The Winnipeg Jets wrapped up their seven-game preseason slate on Sunday, finishing 3-3-1 as they undertook the yearly process of assessing and testing their talent.
However, who was on the ice and what they were doing was often overshadowed by who wasn’t — namely, RFA stars Kyle Connor and Patrik Laine, who have both since signed.
That being said, THW’s got you covered regarding the players (that participated) who excelled and fell short in the preseason. Here’s a look at three of each the former and latter.
Those Who Excelled
There may not be enough superlatives to describe the Jets’ 2019 first-round draft pick’s preseason.
Related: Heinola is Jets’ Latest Finnish Find
Against all odds, the fresh-faced Ville Heinola cracked the team’s opening-night roster, and did so only because he looked absolutely nothing like an 18-year-old playing his first few games of NHL hockey. He had a standout camp and looked like a player well beyond his years in just about every conceivable way.
The lefty Finn, who played in five games and recorded two assists, was poised and cerebral throughout, made simple and intelligent reads, limited established players such as Ryan O’Reilly and Leon Draisaitl, moved the puck well, and even smoothly quarterbacked the Jets’ power play.
Head coach Paul Maurice was among those highly impressed with Heinola. The bench boss praised the rookie for both his in-game performances (calling him “a hell of a skater” and “so efficient, so smart”) and even for his competitiveness in drills against Blake Wheeler.
“In terms of his brain, he makes a great first pass,” the Jets captain said after the team’s fourth preseason game. ” (He’s) great positionally, quick — he does a lot of really good things, obviously. He’s going to be a pretty special player. He already is…”
After surviving the first of three waves of cuts, Maurice went on to say:
“Ville’s got some ice in his veins. He’s so smart, that he’s gotten faster in this camp. Which is unusual for an 18-year-old who’s slight. But he’s so efficient on his skates.”Paul Maurice on Ville Heinola
Heinola will see regular-season action, Maurice confirmed, but how many games he’ll suit up for is still a question. With their offseason defensive departures compounded by the fact Dustin Byfuglien’s ongoing leave of absence doesn’t have any sort of firm deadline, the teen has the chance to continue to make a huge impression.
Very few players are ready for NHL action at 18 — Laine and Jacob Trouba being the only others in the Jets’ 2.0 era — but what Heinola showed this month indicates he may be part of that rare breed.
New year, same results. A season removed from providing the Jets with some of the best back-up goaltending in the league, Laurent Brossoit used his preseason to pick up right where he left off.
The big-bodied netminder recorded victories in both of his starts and also one in relief, allowing just three total goals. While he wasn’t particularly busy — except in the third period and overtime of the Jets final preseason game against the Minnesota Wild — he was calm and confident in the crease when tested and showed why the Jets were smart to re-sign him back in May.
The 26-year-old — who posted a 13-6-2 record with a 2.52 goals-against average, .925 save percentage, and one shutout in 21 appearances and 19 starts in 2018-19 — should have plenty of motivation in 2019-20, since it’s basically an extended audition for a starting role elsewhere.
If Connor Hellebuyck underachieves like he did last season and during this preseason (more on that later), the Jets should have no qualms with putting their No. 2 goalie between the pipes on any given night.
Luoto, a Finnish-born winger the Jets signed to a three-year deal back in June, made a strong case for himself as a bottom-six option down the line, playing a hard-working game similar to now-Penguin Brandon Tanev.
Luoto suited up for five games as Maurice clearly wanted to see what his new hire was capable of. He was well-rounded, displayed good speed, textbook back-checking, drew a couple of penalties, threw some hits, and did good work on the penalty kill.
Although never a huge-point producer for Liiga’s Tappara, he showed soft hands when he niftily tipped a Logan Stanley point shot past Flames goaltender Cam Talbot.
Luoto also had a nice dish for the primary assist on C.J. Seuss’ goal against the Edmonton Oilers on Sept. 26. The Jets will likely flirt with the cap ceiling (it depends on Byfuglien’s decision) so reasonably-priced players who can contribute will be paramount.
Luoto will start with the Manitoba Moose as he was one of the team’s final cuts, but looks as though he could be a good call-up option when injuries arise.
Those Who Fell Short
Sent down to the Moose despite seeming a virtual lock for an NHL gig, Kristian Vesalainen’s disastrous preseason proves — beyond a shadow of a doubt — that fleeing for Europe was a bad choice that cost him a year of development.
After a 2018-19 in which the then-19-year-old opted to return to Helsinki and play for Jokerit on the big ice — rather than stick it out with the Manitoba Moose and adapt to the challenges of the North American play style — Vesalainen was invisible and looked borderline bored in his six September games.
Although he was given plenty of chances to strut his stuff — perhaps more chances than he deserved — the now-20-year-old did nothing to show he’s any further ahead than a year ago. He was hesitant to use his excellent shot — in his final four, he generated a combined zero shot attempts — didn’t do anything creative, (even though he’s certainly capable of stunning offensive feats) and was held pointless despite drawing ample time at even strength and on the power play.
Since bouncing back to Europe isn’t on the table for Vesalainen this season, he’ll have to do the learning with the Moose this season he should have done last season. It’s too bad his choice put him a year behind schedule, because the Jets could have used him right now.
Another forward who had a quiet preseason was 2015 sixth-rounder Mason Appleton.
Appleton has strong puck handling skills, dynamic offensive ability, and a penchant for coming up clutch: he’s proven that by amassing 37 goals and 61 assists for 98 points for the Manitoba Moose over the past two seasons and by being voted the AHL’s Outstanding Rookie in 2017-18.
Unfortunately, he just didn’t show those skills that extensively this time around. The Wisconsin native struggled to differentiate himself from the other candidates vying for bottom-six slots, especially at the beginning. It’s worth noting his performance did improve as camp went along — the Jets’ final preseason game was his best, when he generated a goal on two shots and skated nearly 20 minutes.
Overall, though, it was a bit of an underwhelming September for the third-year pro, who played 36 big-league games last season, mainly with Andrew Copp and Brendan Lemieux on a rather stellar fourth line. Although he still made the team unlike Vesalainen, he shouldn’t feel too comfortable: there’s plenty of guys nipping at his heels.
You can add starting goaltending the huge list of question marks the Jets have going into the season.
Unfortunately, Hellebuyck looked similar to how he looked frequently last season — terribly shaky and unconfident. In three starts against the Blues, Oilers, and Wild, the 26-year-old allowed twelve goals on just 64 shots and, alarmingly, was beaten a number of times to the blocker side. That’s a longtime weakness of his that he still hasn’t shored up — look for opponents to shoot to his stick side regularly in 2019-20.
The Jets will rely on Hellebuyck more than ever this season given the state of their D, which we discussed above. Quite simply, if Hellebuyck fights the puck in the regular season as he did in preseason, the Jets won’t win a lot of games. They need him to prove he isn’t a one-season wonder.
The Real Test Begins Now
We’ll see how well these six, and the rest of the Jets and Moose, perform when the games start counting for real — for the Jets, it’s Thursday when they face the New York Rangers in the Big Apple, and for the Moose, it’s Friday as they take on the San Antonio Rampage in Texas.
Both teams will definitely be worth watching to see how these players, and others, trend.
Who else impressed you in the Jets’ preseason? Who else disappointed? Comment below!
Declan Schroeder is a 26-year-old communications specialist and freelance journalist in Winnipeg, Manitoba. He holds a diploma in Creative Communications with a major in journalism from Red River College and a bachelors in Rhetoric and Communications from the University of Winnipeg.
Deeply rooted in the city’s hockey culture, the original Jets skipped town when he was two and the 2.0 version came onto the scene when he was 17.