The Winnipeg Jets finalized their 23-man roster on Tuesday, and, while there were not a lot of surprises, there were still some. The news of Sami Niku getting sent down to the Manitoba Moose shocked a lot of people and the team also broke the news on Tuesday about Nathan Beaulieu and Bryan Little.
Beaulieu is expected to miss up to four weeks, while Little has been diagnosed with a concussion and currently has no timetable for a return. This is tough news for a team thin on defense and now – once again – trying to fill the second-line center spot just days before the regular season with Little out of the lineup.
It was also announced on Tuesday theJets claimed defenseman Carl Dahlstrom off waivers from the Chicago Blackhawks, while also losing goaltender Eric Comrie to waivers after the Arizona Coyotes claimed him.
We knew the team had a lot of question marks to start training camp – and they arguably still do – but with training camp officially in the rearview mirror and the Jets’ first game of the regular season starting tonight in New York against the Rangers, let’s take a deeper look and try to understand the Jets’ 23-man roster.
Ville Heinola and David Gustafsson Stick Around
The strong preseason play of Ville Heinola and David Gustaffson has earned them both a spot on the teams’ opening 23-man roster. Heinola was arguably the biggest surprise throughout training camp and has earned high praise from head coach Paul Maurice. The 18-year-old looks start the regular season somewhere in the top-six defense group; Maurice has been shuffling defense pairings throughout the last two days of practice, so we will have to wait and see exactly where he lines up and for how long.
Gustafsson, meanwhile, also had a very good preseason and even got a shot playing on the first-line in the final preseason game versus the Minnesota Wild after Mark Scheifele was a late scratch. Many want to see the 19-year-old start the season in Little’s second-line center spot, but it appears Gustafsson will start the season as an extra forward. This has many people scratching their heads and for good reason. Why keep a young promising prospect around just to have him sit in the press box?
Vesalainen Falls While Appleton Barely Holds On
Kristian Vesalainen was the biggest disappointment throughout the team’s training camp. His game is clearly not where it needs to be which is unfortunate after many had him pegged in the Jets’ top-nine forward group to start training camp. He will begin the season with the Moose and hopefully regain some confidence and get himself ready for when he gets the call once again.
Mason Appleton also struggled throughout training camp. His game did see some improvement late – unlike Vesalainen’s – which is why I think we are still seeing him with the Jets. He is currently projected to start on the fourth-line as the team gears up for its first game.
As I mentioned earlier, the Jets have an open spot on their second line with Little sidelined. Judging by the lines run at practice, the man getting the call looks to be Andrew Copp. While I am not disappointed by this, I would have liked to see Gustafsson or Adam Lowry get this opportunity instead. With that said, this is a huge moment in Copp’s career; let’s hope he takes full advantage of it.
Free Agent Acquisitions Earn Spots
Three of the Jets’ free-agent acquisitions this summer have earned spots in the starting lineup. Anthony Bitetto, Mark Letestu, and Gabriel Bourque have all but cemented their names on the teams opening day roster and will undoubtedly play key roles to this team’s success.
Letestu and Bourque have both been practicing within the Jets’ bottom-six forward group, while Bitetto has been getting shuffled around the top-six defense group. Bourque is currently slated to play on the third line with Lowry and Mathieu Perreault and will be a big part of the team’s penalty-killing unit. Letestu is currently penciled in on the fourth line with Appleton and Jack Roslovic and could – at some point – see time on the second power-play unit.
Bitetto – who has not got a lot of love from fans – is going to start the season within the Jets’ top-six defense. Like it or not, it is a reality at this point but may not be for long if it makes you feel any better. Dahlstrom will serve as the extra defense to start the season but I think we see Niku back in the Jets’ lineup in the near future. Beaulieu is another guy who could eventually bump Bitetto from the starting lineup once he is healthy again.
Jets Still Have Fire Power
With Patrik Laine and Kyle Connor finally signed and projected to start in the Jets’ top-six tonight, the team has not lost its ability to score goals. This was going to be a concern had the two RFAs not signed, but we can officially exhale and watch the goals start to pile up.
The top-six is pretty well set to start the season, it will look the same – minus Little – but I fully expect him to take back the number two spot once he is back healthy. The Jets should also get depth scoring once again this season. Perreault, Lowry, Roslovic, and Appleton combined for 39 goals last season (Appleton with just 36 games played) which is decent numbers for part of a bottom-six group. Letestu and Bourque meanwhile, have not had much goal scoring success in the NHL as of late, but they have career highs of 16 and 11 respectively.
Defense and Goaltending
With a deep forward group and potential scoring by committee, the only real concern entering the season will be how much they get scored on. The defense has been of concern since the start of free agency in July and still remains that way with four of six starters from last year not on the roster.
On paper, the Jets defensive group ranks near the bottom of the league and to add to it, the goaltending of Connor Hellebuyck has been suspect throughout the preseason. Take that with a grain of salt as preseason usually does not always tell the tale of what is to be when the bullets start flying for real.
The Jets still have their core offensive group intact and have a solid group of bottom-six contributors. I have said it before and I will say it again, this defensive group can be a pleasant surprise to a lot of people. They still have potential to perform at a high level, I have also said fans will be pleasantly surprised by Neal Pionk and I still stand by that.
As long as Hellebuyck can elevate his game anywhere close to where he was in 2017-18, this team will still be a playoff contender. Even if he does not, Laurent Brossoit has been solid and could very well perform as a top starting goalie if he gets the call.
As I stated in a previous article, I still have the Jets penciled in as a playoff team this season. I think at the very worst they clinch the second wild-card spot and have the potential to get past the first round. After that, anything can happen – let’s get the season started and watch how things unfold starting tonight in New York.