players who have left via trade and free agency and two key restricted free agents who remain unsigned in Patrik Laine and Kyle Connor. On paper, Winnipeg lost far more than it gained over the summer while its division rivals bolstered their rosters with big signings and blockbuster deals. Their time at the top of the Central Division might be coming to an abrupt end.
General manager Kevin Cheveldayoff had a lot to do this offseason. He had to find a trade partner and bring in a haul for first-pair defenseman Jacob Trouba, make decisions on a few key unrestricted free agents and most importantly re-sign Patrik Laine and Kyle Connor. No one was expecting Winnipeg to be a big player in free agency because of their cap constraints but a secondary goal for Winnipeg this summer was finding some valuable depth down the middle and on the blue line.
Anthony Bitetto (D), Gabriel Bourque (F), Andrei Chibisov (F), Mark Letestu (F) Neal Pionk (D)
Alex Broadhurst (F), Ben Chiarot (D), Marko Dano (F), Kevin Hayes (F), Matt Hendricks (F), Bogdan Kiselvich (D) Par Lindholm (F), Joe Morrow (D), Tyler Myers (D), Cameron Schilling (D) Brandon Tanev (F), Jacob Trouba (D)
Of course, the defining move of the Jets’ offseason was the blockbuster deal that sent Jacob Trouba to the New York Rangers in exchange for 24-year-old defenseman Neal Pionk and the 20th pick of the 2019 draft.
Cheveldayoff did well to re-acquire Winnipeg’s first-round pick (originally sent to the Rangers in exchange for Kevin Hayes) and a body to help replace Trouba on the blue line, but there’s no doubt that Pionk is a downgrade. Unfortunately, the GM found himself between a rock and a hard place as Trouba was unwilling to sign a long-term deal and there were only so many teams who had the cap space to extend him.
The Jets went on to extend Pionk to a bridge deal with an average annual value of $3 million and re-signed Andrew Copp (awarded two years, $2.28 million AAV by an arbitrator) and Nathan Beaulieu, who was acquired from the Buffalo Sabres at the trade deadline. The only noteworthy new face that Cheveldayoff added in free agency was winger Andrei Chibisov on a one-year deal. The big Russian had 20 points in 50 games with Metallurg Magnitogorsk (KHL) last year.
Knowing they’d be hard-pressed to re-sign Kevin Hayes, the Jets dealt him to the Philadelphia Flyers for a fifth-round pick in the 2019 draft — a full month before free agency opened. It proved to be a shrewd move as the Flyers had overpaid to have him commit to a seven-year deal. Getting something instead of nothing for Hayes was definitely a win, even if the return was essentially a lottery ticket.
Cheveldayoff also let UFAs Tyler Myers, Brandon Tanev and Ben Chiarot go; they all signed deals with their respective new clubs that Winnipeg could not counter with. However, the only Jets contracts now being discussed are the two that remain unsigned — Patrik Laine and Kyle Connor.
Despite the fact that Laine had a severely disappointing season, he finished tied for fourth in team scoring and buried at least 30 goals for the third time in his young career. Connor, on the other hand, finished second on the Jets in goals (34) and third behind captain Blake Wheeler and superstar center Mark Scheifele.
According to CapFriendly.com, the Jets have just over $16 million in cap space. Evolving Wild projects Laine to come in at an AAV around $7 million on a seven-year deal and Connor for $6.8 million per a six-year contract. But both players are going to want more than that and might not budge until Toronto resolves the Mitch Marner contract. It’s also worth noting that the Jets have a well-established history of being stingy with signing bonuses. With a potential lockout on the horizon, Laine and Connor are going to want as much guaranteed money as possible.
With the 20th pick, the Jets selected Finnish defender Ville Heinola who was ranked fourth among European skaters by NHL Central Scouting. A well-rounded, albeit undersized, left-handed defenseman who is already showing maturity beyond his years, Heinola signed his ELC on July 15; however, his contract includes a European assignment clause so there’s a good chance he’ll continue to develop in Liiga this year.
Farm system rankings: No. 16 Winnipeg Jets
The Jets took two more Nordic players with their next two picks: Swedish defender Simon Lundmarl (51) and Finnish winger Henri Nikkanen (113). In Round 5, they took forward Harrison Blaisdell, who will play his college hockey at the University of North Dakota, and U-Mass Lowell goalkeeper Harrison Neaton. Coming away from the draft with only five prospects is just the cost of doing business for Cup contenders that make deals on deadline day.
The Jets’ have a promising pipeline of young d-men, that has definitely been bolstered by the additions of Heinola and Lundmark, but there’s not much there for forwards and goaltenders. Winger Kristian Vesalainen (24th overall, 2017 Draft) is widely considered to be Winnipeg’s best forward prospect, but there is a wide gap between him and the second-tier in the system.
Offseason grade: C+
Cheveldayoff’s biggest wins this offseason are likely the deals that he didn’t sign with Myers, Tanev and Chiarot. Although, that’s d-men from the team’s first, second and third pair that are gone which could impact a normally solid defensive team. Depth forward Tanev and rental Hayes are also out of the picture with Wheeler and Dustin Byfuglien another year older. And of course, with Laine and Connor waiting for deals, It’s not a good look.
2019-20 Season Prediction
If the Jets get Laine and Connor’s contracts resolved soon, they should have all the talent needed to make the playoffs for a third consecutive season. However, the Jets will probably be going as a wild card team because of how stacked the Central is. The Blues are the team to beat until proven otherwise and the Stars, Predators and Avalanche all got better on paper over the summer — the Jets did not.
Winnipeg’s big guns and above-average goaltending should be all they need to snag one a postseason spot. What they do once they make it depends on the team staying healthy, getting bounce-back seasons from Laine and Nikolaj Ehlers, how the blue line performs, what the bottom-six forwards are able to contribute and whether or not Cheveldayoff chooses to be a buyer or seller on deadline day.
Unless something dramatic and unexpected unfolds, Winnipeg will be hard-pressed to make it past the first round.
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