The Winnipeg Jets have yet to make any major moves in free agency. Trade rumours have swirled around franchise cornerstones Mark Scheifele, Blake Wheeler, and most recently, Pierre-Luc Dubois. Despite all these rumours, no changes have been made to the team that missed the playoffs last season.
If the team is to remain the same next season, young players will have to step into a bigger role and produce for the Jets to make the playoffs. General manager Kevin Cheveldayoff made it clear during his latest press conference that he expects the young prospects to leap into a bigger role under a new coaching staff next season. Here are three players who are poised to step into those vacant roles this season.
Cole Perfetti is primed for a breakout season just as much as any young player in the NHL. He was nearly a point-per-game player in the American Hockey League (AHL) posting 15 points in 17 games. In a limited NHL role last season, he was able to produce seven points in 18 total games. Despite the low numbers, he was able to have flashes of talent that everyone noticed. From the fans to the coaching staff and upper management, he quickly got promoted into a top-six role alongside Dubois and Kyle Connor.
Unfortunately for Perfetti, he suffered a shoulder injury late in the season that sidelined him indefinitely and prevented him from finding a groove with the club. Perfetti will be put into a top-six role this upcoming season immediately with Connor. His ability to make passes in short areas and set up shooters in dangerous spots makes him a perfect fit with the team’s top goalscorer last season and one of the best snipers in the NHL.
Perfetti will likely be a top option within the Jets’ forward core and power play, and this makes his contract arguably the most cost-efficient on the team. He has two years remaining on his entry-level contract. For a team that is expected to be up against the cap, having a player like this that can produce in the top six on a rookie contract is extremely valuable.
The Jets attempted multiple times last season to give David Gustafsson a chance in the bottom six. The former second-round pick wasn’t able to stay healthy during the chances he was given and remained on the Manitoba Moose for the latter half of the season.
The “Gus Bus,” as some fans call him, is an effective top-line, two-way forward at the AHL level. He is tasked with defending the opposing teams’ top players, kills penalties, and more than chips in offensively. The 22-year-old centre may start next season on the fourth line but could quickly shoot up the depth chart if he’s able to produce and stay healthy. The Jets’ centre depth is currently in a good place with Scheifele, Dubois, and Adam Lowry rounding out the top nine. But if Dubois ends up being moved, Gustafsson may be tasked with taking on a third-line role due to his departure. Only time will tell how big his role might be.
His ability to kill penalties will be a vital part of the Jets’ success next season. Their penalty kill last season was below average at 75 percent. The Moose finished last season with the eighth-best penalty kill in the AHL, and he was one of the biggest reasons for their success. By the halfway point of the regular season, we could see him be tasked with important middle-six and penalty-killing minutes.
Dylan Samberg / Ville Heinola
This is shaping up to be the most important training camp battle to watch. Both Dylan Samberg and Ville Heinola are defence prospects knocking on the door of full-time NHL minutes. Unfortunately for them, if the Jets aren’t willing to move off of a current defenceman on the roster, there will be only one spot on the third pairing for both of them.
Samberg was the more consistent option last season. He played 15 total games, recorded five assists, and killed penalties for the team. The 6-foot-4 defenceman used his physicality and smooth-skating ability to shut down plays before they even started. If there is a leap for him to take, it’s in the offensive zone. He didn’t score a goal for the Jets or Moose last season and is hesitant to jump in the rush at times. If the Jets are looking for an effective defender and penalty killer, Samberg will be given a big role next season.
Heinola was the more up-and-down player last season. When he was confident with the puck and playing into his strengths, he looked the part of a top-four defenceman at the NHL level. He’s the more gifted player of the two and the better offensive option. He played top power-play minutes for the Moose last season and finished with five goals and 21 assists in 41 games.
While the highs were high, the lows were low. He sometimes tends to get out-muscled in the defensive zone, which quickly results in turnovers below the goal line. It’s also notable when he’s lost his confidence, as he becomes shy to jump into the offensive zone and do what he does best, which is create offence. If the Jets are looking for an offensive boost on the blue line, and the player with the higher ceiling, Heinola would be a perfect fit on the third pairing alongside a veteran defenceman.
This list is subject to change as the Jets are likely not done moving pieces around this offseason. According to Capfriendly.com, they are projected to have $8.4 million in cap space. These players may have their roles taken by an unrestricted free agent in the coming days, depending on how aggressive the Jets choose to be over the next month. These are players that need NHL minutes to take the next step in their development, and there’s no better time than next season to integrate them into those roles.