In 2015, the Winnipeg Jets were considered by many to have had the best young core and prospect pool in the league. Over the last few years, general manager Kevin Cheveldayoff has made some significant trades, and in doing so has given up certain players and draft picks. In the 2016 NHL Entry Draft, the Jets selected Finnish superstar Patrik Laine second overall, in what would be the highest draft pick yet for the team since entering the NHL in 2011. We all know how the Laine era ended here in Winnipeg — he was traded in a blockbuster deal along with 2015 first-round pick Jack Roslovic to the Columbus Blue Jackets in exchange for Pierre-Luc Dubois.
Nowadays, the Jets have a good farm system — there is a handful of players who can make the jump to the NHL in the next few years and I will break down who I believe those players are.
Jets’ Key Prospects
In the 2020 NHL Entry Draft, the Jets selected Cole Perfetti in the first round, 10th overall. He is a flawless puck-handler with elite hockey IQ that allows him to always be in the right position. He was second in scoring in the Ontario Hockey League (OHL) last season with 111 points (37 goals, 74 assists) in 61 games. At the start of the 2020-21 American Hockey League (AHL) season, he found himself on the Jets’ AHL affiliate, the Manitoba Moose. In 20 games played this season, he currently sits at 10 points (four goals, six assists) and looks to be transitioning to the pro level quite well.
He performed well at the 2020-21 IIHF World Junior Hockey Championship, recording six points (two goals, four assists) in seven games, and took home silver in a heartbreaking loss to the USA. Although Perfetti hasn’t made the jump to the NHL yet, he is already showing a promising future at 18 years old. Expect him to be on the Jets’ roster next season.
A promising and hard-working two-way forward, David Gustafsson has shown he can be used in all situations and will be a role player for years to come. The Swedish-born center started last season (2019-20) with the Jets — he played 20 games and scored just one lone goal. He was named to Team Sweden for the IIHF World Junior Hockey Championships and would put up three assists in five games. After the tourney, he was sent down to the Manitoba Moose where he had seven points (two goals, five assists) in 13 games before the AHL season came to a sudden halt.
Due to the ongoing pandemic, Gustafsson went back to Sweden and in October he suited up for Tingsryds AIF in the HockeyAllsvenskan League. During his time in Tingsryds, he put up 17 points (seven goals, 10 assists) in 16 games showing great growth and potential. He returned to Winnipeg in January of 2021 and suited up for his first game of the season Jan. 24 against the Edmonton Oilers. After putting up zero points in four games with the Jets, he was sent back down to the AHL to further his development where he currently has 10 points (two goals, eight assists) in 10 games.
Selected 20th overall in the 2019 NHL Draft, Ville Heinola is easily the top defensive product for the Jets. The left-shot Finnish defenseman has 10 points (four goals, six assists) in 16 games this season with the Moose in the AHL and even saw some NHL action last season. He has all the traits to become a top-two defenseman in the NHL — excellent vision, is offensively minded, and rarely makes mistakes in his zone. He is known for his high hockey IQ and is extremely poised under pressure; he ticks off a lot of boxes and will be a major piece for the Jets’ future.
Before returning to the Jets in January of 2021, Heinola played in his homeland of Finland and suited up for Lukko Rauma of the SM-Liiga. In 19 games he had 14 points (one goal, 13 assists) and throughout his last eight games, he pushed the 22-minute mark for ice time. He was named to Finland’s World Junior team for the third year in a row in 2020-21, where he would finish the tournament with four assists and took home a bronze medal. With Heinola currently on the taxi squad, expect him to get a couple more games in with the Jets’ blue line this season.
Born in Berlin, Germany, Gawanke was selected in the fifth round of the 2017 NHL Draft after putting up 32 points (eight goals, 24 assists) in 54 games with the Cape-Breton Screaming Eagles of the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League (QMJHL). He played three full seasons with the Screaming Eagles and in his last season he put up a career-high 57 points (17 goals, 40 assists) in 62 games. During the 2019-20 AHL season, he got his shot to play with the Moose and in 48 games he had 26 points (four goals, 22 assists) proving to be a quality defenseman.
Leon Gawanke with his first of the year as the Jets prospect Dman gives the Moose a 3-1 lead. pic.twitter.com/fO7SkwPucG— Dave Minuk (@ICdave) March 28, 2021
Similar to Heinola and Gustafsson, Gawanke stayed overseas due to the ongoing pandemic delaying the start of the NHL and AHL season. He was loaned out to his hometown team, Eisbären Berlin of the DEL where he had a moderate showing putting up two assists in just six games. He has a raw offensive upside and is known for his mobility and heavy shot from the point. Currently, he is playing for the Moose where he has six points in 17 games. With some more work, I expect him to make his NHL debut in the next couple of seasons.
