Joel Armia might be in for a breakout season with the Winnipeg Jets. Or he might be in for another long stint with the AHL’s Manitoba Moose. Flip a coin?
What becomes of the talented young Finnish winger this season is anybody’s guess at this point. Armia had some jaw-dropping moments last season, some moments that were impressive in a quieter way, and some moments that left you cringing. It was an up and down season for him, but that’s life when you’re an NHL rookie (Jets fans must hope whoever they take with the second overall pick is an exception to this rule).
There were the standard rookie hiccups for Armia, plus a few extras including some time on the shelf with an injury that took him longer to recover from than he’d initially thought. In between those hiccups (and call-ups) were some big moments, including his first NHL goal and point, some dazzling stick handling and a few great shots. It was just a quick snapshot, but it had many pundits, me included, excited about Armia and what he could do in the future.
So where does Armia fit in with the Jets next season? Has the future arrived, or does the lanky forward need some additional AHL seasoning?
All in Favour?
While nearly all young prospects seek to improve their defensive game, Armia was unquestionably drafted to be an offensive threat, and his potential shone through at times last season. He was strong below the goal line, useful at creating a cycle, and very difficult to separate from the puck despite needing to add some weight to his frame. At times on the forecheck he seemed to be toying with other teams, shielding them off the puck and bulling his way to the goal.
Any discussion of Armia’s offensive prowess has to include this goal. If you haven’t seen it already, here it is. If you have seen it already, it doesn’t hurt to watch it again. I did.
Now, Winnipeg Jets fans and observers saw Johnny Oduya make some… interesting choices with the puck in his brief tenure here, but we never saw him get turned inside-out quite as dramatically as that. And while any player can get lucky or catch an opposing player on a bad day (witness Chris Thorburn’s terrific goal against Buffalo) it’s hard not to look at the raw potential showcased there and drool.
Not every goal Armia scores is going to be quite so amazing, but he’ll score some good ones. A player with his size should have no trouble going to the dirty areas to score, and his shot is impressive as well. He’ll be a handful for defenders and goaltenders alike in the future.
Armia is capable of dominating in the opposing zone, and playing good minutes as third liner right away, with second line potential for the future. So what could keep him out of the lineup?
Like most young players, Armia needs a healthy dose of consistency before he can start tearing the NHL apart the way he has every other league he’s played in. Yes, there were shifts in which he dominated and moments in which he was brilliant, but those were too few and too far between last year, as evidenced by his 10 points in 43 games stats line.
Armia may also at times have been guilty of hanging on to the puck for too long. It got him pushed around in some games and actively drilled in others. He’s good at holding the puck in the opposition’s zone, but he’ll need to learn when to carry it himself and when to dish it off to a linemate. Having more talented linemates this season, with the injury bug hopefully biting less frequently, will help.
Armia also needs work on his defensive game, but that’s to be expected of a youngster. What isn’t necessarily to be expected is his lack of flat out speed. This is something that might hold him back if he plays with someone like Nikolaj Ehlers or even Kyle Connor. Armia isn’t the fastest player out there, and while his smarts and shot have served him well thus far, the Jets would no doubt feel more comfortable inserting him into the lineup if he were just a touch quicker.
For me, the decision on whether to keep Armia or send him down to the minors is a fairly easy one, but since I don’t have contracts and fan expectations to manage I doubt the Jets will have the same ease at it. If you are dressing the best lineup available, Armia is part of that lineup.
There are other factors at play here, of course. Armia is still relatively young (turning 23 on May 31) and his contract is up. He’s an RFA now, though I have to think the Jets will bring him back without much question. The question then becomes, do they keep him in the AHL this fall?
Armia, more than perhaps any other Jet, is going to be on the bubble this training camp. If he plays in the NHL, he must do so as a scorer, and to earn a scorer’s ice time means likely taking it away from an established veteran, which is no easy thing. He’s going to have to come into camp and blow the doors off. He’s going to have to demonstrate to Jets brass that he can play with good players and not slow them down.
Working in Armia’s favour is that he is a right winger, and while the club’s top right wing spot is held in a death grip by Blake Wheeler, the third and perhaps even second line spots aren’t set in stone. Patrik Laine may shoot right, but like Alex Ovechkin he plays on the left side. I’d love to see Armia post up alongside his fellow Finn and rack up some points. Failing that, I’m curious to see what he could do with Kyle Connor, who will most likely be a left winger as well.
It’s not going to be easy for Armia, and he’ll likely have to win some hearts and minds in exhibition games. If he doesn’t score in those, or at least look deadly, it’ll be hard for the Jets to justify keeping him for fourth line/press box duty.
That said, I believe the kid can do it. A year’s worth of NHL experience (or about half of one) can go a long way, and Armia’s confidence grew as the season went on. If it continues to grow, he could quickly become a dynamic offensive threat and give the Jets some much needed depth up front.
Joel Armia stays.