This season the Winnipeg Jets exceeded all expectations when they got themselves into the playoffs. At the start of the season many experts were predicting doom and gloom in Winnipeg. A last place finish in the Central, closer to McDavid then the postseason, no one expected the Jets to make any noise. However, under the leadership of Head Coach Paul Maurice, the Jets surprised everyone. They spent most of the season sitting in a playoff position and when the post season rolled around, picking the Jets to upset the Ducks was a pretty popular choice.Though the Jets were unable to come through with that upset, the season was seen as a success, and almost immediately fans started looking ahead to next season and how the Jets could take the next step towards being Stanley Cup contenders.
After signing Anthony Peluso earlier this week (more on the Peluso signing,) the Winnipeg Jets currently sit with only 8 forwards under contract, and they are going to need somebody to fill the void. There are two ways the Jets can go. One is to re-sign a few of their many unrestricted free agents. The Michael Frolik situation was covered last week (view here) but the Jets have many other holes. Jim Slater has been a part of the franchise longer than anyone else, but may now be on his way out. The same stands for Matt Halischuk, Lee Stempniak, Jiri Tlusty, and Drew Stafford. The Jets could also go a whole other way. Build for the future. Yes, you may take a step back next year, but that is what the Jets need to do to become a real contender.
If you go into the 2015/2016 season with the same team, you will probably get the same result. Sure, your young guys may get better, or they may take a step back. Scheifele has improved every season but eventually that comes to an end. Trouba has proved to be a little injury prone, and it is rare a guy steps in as a rookie so well as Lowry did, it is only natural he may regress a little bit. You could look for help in the free agency pool, but, it is one of the weakest free agent years in recent memory so how much help can you really get? If the Jets try to ice the same team they will once again battle for a playoff spot. Sixth, seventh place, not out of the question, but neither is ninth, tenth, or eleventh. Result may be slightly better but this team won’t be any different. They also have to worry about both Dallas and Colorado in their division living up to the potential they seem to have. Both under achieved this season and you would expect them to be far better. What about L.A. and San Jose? Powerhouses in the west for many years missed the playoffs last season, you cannot count on them to be behind you again.
The Case for the Future
This all leads to one simple solution. Blow up the blueprint. It is time for the Jets to go young.
— Play On! Winnipeg (@PlayOnWinnipeg) March 4, 2015
Many, including The Hockey News claim the Jets have the best prospect pool in the league. It is time to see if these prospects are ready to take over this team. Instead of plugging the holes on this team with veterans who have reached their ceiling, throw in the guys who have the potential to carry this team far and above their current spot. The Jets have a full cupboard of guys ready to take the next step. Nic Petan, Brendan Lemieux, Chase De Leo, Andrew Copp, who spent time with the big club last year, not to mention any of the players who played with St. Johns in the AHL last season. With two picks in the first round this season, the Jets are bound to pick up even more good prospect which was covered here last week. The Jets also have past first round picks Josh Morrisey and Nik Ehlers. Both had great seasons in the WHL and QMJHL respectively, and quite frankly another year in the junior ranks will do neither of them any good.
Can Ehlers Make the Jump?
Nikolaj Ehlers may be the most NHL ready player the Jets have. Drafted ninth overall in the 2014 NHL entry draft, Ehlers was called up at the end of this year to spend some time with the big club and may be looking to stick come training camp this year. In his last two season in the QMJHL with the Halifax Mooseheads Ehlers managed 205 points in 114 regular season games played, and when it really counted, Ehlers scored 59 points in 30 playoff games.
Though Ehlers style can be a little nomadic at times, he is still one of the premier scorers in the junior game right now. It make take him some time to make the adjustment but there is little doubt that he will be able to perform with the big club.
A Crowded Crease
Another position is goaltending, though Ondrej Pavelec played great at the end of the season and in the World Championships, few really believe he is the goaltender of the future in Winnipeg. At times this year Michael Hutchinson appeared ready to take the reins. He very well could have been an All Star and although his numbers dropped in the second half and Pavelec re-took the starters job, Hutchinson showed real potential. There is also Connor Hellebuyck, Hellebuyck played great in his first pro season with the Ice Caps and was arguably the best goalie at the World Championships. The Jets prospect who may be talked about most is also a netminder, Eric Comrie who had a great junior season that included a gold medal at the World Junior championships. He will most likely move up to the AHL this season, the Jets are more than stacked at that position. Though it is unlikely the Jets will be able to get rid of Pavelec, who has a big contract with years left on it, if the Jets could manage to ship him off, it could be a battle for the future of the Jets crease. Due to the circumstances however, it will probably be Pavelec who again has the starters job until he loses it, but you can bet he will be checking his rear view mirror often as three hungry young goaltenders approach.
Would this strategy really work for an NHL team? In the short term, no, if Winnipeg was to try this next season they would almost certainly take a step back. However, in the long term it just may, if you can give all these young guys some experience and get them ahead, they may just develop into the next young dynasty team. Is a step backwards next season worth two steps forward the following year? In the end though, it is unlikely the Jets will use this approach fully, I would suspect you see a few of the free agents return and a few of the rookies jump in to try and begin their NHL careers. A good mix should keep this team competitive and who knows if they can find a couple of breakout stars what may happen. Just one of the many storylines to watch in the next few weeks before the draft and free agency.
Born and raised Winnipeg sports fan and contributor with The Hockey Writers.