With injuries mounting and their playoff chances being slim to none, the Winnipeg Jets are slowly starting to play more of their prospects in preparation for next season.
Dylan Samberg, Ville Heinola, and Morgan Barron are all prospects who have gotten significant playing time due to injuries as the season comes to a close.
As these prospects get their opportunity to show what they can do at the NHL level, now is a good time to re-evaluate where the Winnipeg Jets prospect pool stands. The strongest group of the Jets’ prospects is their blue line, which is what I’ll be ranking today.
5. Dimitri Kuzmin
Dimitri Kuzmin was drafted in the third round of the 2021 draft by the Jets and is hard to project as he still has quite a ways to go in terms of his development.
The 18-year-old, left-handed defenceman played for the Flint Firebirds of the Ontario Hockey League this season. The offensively-skilled defenceman put up 42 points in 55 games and totaled a plus-minus of +16. The most notable highlight of his young career so far was a lacrosse-style goal he scored in the U-18 World championships while playing for his home country of Belarus.
Kuzmin measures 5-foot-10 and 187 pounds. Despite being on the smaller side, he has plenty of time to grow and become stronger before he attempts to crack the Winnipeg Jets’ roster. His ability to skate in transition and extend offensive possessions with his creativity and passing makes him an intriguing prospect.
4. Leon Gawanke
Despite being 22 years old, Leon Gawanke has yet to play in an NHL game. The former fifth-round selection in the 2017 draft has developed into a good prospect over the past two seasons. He’s a pending restricted free agent after this season, and the Jets should be looking to keep the 6-foot-1, 198-pound defenceman.
He’s recorded 34 points in 58 games with the Manitoba Moose in the AHL this season and will be a major part of the blue line during their pending playoff run. Gawanke is the only right-handed shot on this list, which bodes well for his opportunity to leapfrog some of these prospects and get into the lineup.
Gawanke is a strong skating defenceman with offensive upside. Combine that with his defensive tools that have improved drastically over the course of his development, and we may see him make his Jets debut soon.
3. Declan Chisholm
Like Gawanke, Declan Chisholm is a 22-year-old defenceman whose major strides in development have come over his past two seasons. Chisholm is a left-handed, 6-foot-1, 190-pound defenceman with great offensive instincts and creativity. Due to injuries and COVID protocol, he was able to get into two games with the Jets this season.
Despite those two games coming on the third pairing, Chisholm was able to show what makes him an intriguing prospect. He skated extremely well with the puck, showed incredible creativity within the offensive zone, and consistently made great outlet passes to start the rush.
Unfortunately for Chisholm, he is nearing the end of his development. It’s time for the Jets to find out what kind of prospect he really is, as the other two defencemen on this list seem to have priority over him in the lineup.
2. Dylan Samberg
Samberg was also selected during the 2017 draft with the 43rd overall selection. After getting drafted, he went back to play for his college team, the University of Minnesota-Duluth, for three more seasons before joining the Moose.
He has impressed with the Moose this season, but his recent stretch of games with the Jets has been his most impressive. According to Moneypuck.com, in over 38 minutes paired with Brenden Dillon, that combo has put up a 73.5 percent expected goals percentage, a 63.5 percent Corsi percentage, and have outscored their opponents 5-1.
Samberg has used his size and impressive skating ability to push for a spot in the lineup. Now that he’s gotten it, it looks as though he has earned his spot in the lineup over Logan Stanley. His recent stretch of impressive play makes him the second-best defence prospect in the system.
1. Ville Heinola
Despite an up-and-down 2021-22 campaign for Ville Heinola, he still ranks as the best defensive prospect in the Jets’ system. With the Moose, Heinola recorded 20 points in 34 games.
His time with the Jets got off to a rocky start, having spent a couple of weeks in the press box before making his debut. But shortly after the rough start, Heinola started to show what makes him such a highly-touted prospect. Elite zone exits and entries are what Heinola is all about. It took him a couple of games to adjust to that at the NHL level, but once he did, he looked comfortable and showed off the top-four potential in his game.
If Heinola becomes a bit stronger and gets meaningful reps with the Jets to begin next season, he will start to show why he is the most coveted defensive prospect on the Jets.
One issue the Jets may face is that four of the five defencemen on this list are left-handed. To add to that, all six of the Jets defenceman that played the most number of games this season are under contract next season as well. Either these prospects are going to have to leapfrog established veterans, or management is going to have to make some moves.
My name is Connor Hrabchak. I am 19 years old, and I am currently working towards completing my communications and media degree. I was born and raised in Winnipeg, Manitoba. I have been a die-hard fan of the Winnipeg Jets ever since they moved back to Winnipeg in 2011, which has inspired me to write about hockey and attempt to make it into a full-time career.