Elimination Eval: Winnipeg Jets

The first Western Conference team to fall out of the race for the Cup, up next on Elimination Evals, the Winnipeg Jets. Winnipeg and Dallas finished in the top two of the Central Division but man did they draw the short straw in terms of Round 1 match-ups. Despite the Jets having the Avalanche’s number towards the end of the regular season with their 7-0 blowout win, they did not have much of an answer for the dominance a team lead by Nathan MacKinnon can bring when it comes to playoff hockey. Let’s break down how we got here. 

The series would actually start off in Winnipeg’s favor making it their high point of their postseason as they walked out of that game with a big 7-6 win. While neither team was short of goal scoring capabilities, the big story in that Game 1 was the goaltending, or perhaps lack there for from Alexandar Georgiev. Now I’ll be the first to admit, I was a huge Georgiev defender when he was with the Rangers and stand by the take that people only ragged on him because he wasn’t Igor Shesterkin. Rangers fans reading this, let's all take a moment to again reflect on how blessed we have been with goalies, shoutout Benoit Allaire forever and always. All that to say, Colorado could not get a save out of Georgiev. 

I’ll get more into the Georgiev conversations if and when the Avalanche fall out of the race but to get back to Winnipeg, they were off to a fine start. Wasn’t the easiest win but they took Game 1 and led through the opening period of Game 2 on home ice. However, a busy second period saw the Avalanche put up three goals in the final ten minutes which set them up to close out Game 2 with an empty net goal to finalize a 5-2 score. Interestingly, all seven goals between the two teams in that game came at even strength despite each side seeing three separate power play opportunities. 

Perhaps both the low moment as well as the game changing moment in the series came as a result of what happened in Game 3. The Jets had a pair of goals in the second period to give them a 2-1 lead going into the third period but five goals from five different Avalanche players completely turned the game and the series around. This put Winnipeg at a disadvantage going into Game 4 and sure enough, Colorado found a way to build off that. A hat-trick from Valeri Nichushkin destroyed what was a tied game through the first half of play and led to a 5-1 Game 4 win for Colorado. 

The score makes it sound like it wasn’t close but that was really a tough game for Winnipeg. They ended up losing Vlad Namestnikov who took a redirected slap shot to the face which resulted in him needing a ton of help in getting off the ice. This happened six or seven minutes into the third which prior to that, Winnipeg was really firing on all cylinders in attempts to get back in this game. Colorado’s three goals came towards the end of the second which resulted in Connor Hellebuyck getting the rest of the night off in relief of trusted number two Laurent Brossoit. This wouldn’t be the only change as Winnipeg started deploying a line of Kyle Connor, Mark Scheifele and Nikolaj Ehlers. 

Frankly, I’m not sure why it took almost four full games for Rick Bowness to put this line together. Colorado is almost notorious for having their one powerhouse line, it may not have been a bad idea for Winnipeg to try and match that with one of their own. Unfortunately, whatever troubles Georgiev was having in Game 1 has since subsided which resulted in him stopping everything the Jets threw on net. Down three games to one, Winnipeg would return home in must win fashion but a whiteout wouldn’t be enough to overcome an avalanche. 

An early goal from Kyle Connor gave Winnipeg hope but it wasn’t long before Colorado had a familiar answer, Valeri Nichushkin. The team’s went back and forth with goals through periods two and three but a pair from Mikko Rantanen put the series just out of reach. Winnipeg pulled Hellebuyck for the extra attacker in desperate attempts to stay alive but with 2 seconds left, Josh Manson found the empty net and Winnipeg’s season was over. 

I mentioned how Winnipeg drew a tough match-up but there is no way that can be an excuse or any sort of justification for how their playoff played out. This is a team that is looking to compete, has the pieces to do it but has again fallen short. This is the second year in the row the Jets have been a first round exit, winning just one game in the process as they haven’t found the postseason success they’re looking for since falling to the Golden Knights in the Conference Finals in 2018. There has certainly been a fluctuation in terms of what is expected from this team and what their future could entail but you have to think with the massive extensions to Connor Hellebuyck and Mark Scheifele that they are going to look to be competitive year in and year out. 

As a result, there’s no question the Jets underachieved this year and will look at this first round exit as a failure. While they have plenty of star power on their roster, their core guys aren’t getting any younger which means that window isn’t opening any more than it currently is. You have to think with their trade deadline acquisitions, going out and getting Sean Monahan and Tyler Toffoli that this team not only believes they can make a run, but is expecting to. 

As far as going into the off-season, I have two big questions for the Jets but as far as the biggest question regarding this team goes, you have to imagine it starts with their top players and goes down the lineup through this team’s core. Colorado and Vegas aren’t going anywhere anytime soon, if Winnipeg wants to be a legitimate contender in the West, they’re going to have to find a way to get to another level, one that can compete with elite-end talent like what MacKinnon, Makar and all them bring to Colorado. Which makes that big question, are they capable of doing that?