Other Jets Prospects To Watch
Santeri Virtanen – Forward (105th overall, 2017) – Ilves (SM-Liiga)
Dylan Samberg – Defenseman (43rd overall, 2017) – Manitoba Moose (AHL)
Henri Nikkanen – Forward (113th overall, 2019) – Jukurit (SM-Liiga)
Skyler McKenzie – Forward (198th overall, 2017) – Manitoba Moose (AHL)
Nathan Smith – Forward (91st overall, 2018) – Minnesota State Univ. (NCAA)
Jansen Harkins – Forward (47th overall, 2015) – Winnipeg Jets (NHL)
Simon Lundmark – Defenseman (51st overall, 2019) – Linkoping HC (SHL)
Mikhail Berdin – Goalie (157th overall, 2016) – Manitoba Moose (AHL)
2021 NHL Draft Prospects the Jets Could Target
The 2021 NHL Entry Draft has been officially confirmed for July 22-23. We are still a few months away yet, but I am going to break down two players who could be available for the Jets when it comes to draft day. With the COVID-19 pandemic still looming, many North American leagues have seen a reduction in play. We have seen the QMJHL have a fair share of games played this season. The Western Hockey League (WHL) has just started their season within the last month, but the Ontario Hockey League (OHL) looks to be headed towards canceling their season due to rising COVID-19 cases in Ontario. It makes things a bit difficult for scouts who can only jot down so much information on a player based on limited games. Don’t let that fool you, there are plenty of top prospects available this year.
With the COVID-19 pandemic grinding the OHL season to a dead stop, Francesco Pinelli has taken full advantage of playing in Europe to further develop his hockey skills. In a perfect world, he would be playing for the Kitchener Rangers in the OHL, but due to the pandemic, the Ontario Provincial Government has not granted the league permission to start up their season. However, Pinelli has found himself in Slovenia this season playing for HDD Jesenice in the Alps Hockey League (AlpsHL), where he is currently lighting it up with 11 points (five goals, six assists) in 13 games.
Pinelli is a versatile two-way center with a heavy shot, he understands positioning very well and will use that to force turnovers in the defensive end. In his first venture as a Kitchener Ranger last season, he put up 41 points (18 goals, 23 assists) in 59 games, and despite playing a limited role, he made himself a known threat on the ice. He can become a top-six forward in the NHL and has even drawn comparisons to former Kitchener Ranger, Mike Richards. I look at the way the Jets have developed Mason Appleton — he is only getting better as the seasons go on. If the Jets took Pinelli, they could develop him the same way as Appleton and use him as a top-six forward and power-play specialist in the future.
In the 2017 NHL Entry Draft, Cale Makar made history by being the highest draft pick ever out of the Alberta Junior Hockey League (AJHL) going fourth overall to the Colorado Avalanche. Although Corson Ceulemans won’t go that high in the draft, he is taking a similar route to the Brooks Bandits alum. On April 3, 2018, he committed to the University of Wisconsin for the 2021-22 NCAA regular season.
In his first year with the Bandits during 2019-20, he had 35 points (five goals, 30 assists) in just 44 games and ranked 10th among all AJHL defensemen. With a shortened season in the AJHL this year, he has 11 points (four goals, seven assists) in eight games and is catching lots of scouts’ attention. He possesses elite vision and combined with his excellent mobility and power, he is a major threat. Known more as an offensive-minded defenseman, he has been working hard this past season on his play in his zone and I think he has made great strides. I think he is one of the best passers for defensemen in this draft class, and when you combine that with all of his other traits, it’s easy to picture him as a top-four defenseman in the NHL.
2021 IIHF U-18 World Championship
With the 2021 IIHF U-18 World Championship kicking off April 26-May 6, it will finally give scouts a good look at all the top talent together. Pinelli and Ceulemans will both be representing Team Canada, but keep an eye on Russia’s Nikita Chibrikov and Sweden’s Isak Rosen. These are two more players who could have fantastic showings at the tournament and be available when the Jets make their selection at the 2021 NHL Draft.
Born and raised in Kamloops B.C. and a die hard fan of the Kamloops Blazers, hockey has always been apart of my life. Now, I am looking to get into the sports media world and make it a career. I will be covering the Winnipeg Jets for The Hockey Writers.