In what many would call an unfortunate string of bad luck, the Winnipeg Jets continue to recover from a season defined by injuries. As they look ahead to next season, it’s impossible to ignore the incoming wave of talent representing the next generation of Jets hockey.
While the Jets certainly do not boast an elite prospect pool, there are a fair share of notable players that could transition into being NHL regulars sooner rather than later.
Although general manager Kevin Cheveldayoff will undoubtedly be more than occupied with the loaded free-agent class set to hit the open market, there are a few options at his disposal, should the Jets look to improve from within.
Here are four potential candidates who could crack the opening night roster next season.
1. Ville Heinola (LD)
2019-20 Teams: Winnipeg Jets (NHL) / Manitoba Moose (AHL) / Lukko (Liiga)
This shouldn’t really be a surprise to anyone. Heinola was quite the addition this past season, earning a spot on the opening night roster and having an immediate impact in his short stint with the Jets after being selected 20th overall in 2019.
Notching five points in his first eight NHL games is a promising sign for a team in desperate need of defensive stability, not to mention Heinola played some big minutes over the course of his short tenure this past season.
What does the young Finn bring to the table? Tremendous offensive upside and a stature similar to that of teammate Neal Pionk. If everything goes according to plan, Heinola, alongside other youthful assets such as the aforementioned Pionk as well as Josh Morrissey, could certainly be a big piece of the Jets blueline moving forward.
After being sent back to the AHL and later loaned to his Finnish club (Lukko) in order to avoid burning the first year of his entry-level contract, expect Heinola to take a big step forward next season as the Jets introduce what many expect to be a plethora of new faces.
2. Winnipeg’s 10th Overall Selection
This is quite the wild-card pick, but with a draft as deep as this one, whoever the Jets’ take at 10th overall could certainly have a legitimate shot at jumping straight to the NHL. Unlike previous years, many would argue that there are more than a few stellar names outside the top five, which gives this draft the potential to be one of the best in recent memory.
Winnipeg has an abundance of options at every position when it comes to who they could take at No. 10. Notable names that jump off the page are centres Anton Lundell and Hendrix Lapierre, winger Jack Quinn, and defensemen Kaiden Guhle and Jake Sanderson.
In the latest installment of the mock draft at The Hockey Writers, Cole Perfetti fell to Winnipeg at No. 10. While that may seem like a long shot given the rankings of other professionals, it’s players like him that would be strong candidates to crack the opening night roster.
Perfetti, a dynamic scoring talent, lit up the OHL this past season; showcasing his elite goalscoring ability. Considering no team would say no to scoring depth, this could be a repeat of 2018, when Filip Zadina slipped to the Detroit Red Wings at No. 6.
Whether Cheveldayoff bolsters the backend or elects to add some much needed forward depth with the 10th overall pick, whoever he chooses has the potential of having an immediate impact on an up and coming Jets squad.
3. Dylan Samberg (LD)
2019-20 Team: University of Minnesota-Duluth (NCAA)
In what could be another pleasant surprise, Dylan Samberg is a name that has flown under the radar to many fans out there. One reason for that could be the fact that he elected to return to the NCAA for an additional year, instead of inking an entry-level contract and staying within the Jets’ organization.
In his third season with the University of Minnesota-Duluth, Samberg has continued to show signs of development, averaging almost a point-per-game. Standing at 6-foot-3, the Hermantown-native could provide additional defensive stability to a youthful blueline, one that’s looking to be one of the best in the coming years.
Back in April, the Jets finally signed the 21-year-old blueliner to a three-year entry-level contract, avoiding the risk of losing Samberg in free agency. Pledging to work on his agility and passing game in the offseason, Samberg could become a solid depth option in his first season in the pros, and a cornerstone on the blueline for years to come.
4. Kristian Vesalainen (LW)
2019-20 Team: Manitoba Moose (AHL)
In short, it’s been a disappointing couple of seasons for Vesalainen as the former first-round pick has only seen five games of NHL action since being selected back in 2017.
After heading back overseas on a loan to Jokerit during parts of the 2018-19 season, the young Finn returned to North America this season and struggled mightily with the AHL’s Manitoba Moose. Registering just 30 points in 60 games, Vesalainen has seen other prospects jump ahead of him on the depth chart, as his progress has stunted since his draft year.
While this certainly isn’t the end of the road for the 20-year-old, time is definitely running out. With the Jets leaning on their youth to carry them towards success, Vesalainen needs to make significant strides in order to prove his worth. While his play as of late has been nothing but underwhelming, Vesalainen definitely possesses the skillset to become an NHL regular. Will next season be more of the same? For the sake of the Jets’ prospect, I hope not.
Honourable Mention: Sami Niku (LD)
2019-20 Teams: Winnipeg Jets (NHL) / Manitoba Moose (AHL)
Some would say Niku isn’t a prospect anymore, hence why he’s an honourable mention. Still, the 23-year-old has seen just 48 games of NHL action across three seasons, which indicates he’s far from an NHL regular.
Niku’s off-ice behaviour could be an explanation for why the 2018 AHL defenseman of the year has yet to find a consistent role with Winnipeg. Many sources have cited a bad temper and run-ins with coaches as reasons why Niku hasn’t found himself playing at the NHL level on a consistent basis.
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To make matters worse, Niku admitted to a Finnish media outlet this past season that he was considering requesting a trade while also contemplating heading to the KHL if he wasn’t given an opportunity with the Jets in the near future.
While the young Finn has elected (so far) to stick around, off-ice antics are a common reason as to why players find themselves lacking opportunity. Unlike Vesalainen, Niku has proven he’s more than capable of playing at the NHL level. However, like always, it seems only he can control his fate with the Jets moving forward.
The Future Ahead…
There’s no question the Jets will have numerous names competing for a spot in the lineup come next season. Heinola and Samberg will be given ample opportunity to break into the NHL after finding success at every other level of hockey. Both could provide much needed defensive depth as Winnipeg explores the possibility of additional roster turnover.
As for Vesalainen and Niku, the pair of Finns will be given yet another shot to establish themselves as consistent NHL players. Many would argue that neither of them have lived up the hype, given Vesalainen’s first-round capabilities and Niku’s success at the AHL level (despite being a 7th-round pick in 2015). They both will have another chance at proving themselves when training camp opens up next season.
There’s a youth movement taking place in Winnipeg. And the next generation of Jets hockey is eager to join them.
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