The 2021-22 Winnipeg Jets have been disappointing. That’s just a fact, and there is no argument to the contrary. Almost every prognosticator in the preseason had them slated for, at the very least, one of the top three teams in the Central Division, and most had them finishing higher while taking a significant run in the playoffs. It’s pretty evident at this point that’s neither of those scenarios is likely to happen. After their most recent loss to the New York Rangers, the nails in their playoff coffin haven’t been officially hammered in, but they are in the mortician’s hands and at the ready to seal their metaphorical pine box.
At the start of the season, the Jets’ defence was the main topic of concern. The offence was considered laden with strength and depth, while former Vezina Trophy winner and one of the league’s best goaltenders in Connor Hellebuyck was going to be solid in net. That hasn’t been the case, and their window of opportunity to take a serious run at the Stanley Cup with the current core leadership group has been wasted for yet another season. I say with the current core group, but as is the case with all relationships, things evolve and change and that’s happening.
The Jets’ Core Has Not Had Great Seasons
The core of the Jets’ leadership group includes Blake Wheeler, Mark Scheifele, Josh Morrissey and Hellebuyck. Of the four, only Morrissey is having a solid season, and when I say solid, I mean up to the standards any of them have established for themselves in the past. He is having a bounce-back year from last season and has been consistently dependable and reliable on the blue line on a team that exudes inconsistency. He is undeniably the leader of the Jets’ defensive unit and has played like the Josh Morrissey of old.
Hellebuyck has been okay this season. Not spectacular, but okay. However, the fan base has become accustomed to outstanding, and “okay” has been met with frustration. Manitobans have been used to witnessing miracles in the pipes in the past few seasons, His ability to make a timely, incredible save and win a game on his own hasn’t happened. In no way can anyone argue that Hellebuyck is having a bad season; he’s just performing below his expected level of play. Currently he is overworked but still playing pretty well. Winnipeg is just not used to that.
This leaves Wheeler and Scheifele, who have played well in spurts, but again not with any real consistency. Wheeler, through a rough season, has still managed to score near a point per game and has been at times the Jets’ best forward. His current contract has an average annual value of $8.25 million per season towards the salary cap, which is tough to move. But on the open market, a point per game player earns about $8 million, and he is properly valued. It would be a very difficult contract to move, and to get real or equal value in return would be almost impossible.
That leads us to Scheifele, who has shown that he likes to score but does not enjoy defending. He has 45 points in 50 games this season but has a plus-minus of -21. That’s by far the lowest on the Jets, with the second-worst at -14 in Wheeler. Compare that to Kyle Connor or Pierre-Luc Dubois, who have a plus-minus of -4 and +2, respectively. No one else on the roster has a negative plus-minus rating in double digits. Much has been made this season about his dismal effort and lack of attention to detail on defense. His play has made some wonder if he really wants to be in Winnipeg.
Scheifele could also learn from Connor, who has vastly improved his defensive play, is a regular on the penalty kill, and his offensive numbers have increased noticeably. He has a real shot at scoring 50 goals this season and is on pace to put up 91 points. Yet his defensive role and responsibilities have increased. After 56 games, he has a takeaway/giveaway ratio of 1.05, meaning he takes the pucks from opponents slightly more than he gives it away (43-41, to be exact). Scheifele, on the other hand, has a TA/GA of 0.73, meaning he has turned the puck over 13 more times than he has taken it from opponents. It is the only time he has been below zero in that stat in the last five seasons, and in those previous years, he has been well above the zero mark. He has been simply careless with the puck this season.
Scheifele Is the Core Leader Who Needs to Go
The time is right to move on from Scheifele. He has a favourable contract at $6.125 million per year with two more years left on his deal. He is a point-per-game player who is not making $8 million per season and, at 28 years of age, still has plenty of hockey ahead of him. He will be looking to get a significant raise in his next contract, and the chances of him re-signing with the Jets look to be remote. He would be a favourable addition to many teams looking to add a proven forward with a good contract with term remaining. The only issue would be to obtain someone of equal value in return. It doesn’t have to be an 80-90 point player. A 60-70 point player who is willing to prevent 30 would be great.
Many long-term Jets fans, out of loyalty, will say he is too valuable and you can’t move him. Yes, you can. This season started out poorly, but it improved. Now it’s back to bad, and the situation is dire, verging on failure. The window of winning that the team has banked on the contracts of Wheeler, Scheifele and Hellebuyck, where they all become unrestricted free agents at the end of the 2023-24 season, is closing fast. The current core group took a deep run in 2018 and has failed to come close since.
Without any formal “passing of the torch,” the Jets’ leadership group seems to have shifted this season, and general manager Kevin Cheveldayoff should use this time to gain as many assets for the future as he can. Players like Connor and Dubois are day-in and day-out the workhorses of this club and have put the bulk of the offensive duties for this team on their backs, while the traditional leaders have not. Wheeler is an intense individual with a deep desire to win, but for reasons not totally in his control, he’s had what everyone would agree to be an off season. Yet he works hard and never complains about being moved to the third line. Whereas Scheifele has simply played uninspired hockey from the get-go and has been anything but a leader. He looks like he doesn’t care at times.
One of these guys has to go, and it’s Scheifele. Like him or not, Wheeler may be aging, but since his health has returned and he’s back into NHL routine, he has undeniably produced. Scheifele is putting up offensive numbers but has played with a lack of passion and effort, is the Jets’ biggest defensive liability and has a contract that is moveable. It’s time for him and the Jets to part ways.
Keith Forsyth is a freelance writer and sports junkie from rural Manitoba who is covering the Winnipeg Jets for The Hockey Writers. Keith loves all sports and is a huge fan of the NFL (Skol Vikings… if you know, you know) and the Montreal Expos (they’re coming back… you watch!). He recently retired from the education world teaching high school, where his greatest passion was coaching young athletes. He brings that same logical, behind the bench type of approach to you as he delivers an insightful look into the NHL and specifically the Jets. For interview requests or content info, follow Keith on Twitter or his social media accounts. They appear under his photo on articles like this one.