There’s no question that Winnipeg has top-end talent but there is some uncertainty beginning to creep up around them. Mark Scheifele is locked up long-term but at 31 years old, you have to wonder how much longer he’s going to be capable of carrying this team, especially without much center depth behind him. Kyle Connor is among the best goalscorers in the league but with two years left on his contract, you have to wonder how much interest he has in seeing things through in Winnipeg as opposed to cashing in an enormous paycheck in the open market. Lastly, Nikolaj Ehlers was scoreless through five games this postseason which is not what you want from one of your top guys you rely on in terms of goalscoring. He will be entering the final year of his contract this coming season which could raise a ton of questions, especially if this team isn’t in as strong of a standing nearing the next trade deadline. 

As far as roster construction goes, the Jets are going to have to address some holes in their line-up that will potentially be left by their trade deadline acquisitions and expiring UFA defensemen. Tyler Toffoli, Sean Monahan, Brendan Dillon, Dylan Demelo, Colin Miller and Laurent Brossoit are all set to hit the open market come July 1st which raises a ton of questions regarding how this team will look to run it back next season. We can split hairs on which is a bigger need for this team, a number two center or a top-four defenseman but either way, this team is going to need help. 

Assuming all pending UFA’s walk, this is what Winnipeg could look like with what they should have under contract for next season:

Ehlers - Scheifele - Vilardi

Connor - Perfetti - Namestnikov

Niederreiter - Lowry - Appleton

Iafallo - Gustafsson - Lambert

Morrissey - Pionk 

Samberg - Schmidt

Heinola - Stanley

Winnipeg is projected to have around $13 million in cap space and don’t have a ton of RFA’s to take care of outside of Cole Perfetti, David Gustafsson and Logan Stanley. However, if they’re looking to be a real threat in the postseason, they need to improve in a couple of different areas. For starters, losing Monahan leaves a big hole in the second line center role. Adam Lowry in theory could slot up there but a third line of him, Appleton and Niederreiter is something the Jets should look to keep together. They’ll look to one of their younger players in Cole Perfetti to take a step in that direction but they could benefit from bringing on a primary center with more experience for him to learn from while playing the wing opposite of Connor. 

Defensively is where more of the question marks come into play. Demelo, Dillon and Miller will leave a huge void on their blue line not just in terms of a roster spot, but with how much experience each of those guys carry. This could allow Winnipeg to give bigger roles to guys like Dylan Samberg and Logan Stanley but again, if you want to be a playoff team, you need more reliable options. Theoretically speaking, they could have the cap space to get Dylan Demelo signed to an extension which given the upcoming free agent class, could be their best option but you still have to wonder if that’s going to be enough. 

Laurent Brossoit is going to be another name to keep an eye on as he has been a great number 2 to Hellebuyck in Winnipeg. As he will be a pending UFA heading towards the summer, I wouldn’t be surprised if the Jets try to keep him around. On the flip-side of that coin, Brossoit could be a highly sought after free agent which could mean more money for the veteran netminder. 

One of the biggest positives for the Jets without question is the fact that they have the best prospect pool of the teams that have been eliminated so far. Some of which could even make a case to take some of those job openings up and down Winnipeg’s depth charts. The most tenured prospect at this point comes in defenseman Ville Heinola. A rare case of a four year entry level contract, the 23 year old defenseman has had an unique start to his NHL career, bouncing around between Winnipeg, Manitoba and playing in Finland. The former first round pick has promise but between injuries and other relative inconsistencies, his track to being a full-time NHLer has been slightly derailed on more than one occasion.

Additionally on the back end, the Jets have Dmitri Kuzmin and Elias Salomonsson who average an age of 20 years old but have potential to be a solution for this franchise further down the road. As far as offense goes, the Jets may even be in a better situation with their forward prospects. Brad Lambert is another fascinating name that was once projected to be a top five draft pick but ended up falling to Winnipeg 30th overall. Lambert led the Manitoba Moose with 55 points in 64 games this year which could be enough for him to make the jump to the NHL next season. On top of that, the Jets also have Nikita Chibrikov and some younger names in Danil Zhilkin and Colby Barlow who despite being a bit further removed from the NHL, could have very bright and exciting futures with this team within a couple of years. 

All things considered, Winnipeg has a couple of big questions in need of answering before you can count on them running it back as a similar caliber team they were this year. Connor Hellebuyck is too good of a goaltender to not continue to go as all-in as you can with and as a result, the Jets will always have a fighting chance in the postseason. However, as they’ve once again learned the hard way, it's not going to be easy until they can have an answer for the MacKinnon's and McDavid's of the Western Conference.