Season Review/Preview: Winnipeg Jets

NEWARK, NJ - OCTOBER 04: Winnipeg Jets right wing Patrik Laine (29) skates during the third period of the National Hockey League game between the New Jersey Devils and the Winnipeg Jets on October 4, 2019 at the Prudential Center in Newark, NJ. (Photo by Rich Graessle/Icon Sportswire)

There’s a fine line between healthy and unhealthy confidence: One powers your competitive nature, whereas the other hampers it. In 2018-19, the Winnipeg Jets ended up on the wrong side of that divide. Paul Maurice’s club played the dangerous game of relying almost exclusively on its skill, rarely displaying the type of energy and cohesion that had allowed it to become a Western Conference contender in the first place.

For most of the year, however, coasting did the trick.

The Jets boasted such a stacked lineup that they could play below their usual standard and still pile up victories. By early February, the team was sitting on a 34-16-2 record (3rd) despite controlling 49.8% of the shot attempts (15th), 49.9% of the scoring chances (16th), 49.1% of the high-danger opportunities (19th) for a 49.3% expected goal share (20th) at 5-on-5. In essence, mediocre performances had yielded superb results because of a potent offense that averaged 3.52 goals per game and a lethal power play that ranked second leaguewide.

Captain Blake Wheeler (91 points in 82 games), Mark Scheifele (84 points in 82 games) and Kyle Connor (66 points in 82 games) formed a terrific first line that could buzz around the offensive zone and make defenders look silly. As infuriating as Wheeler’s decision-making can be at times, his combination of size, speed and playmaking is difficult for anyone to defend. Meanwhile, Scheifele has quietly become one of the very finest centers in the NHL. The 26-year-old is a true dual threat who consistently gives opponents a hard time due to his smarts, strong build and high compete level. Finally, Connor is a crafty scorer who excels in space. Given how quickly Winnipeg could transition from defense to offense, the youngster was provided many chances to show his worth. After 52 games, he had posted 42 points. Wheeler had racked up 64 and Scheifele was hot on his tail with 62.

Though the second line wasn’t a pretty sight, Finnish sensation Patrik Laine (50 points in 82 games) can burn hotter than…maybe any player in the world. The 21-year-old was largely awful in 2018-19 (45.0 CF%, 44.4 SCF%, 41.1 HDCF%, 42.0 xGF%), but he torched opponents for 18 goals in November. As indifferent as he appeared, Laine could explode on any given night.

Beyond the big guns, Winnipeg also received solid contributions from Nikolaj Ehlers (37 points in 62 games) and Bryan Little (41 points in 82 games). The electrifying Dane stands among the fastest skaters in the NHL, using his remarkable speed to slice through the neutral zone, back off defenders and create space for his teammates. Once he gathers momentum, there’s virtually no stopping him from wreaking havoc. Little, for his part, is a steady veteran. He may not move the needle as much as his more talented counterparts, but he’s an experienced and reliable pivot in all three zones.

The blue line chipped in with valuable offense too. Dustin Byfuglien (31 points in 42 games), one of the most unpredictable defensemen around, was enjoying a phenomenal campaign with 29 points in 32 contests. His blistering point shot — or even the threat of it — was especially useful on the power play, where he had amassed 16 points. The 6’5”, 260-pound mountain of a man is deceptively mobile too, as he can generate an overwhelming head of steam. The top pairing of Josh Morrissey (31 points in 59 games) and Jacob Trouba (50 points in 82 games) was quite productive while absorbing tough matchups as well. Both know when to supplement the attack without compromising their defensive integrity.

But even with this seemingly wonderful start, there was trouble brewing beneath the surface. The Jets were often outplayed and it felt like a matter of time before that trend caught up to them.

It did.

Injuries to Morrissey and Byfuglien certainly didn’t help matters. From February 5 through the conclusion of the regular season, Winnipeg went 13-14-3 (21st) while putting up some of the worst underlying numbers in the league (47.6 CF%, 45.6 SCF%, 45.2 HDCF%, 44.6 xGF%). This wasn’t a proven winner slowly gearing up toward the playoffs. This was a fledgling, would-be contender stuck in neutral.

