With a brand new NHL season right around the corner, the Winnipeg Jets’ window for winning is still wide open. Despite another disappointing playoff exit, Kevin Cheveldayoff and company have made some impressive offseason acquisitions, and this season’s roster looks poised and ready to compete in a wide-open Central Division.
Whether it was adding Brenden Dillon and Nate Schmidt to the fold on the back end, or bringing back Andrew Copp and Logan Stanley on new contracts, the Jets’ front office did a respectable job attending to weaknesses throughout the roster.
Outside of the core, a large part of Winnipeg’s success this upcoming season lies within their depth. Players outside of the top six will look to make another statement during the 2021-22 season, much like they did last year en route to the playoffs.
As we countdown the days to puck drop, here are three potential breakout candidates for the Jets as a fresh campaign inches closer.
Fresh off of signing a two-year, $1.8 million contract, Stanley is poised to continue his growth and development during the upcoming season. Seemingly sprouting out of nowhere last season and stealing a roster spot at the NHL level, there seemed to be a fair amount of hockey personnel who were pleasantly surprised with the impact the young defenseman made in his first taste of NHL action.
Playing a high leverage role and having the analytics to back it up, Stanley’s arrival in the NHL has earned him plenty of trust from fans and coaches alike, and it’s that exact reason why he’s well on his way towards a breakout season in his first full NHL campaign.
Diving into the numbers once again, Stanley showcased his value over the course of last season, earning playing time in a variety of roles. With a 49.4 offensive zone start percentage (oZS%), compared to a 50.6 defensive zone start percentage (dZS%), Stanley saw his playing time more or less split between scenarios. His ability to hold his own in a variety of circumstances has added value to his name, and he should grow into a bigger role as the upcoming season progresses.
With the Jets’ recent additions on the blue line, it’ll be interesting to see where exactly Stanley finds himself when it comes to line combinations. While I expect him to start on the third pairing, similar to where he found himself penciled in last season, by no means does this eliminate the chance of him moving up the lineup or having a greater role within Winnipeg’s special teams’ strategy.
You might be asking yourself, “didn’t Andrew Copp breakout last season?” Yes, he did. But while Copp saw an increased rate of production during the shortened season, it would be unwise to leave out the fact that last season was, in fact, shortened.
In 55 games, Copp managed to put up career highs in goals, assists, and points, earning himself a one-year extension when the season ended. However, with the 2021-22 season set to consist of a full 82 game, the Jets could see those totals grow even higher.
There are a couple of things that encourage the possibility of Copp breaking out even more than he already has. Not only did he manage to put up career highs in a smaller sample size, but being a pending unrestricted free agent provides further incentive for him to showcase his offensive abilities.
So, while both the Jets and Copp himself enjoyed the benefits of his career year, there could be plenty more on the way in terms of production, something that will continue to benefit the Jets throughout the season.
I’m ending this list with a bit of a wild card. I feel like at least one Jets fan every year says, “this could be the year for Kristian Vesalainen,” and while they wouldn’t necessarily be wrong, the truth is that Vesalainen just hasn’t had that many opportunities to succeed at the NHL level.
Since being drafted 24th overall in 2017, Vesalainen has only suited up in 17 NHL games, registering just two points in that span. But let’s not forget that this is the same forward who finished the 2017-18 season scoring at nearly a point-per-game in Finland’s Liiga. Not to mention that this is also the same forward who averaged a point-per-game during the World Junior Championships that same season.
So, while his development has stalled out a little since he’s made the transition to North America, this is by no means the end of the road for the Helsinki native. Vesalainen is still only 22, and with a strong showing throughout training camp, he could be well on his way to earning more consistent playing time at the NHL level.
We’ve seen various European prospects struggle to adjust in North America, and while Vesalainen’s development has been slightly disappointing so far, he still has ample time to work his way into the NHL conversation.
Jets’ Depth Will Be a Strength This Season
The Jets have earned a reputation for being one of the league’s deeper teams over the past few seasons, having a variety of contributors outside of their core. This season, despite some roster turnover, should be no different, and the Jets will have plenty of players knocking on the door for bigger opportunities.
Logan Stanley is entering his first full NHL season and should see some playing time in higher leverage roles. Copp will be a pending UFA and should be motivated to produce. Vesalainen will be eager to prove his worth at the NHL level and could easily find himself slotting into the bottom six.
This season’s roster is just as deep as years previous, and the Jets’ depth could play an integral role in the team’s success this season.
Who else do you think could break out this season? What do you expect from Winnipeg’s depth? Let me know in the comments.
Currently a sport media student at Ryerson University in Toronto, Josh Kim is a freelance photographer and journalist with The Hockey Writers. Having worked within the ECHL, PWHPA, and OHL in a variety of content-based roles, Josh has been working in sports for the past 5+ years and currently finds himself working with Ryerson athletics as a sports photographer. With The Hockey Writers, Josh chases feature stories while also covering the Winnipeg Jets, the World Juniors, and the NHL Entry Draft. While hockey continues to be his main focus, Josh is also a fully credentialed WNBA writer and the host of the Get Your Head in the Game podcast, which emphasizes the connection between mental health and sport. If you’re interested in seeing a full display of his work, if you’ve got a story tip, or just want to get in touch, please find Josh’s socials linked below his articles and visit his website: joshkimphoto.com