When looking back at the 2019-20 campaign, what will Winnipeg Jets fans remember the most? Would it be the memory of Mark Scheifele writhing in pain after a scary hit from Matthew Tkachuk? Would it be the mysterious disappearance of Dustin Byfuglien? Or would it be the seemingly endless trend of injuries?
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Whatever it may be, Jets fans have more than their fair share of reasons to classify this past season as a disappointment. However, as much as the Winnipeg hockey community cringed when the final buzzer sounded just over a month ago, an early playoff exit by their beloved franchise shouldn’t take anything away from the many bright spots that emerged this season.
It’s important to note that Winnipeg’s expectations were diminished before the season even started, with many questions surrounding their depleted blueline. Seeing them make the playoffs, in my eyes, should have some merit towards a consolation prize in the hearts of Jets fans.
Regardless, there were more than a few players that answered the bell this season. Based on individual production, player-to-team impact, and overall development, here are my picks for the three Jets MVPs from this past season.
1. Connor Hellebuyck (G)
2019/20 Stats: 31-21-5 / 2.57 GAA / .922 SV%
Goaltender Connor Hellebuyck is leaps and bounds ahead of everyone else when it comes to taking home the Jets’ MVP this season, as the 27-year-old backstopped Winnipeg to a playoff berth while leading the league in shutouts en route to a Vezina Trophy nomination.
Hellebuyck, although struggling out of the gate, found his groove following the first two weeks of the season and didn’t look back. Making stellar save after stellar save, he blossomed between the pipes yet again, finishing the year with the second-highest save percentage in his NHL career.
With a blueline being held together by Josh Morrissey and newcomer Neal Pionk, Hellebuyck’s stellar year was something the Jets desperately needed. Providing additional stability on the backend, Winnipeg was able to work through the many struggles that 2019-20 presented.
With the Jets undoubtedly looking to retool ahead of next season, expect the pressure to be taken off of Hellebuyck as Winnipeg makes pitches to various players in a star-studded free-agent class.
2. Kyle Connor, (LW)
2019-20 Stats: 71 GP / 39 G / 35 A
Just over a year after signing a monster deal that would pay him nearly $50 million over the course of seven seasons, Kyle Connor seems to be proving his worth day after day.
Notching career highs in points, goals, and assists during this shortened season, the Michigan native seems to be evolving into quite the electrifying presence. In a season that saw the Jets conquer many questions regarding their source of consistent scoring, Connor was able to disprove the doubters en route to yet another productive campaign.
Still just 23 years of age, Connor is quickly becoming one of the most underrated players in the NHL. Joining the likes of Mark Stone, Zach Hyman, and John Gibson, Connor finds himself overshadowed at times by the likes of Mark Scheifele and Patrik Laine. Still, the young forward finds a way to maintain his production, while consistently finding himself on the Jets’ top line.
Just imagine if he was skating alongside David Pastrnak in Boston…
3. Neal Pionk (RD)
2019-20 Stats: 71 GP / 6 G / 39 A
Another player that often flies under the radar, Neal Pionk, obliterated his career highs in both assists, points, and ice-time while skating in a more prominent role in his first full season in a Jets uniform.
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I’ve always been a big fan of Pionk, mainly because he’s always been one of those players that hadn’t received a fair shot to prove himself. Often playing behind the likes of Tony DeAngelo, Marc Staal, and Brady Skjei in New York, Pionk showed the consistency and brilliance of a legitimate top-four defenseman when he was thrust into a big role on a rag-tag Winnipeg blueline.
Finishing fifth on the team in scoring with 46 points (which was also good enough for 12th in the league amongst defensemen), expect Pionk to only get better with time. All signs indicate that general manager Kevin Cheveldayoff will surround Pionk and Morrissey with notable names out of the free-agent market, which will only further his development and expand his role on the blueline.
Glass Half Full…
While it may be hard to look past a less than ideal postseason exit, there are more than a few reasons for optimism in Jets country. With an abundance of cap space, a formidable core, and franchise players that still haven’t reached their potential, I would categorize Winnipeg with the Colorado Avalanche, New York Rangers, Toronto Maple Leafs, and Vancouver Canucks as younger teams poised to be around for a while.
Rest assured, Jets fans. Your time is coming.
A sport media student at Ryerson University, Josh Kim is currently a photographer with Ryerson, the ECHL and OHL and has covered a variety of events ranging from the PWHPA to the NCAA. In addition to being a Winnipeg Jets writer, World Junior contributor, and NHL Draft columnist with THW, he is the host of the Get Your Head in the Game podcast, which connects mental health and sport and is available on all platforms. If you’re interested in seeing a full display of his work, please visit his website: joshkimphoto.com