Laine hit another rough patch, scoring a mere five times over the final 30 games. He looked slow, disinterested and physically outmatched despite carrying a 6’5”, 206-pound frame. Wheeler and Scheifele appeared nervy and too eager to do it all themselves. General manager Kevin Cheveldayoff attempted to turn the tide by acquiring versatile forward Kevin Hayes (55 points in 71 games) from the New York Rangers in exchange for chippy prospect Brendan Lemieux, a first-round pick and a conditional fourth-rounder. While Hayes was enjoying a career year ahead of free agency, he’s never offered a game-changing or galvanizing presence. That didn’t change in Winnipeg.

On the whole, the Jets’ offense dipped from 3.52 to 2.90 GPG and their defense conceded 3.27 times per game.

They were still viewed as a strong group entering the postseason, but the first round would pit them against the single hottest team in the NHL down the stretch. St. Louis engineered a miraculous midseason turnaround and was very much the team no one wanted to face early in the playoffs. The Blues rattled off a 30-10-5 streak to end the season while posting a 53.1 CF%, 54.0 SCF%, 57.9 HDCF% and 56.5 xGF%. They weren’t the most skilled bunch, but they forced opponents to earn their ice and battled their hearts out until the final whistle. They never quit.

That exact scenario unfolded in Round 1. Despite a respectable effort, Winnipeg bowed out in six games because it had counted on its ability to flip the switch. Some players didn’t get the memo. Ehlers and Jack Roslovic failed to register a single point. Trouba and Morrissey struggled on the top pair. Adam Lowry wasn’t effective in a checking role. Connor Hellebyuck (2.67 GAA, 91.3 SV%) remained merely average in the spring. There were too many no-shows for the leaders to carry on their backs. Conversely, St. Louis gelled at the right time because sink-or-swim games had defined its season since the start of the new year. Throughout the series, the Blues scored late back-breaking goals because they had learned how to snatch wins from the jaws of defeat.

By the end of the first round, the Jets didn’t appear to know what had hit them.

Unfortunately, the offseason has only raised further questions. Trouba, whose days in Winnipeg had seemed numbered for a couple of years, was dealt to the Rangers for defenseman Neal Pionk and the same first-rounder it had shipped to New York for Hayes’ services. Meanwhile, Tyler Myers joined the Vancouver Canucks in free agency. Most recently, Byfuglien is reportedly considering retirement following an injury-riddled campaign. If he does hang up his skates, the entire right side of Winnipeg’s 2018-19 blue line will be gone.

Trouba had developed chemistry with Morrissey on the top pair, bringing a nice dose of size, defensive solidity and nastiness to the table. Myers’ ridiculously long reach and great mobility will be missed on the bottom unit too. Assuming Big Buff isn’t available, the Jets won’t be able to depend on his offensive contributions and superhuman strength. When he’s in his groove, there are few more physically imposing players in the league.

Pionk is a decent puck-moving blueliner who will likely struggle against stiff competition. Following a good first season with the Rangers, he floundered with more responsibility and couldn’t show off his positive attributes nearly as effectively. 22-year-old Sami Niku, who’s shown flashes of promise, is poised to fill another RHD spot. The big X-factor on the back end — well, beyond Byfuglien’s status — is Ville Heinola. A team like the Jets can afford to let the 2019 20th overall pick gain experience, but the 18-year-old looked mature beyond his years in preseason. He sees the ice well and makes smart, simple reads with the puck.

Up front, Hayes’ negotiating rights were traded to Philadelphia, where he ultimately re-upped for seven years. Brandon Tanev (Pittsburgh) also left the bottom six, which will no longer enjoy his boundless energy.

On the plus side, Cheveldayoff managed to re-sign both Laine and Connor before the start of the season. Laine’s two-year term provides the oft-listless star with incentive to perform well and earn his next payday, while Connor accepted a seven-year, $50 million deal to play on Scheifele’s wing for the foreseeable future. While 2017 24th overall pick Kristian Vesalainen didn’t exactly impress in preseason, a different youngster did. Center David Gustafsson (2018 60th overall pick) offered a reliable, fundamentally sound two-way game. Following Little’s upper-body injury, the 19-year-old now has a terrific opportunity to establish himself as a fixture in the lineup.

Though 2018-19 did not end the way Winnipeg hoped it would, that lost season can serve as a learning experience. A slice of humble pie. Furthermore, an infusion of youth could represent the kick in the ass this core requires to finally play to its abilities.