The Winnipeg Jets concluded their third season since relocation in the same place as the first two; out of the playoffs and seeking to answer organizational questions regarding what it will take to get them out of the middle of the pack and bring playoff hockey to Winnipeg for the first time since 1995.
The team’s failure this season cost Claude Noel his job, with Paul Maurice taking over in an interim basis mid-season. Under Maurice, the team earned points in the standings at a pace that would have put them in the playoffs over an 82-game season, providing hope that he can be the man to gel the talent currently accumulated at the NHL level.
In addition, the Jets have built up a solid core of young players, spearheaded by the team’s first two first-round draft picks, Mark Scheifele and Jacob Trouba. The run of the Jets’ St. John’s AHL affiliate to the Calder Cup finals this season, with several of the team’s prospect pool on the roster, offers further proof that the Jets have a deep stable of productive prospects under their control. While the big club looks to break out, there is plenty of optimism for the future in Winnipeg.
Top 10 Prospects:
The Jets could see a major shakeup in their roster over the summer, as GM Kevin Cheveldayoff assesses which players on the roster can push the team forward and which are holding them back. Goaltending was a major issue once again in 2013-14, as was forward depth. The team had only two defensemen who put up better than average advanced stats (Dustin Byfuglien and Tobias Enstrom) and Byfuglien has been moved back to forward.
A good place to start for Cheveldayoff would be addressing the center position. The Jets have been searching for depth up the middle since long before the team moved to Winnipeg, and 2014 brought them no closer to a solution. Of the three centermen who took enough draws to qualify for the league lead in that category (Scheifele, Olli Jokinen, and Bryan Little) none won more that 47 percent, and the cost of playing without the puck took a toll on the Jets, who struggled defensively. Scheifele is seen as one of the long-term solutions down the middle, and improvement is expected. Finding another centerman who can take the load off is a top priority, either through free agency, trade or the draft.
Two of the Jets’ biggest needs could potentially be filled from within. While the goaltending at the NHL level has been below par, the Jets are stocked with no less than four intriguing prospects. Connor Hellebuyck completed his second season at UMass-Lowell and garnered several NCAA awards before signing an entry-level contract in March. Eric Comrie had his best junior season while staying healthy. Ed Pasquale put up excellent numbers for St. John’s before an injury shut him down for the season, and free agent pickup Michael Hutchinson emerged from the ECHL to pick up the reins from Pasquale, backstopping St. John’s to the Calder Cup Finals and playing his way onto the prospect radar in the process.
Likewise, the Jets have several prospects either in their first professional season or on the cusp of a professional job who look like they could serve as the backbone of the team’s depth for years to come. Adam Lowry and J.C. Lipon have made positive strides for the IceCaps this year, while Scott Kosmachuk was a major force for the OHL champion Guelph storm and Nicolas Petan was the same for a very strong Portland Winterhawks squad. Defensively, Josh Morrissey’s star continues to rise, while players like Brenden Kichton and Ben Chiarot have been part of a deep defense corps in the AHL. With likely several NHL jobs up for grabs come fall, the Jets have several names in their prospect stable worth knowing.
With the graduation of Scheifele and Trouba, the Jets lack some punch at the top of their prospect list. While Petan and especially Morrissey look like the leaders of the next wave, and the aforementioned deep group of potential NHL players looking to shore up the bottom-six forward spots and depth defensive positions, the team could use another high impact player to add to their young core.
Additionally, with few exceptions, the Jets prospect base consists of several feisty players who lack true size. Look for Cheveldayoff and his staff to try and augment the team with some muscle.
Though it takes longer than three seasons to truly get a feel for a team’s success in drafting players, one trait that Cheveldayoff has shown is that his draft board is not always in line with popular opinion. In 2011, with one-time presumptive number one overall pick Sean Couturier still available, Cheveldayoff “reached” for Scheifele instead. In 2013, Josh Morrissey was the 27th ranked North American skater by Central Scouting when the Jets plucked him 13th overall. Both picks, along with Cheveldayoff’s other first round selection, Trouba, look like home runs, providing an exciting trio of young players around which to build.
This willingness to go off the board extends to the later rounds as well. In 2012, Connor Hellebuyck was not listed among the top 35 North American goaltenders (the Jets took him in the 5th round), while Andrew Copp was considered a reach in the 4th round last year. Both players have shown great promise at the collegiate level. Brenden Kichton had already been passed over by his original draft team (the Islanders) when Cheveldayoff took a 7th round flier on him in 2013. Kichton emerged as St. John’s best offensive defenseman this past year.
Oddly enough, two of the players that were considered “steals” by Cheveldayoff are no longer in the organization. Cheveldayoff took considerable criticism for trading an extra pick to move up and select defenseman Zachary Yuen in the fourth round in 2011 and subsequently never signing him. Yuen went undrafted in 2013 and signed with Toronto. Likewise, Lukas Sutter was considered a safe pick in the 2012 second round, but failed to impress in two junior stops since being drafted. The Jets declined to offer him a contract, and he will re-enter the draft this year. For the most part, however, Cheveldayoff’s stated desire, upon taking over the team in 2011, to build through the draft has been maintained, with 20 of the 23 players drafted in that span still under team control.
As it stands, the Jets will select seven times in the 2014 NHL Draft. They do not have a pick in the second round, after trading it away last summer to acquire Devin Setoguchi from Minnesota. They do have two picks in the fourth round, the second of which stems from a February, 2013 trade that sent Alexei Ponikarovsky to New Jersey.
The picks the Jets currently hold are as follows: 9, 69, 99, 101, 129, 159, and 189,
Hockey’s Future Staff Mock Draft Result:
9. Brendan Perlini, LW, Niagara IceDogs (OHL)
The Jets need to add some size to their prospect pool, which features a bevy of smaller, skilled players. Perlini, Nick Ritchie, and Alex Tuch would all fit the mold, and while Ritchie is not only bigger but also plays bigger than Perlini, Cheveldayoff has publicly stated that he is looking for a high hockey IQ come draft day, and Perlini's better feel for the nuances of the game tips the scales in his favor. His lightning quick release and willingness to get to the net do not hurt either. He would instantly become the best pure goalscorer in Winnipeg's prospect stable.