The 2022-23 season will be an interesting one for the Winnipeg Jets.
Although even the Jets themselves seem to not know what path they’re on, the new coaching staff led by Rick Bowness will attempt to get much more out of pretty much the same team that continually disappointed throughout last season. By mid-April, the results will speak for themselves and indicate the trajectory of a franchise that’s regressed in a lot of ways.
With no major additions, young players will be given chances to step up and show they belong in the NHL, core players will try to prove why they’re paid the big bucks, and those leaned on hard in previous seasons will be leaned on again.
Some Jets are so obviously key to success — Kyle Connor, Connor Hellebuyck, Mark Scheifele, and the like — that there’s not much point in belabouring the fact they need to excel if the team wants to get back to respectability.
Instead of treading over old ground, we’ll look at three Jets who could turn out to be X-Factors in new or different roles.
If he can put it all together, Morgan Barron could bolster the bottom six’s scoring touch and physical edge.
The 23-year-old Barron was acquired as part of the deadline-day trade that sent Andrew Copp to the New York Rangers; he played 14 games for the Jets down the stretch, scoring two goals and adding two assists.
He also played five games for the Manitoba Moose and was a monster in their first-round Calder Cup Playoff matchup with the Milwaukee Admirals, scoring four goals and adding two assists in five games.
With Copp, Zach Sanford, Paul Stastny, Evgeny Svechnikov, and Kristian Vesalainen all gone, spots up front are up for grabs and Barron seems on the inside track to snag one. He plays a simple, direct, and defensively-sound game like Copp did for eight seasons with the Jets and also like Copp, can play centre or wing.
Barron also has some similarities to Adam Lowry in that he’s got size at 6-foot-4, 220 pounds, is a near-immovable net-front presence, and is not afraid to throw his weight around, having dished out 61 hits in just 32-career NHL games.
Add all that up and you can see why the Jets have high hopes he could be a diamond in the rough like Mason Appleton and Hellebuyck (Barron was not drafted until the 6th round in 2017, 174th overall.) With the right opportunities, he could blossom into a compelling middle-six forward.
Cole Perfetti found success as an NHL rookie before suffering a season-ending injury, and there’s good reason to believe he’ll break out in his sophomore season.
In 2021-22, the first-rounder recorded seven points (2 goals, 5 assists) in 18 NHL games and 15 points in 17 AHL games with the Moose. In January and February, he got a chance to play right wing with Pierre-Luc Dubois and Kyle Connor on the second line and was starting to look comfortable in that role before he taking a big hit from the Seattle Kraken’s Jamie Oleksiak and landing on the shelf for the rest of the campaign.
Who a player plays with — especially a prospect as highly-touted as the now-20-year-old — can be just as important as the players’ skillset. In 2022-23, Perfetti will likely be playing with elite linemates on the top six, given the aforementioned departures of Stastny and Svechnikov.
Perfetti showed flashes of his elite passing and great vision last season. As mentioned, GM Kevin Cheveldayoff didn’t add anyone that can move the needle in the NHL, so he’s obviously banking on Perfetti and other youngsters to flex their skills consistently through this season.
If Perfetti does end up being a top-six mainstay, he will provide amazing value. He has two years remaining on his entry-level deal that carries a $894,167 AAV.
“It’s definitely a huge opportunity and I’m trying not to overthink it,” Perfetti told the Winnipeg Free Press recently. “I definitely look at the roster and see that there’s openings, there’s needs, there’s jobs that need to be filled and roles that need to be taken.”
“I just need to play my game, play as hard as I can and do what I can do and control what I can control and everything will take care of itself.” (From ‘Perfetti ready to take on top-six role,’ Winnipeg Free Press, Aug. 25, 2022.)
To be an X-Factor, Blake Wheeler doesn’t need to produce 91 points like he did in back-to-back seasons in his prime. He just needs to be deployed correctly and acknowledge the necessity of taking on a lesser role.
Much has been made of the captain’s rapid regression and hefty contract. At 36 years old, he’s no longer capable of keeping up with the opponents’ best, which is problematic considering he’s the highest-paid Jet at $8.25 million.
Wheeler is a defensive liability — a combined minus-32 in his past two seasons — and no longer top-six calibre. The former regime’s coaches in Paul Maurice and Dave Lowry stubbornly refused to acknowledge that, continually banging the drum of the Wheeler-Scheifele combination to their own detriment.
Wheeler is still a strong point-producer and effective on the power play, producing 60 points in 65 games last season despite having COVID-19 and a knee injury. He just shouldn’t and can’t play 20-plus minutes per game anymore.
Bowness needs to recognize that and to help Wheeler be an X-Factor again, should put him on the third line (while keeping him on the man advantage) to the tune of 15-16 minutes per game.
A captain can still be an effective leader even if he’s not leading the team in ice time. Wheeler’s questionable ability at the controls is another topic altogether, and one we covered after he finally accepted blame for the lost season after avoiding media or making excuses for most of it.
In spring, as the campaign was winding down and frustrations were ramping up, a despondent Wheeler said “it just feels like we’re kind of back at square one” when it comes to being a Stanley Cup contender. To be an X-Factor, Wheeler will have to accept his lesser role as the first step in the organization’s plan to reestablish a winning culture, and check his ego at the dressing-room door.