The Winnipeg Jets have a roster that general manager Kevin Cheveldayoff claims is a contender. He claims that the core group can get the job done, which may turn out to be true. But hockey is a game that requires depth of roster, and when it comes to the Jets’ forwards, they simply don’t have it.
Cheveldayoff has a wealth of NHL-ready defensemen and has chosen not to use that to his advantage. He has decided not to bring in a forward through trade nor clear cap space to acquire one through free agency. It’s an interesting yet questionable strategy. While most Central Division teams have made moves to improve their roster, the Jets have been surprisingly dormant.
When asked if he likes and is comfortable with his current roster, he said, “Yeah, I am”. The question is then, what will be different from this year to last? The coaching staff is new, and it appears Cheveldayoff believes that alone will turn this club around.
But a closer look would reveal the forward group is, in fact, somewhat weaker. Andrew Copp is now a member of the Detroit Red Wings, while Paul Stastny recently signed with the Carolina Hurricanes. Both were flexible forwards who could play centre or wing, both could play on either of the special teams units, and both were interchangeable on any of the top three lines. They also provided a good chunk of needed offense. Stastny had 45 points last season, while Copp added 35 points in the 56 games he played before getting traded.
So, an #NHLJets team that wasn’t good enough to make the playoffs last year has now lost Andrew Copp, Paul Stastny and Evgeny Svechnikov from the top 9 F.— Mike McIntyre (@mikemcintyrewpg) August 23, 2022
Replacing them, at least at this point: Cole Perfetti. Mason Appleton. Morgan Barron.
Will that be enough?
For the Jets to contend, which the GM states they absolutely can, some players are going to have to play beyond their expectations. Here are three candidates who, fairly or unfairly, need to be better than expected for Cheveldyoff to stay out of the hot seat.
Perfetti Needs to Play Beyond His Experience
Cole Perfetti was the Jets’ first-round selection, 10th overall, in the 2020 entry draft. He combines intelligence with speed, and in his 18-game NHL stint, last year managed two goals and five assists. Eventually, he moved up into the team’s top two lines, where he looked better than anticipated. He nicely fit into the flow of the game, and the greater the calibre of his linemates, the better he seemed to play. He raised a lot of eyebrows and needs to continue to do so this season.
The only concern for Perfetti moving forward would be his size. At 5-foot-11 and 180 pounds, he may be slightly undersized depending on the style of game he chooses to play. Last February, he left a game versus the Seattle Kraken after being hit by Jamie Oleksiak and suffered an “upper-body injury.” That took him out of the lineup, and he was subsequently lost for the remainder of the season when he occurred another injury during his rehab.
In the previous two seasons with the Jets’ affiliate Manitoba Moose, he posted 41 points (15 goals, 26 assists) in 49 games. That is a substantial contribution for a teenager playing in the American Hockey League (AHL).
Cheveldayoff has already commented, “I think you’re going to see a much-expanded role for a guy like Cole Perfetti.” The question then becomes, what is that role and what is expected? Can the Jets expect him to replace the 21 goals left behind by Stastny? That’s a tall order, but it needs to happen. The Jets aren’t going to get those numbers out of Sam Gagner, who they recently signed.
Perfetti will get a chance in the top-six, but to say he can replace the flexibility that Copp provided could be a stretch for a 20-year-old. Now that Stastny and Copp are gone, he will have to put up offensive numbers higher than was originally expected and then stay healthy. That may prove to be more difficult than scoring.
This is not the “Jets’ way,” bringing a kid in to play top minutes without thorough development in the AHL, but they have no choice. The GM never found a suitable replacement for Copp and is now putting a lot of eggs in Perfetti’s basket.
Barron Needs to Provide Secondary Scoring
Another question mark is hovering over Morgan Barron, who was acquired in the trade deadline deal that sent Copp to the Rangers. He is a rugged 6-foot-4 winger who impressed onlookers in his limited time with the Jets. At 23, he has the potential to be a solid NHL player who can contribute offensively. The uncertainty is can he do it right now?
The Jets don’t have the luxury of time as most of their big guns are set to be unrestricted free agents in two seasons. For Winnipeg to be contenders, as the GM suggests, Barron is going to have to play a significant role now. Look for him to be slotted into a third-line with Adam Lowry and Mason Appleton.
In March Sportsnet’s Ken Wiebe wrote of Barron, “He’s never been a prolific scorer, but he’s been close to a point per game player in the AHL over 46 games with the Hartford Wolf Pack over the past two seasons and has suited up in 18 NHL contests with the Rangers.”
The problem is that in the past, the Jets’ third line has been a barren ground for scoring. They have provided some offense, but not enough and certainly not consistent enough. The offensive depth of the Jets takes a nose dive after the first two lines, and under Paul Maurice, that seemed to be okay. When almost every other NHL team was running three forward lines that could score, leaving their fourth line to be defensive checkers, the former bench boss ran only two scoring lines. He would then use his third line mainly as checkers and have the fourth line get comfy on the bench. I would not expect that to be the case under new head coach Rick Bowness.
Barron and whoever he plays with will have to put up some numbers and build trust with Bowness almost immediately. The Jets have shown they can’t compete when counting on only two scoring lines over an entire season.
Scheifele Needs to Bring a Fresh Outlook to the Jets
Much has been made about his egocentric press conference to end the season. He recently told Bowness he’s all in for this season and has publicly stated he is genuinely excited to get this season going with Bowness at the helm.
However, words aren’t enough. The Jets have a big depth problem up front, and the team cannot afford for him to have another offseason. If there was ever a time Cheveldayoff needed Scheifele to return to his 2017-18 form, it’s now.
In the 2018 playoffs against the Nashville Predators, he set an NHL record with seven road goals in a single series, which propelled the Jets into the Western Conference Final. Cheveldayoff would sleep much better if the Jets got that Mark Scheifele back this season.
The reason the Jets need the 2017-18 version of Scheifele is because during that season, his plus-minus rating was a plus-19, which led the Jets during the regular season, and plus-6 in the playoffs behind only Tyler Myers. This past season, he was a team-worst minus-17. He can play defensive hockey, but for whatever reason last year, he just didn’t.
With the forward situation so precarious, he needs to be playing a 200-foot game and strong on the puck at both ends of the rink. Perhaps that got lost somewhere in the longevity of Maurice’s tenure. The fresh start he’s been talking about will reap some positive outcomes for both his team and himself.
Is the GM Ignorant or Genius?
When it comes to this year’s forward group, Cheveldayoff is either ignorant or a genius. Maybe he’s right and this team can succeed as advertised when they failed so miserably last year. It is his job to have a finger on the pulse of the team. I’ve named three individuals who the GM is counting on to make him look good. There needs to be more because the fact remains there is very little depth at the forward position. Almost every player is going to have to stay healthy and have a productive season in order for the Jets to succeed. However, if anything goes wrong during the year and they don’t win, he will definitely find himself on the hot seat at some point.