After a COVID-19-shortened 2020-21 season that saw the Winnipeg Jets compete exclusively against Canadian opponents in a temporary North Division, the league is returning to their normal divisions and an 82-game schedule. The Jets — who advanced to the second round but were swept by the Montreal Canadiens — will return to the Central Division along with the Chicago Blackhawks, Colorado Avalanche, Dallas Stars, Nashville Predators, Minnesota Wild, St. Louis Blues, and the newcomer Arizona Coyotes.
However, even after a successful offseason that saw GM Kevin Cheveldayoff finally address his team’s glaring needs on defence, there are still some burning questions facing the Jets prior to regular season puck drop next month.
1. Will Blake Wheeler Bounce Back?
The Jets’ captain had a rough 2020-21, he admitted it was “by far the hardest year of (his) professional life.”
Although his points total —15 goals and 31 assists for 46 points in 50 regular season games and two goals and three assists in eight playoff games — were respectable, they don’t tell the whole story. He was alarmingly awful at even-strength and a liability defensively.
The veteran’s struggles were exacerbated by head coach Paul Maurice’s poor line combinations and were also due to the cracked ribs he quietly played through most of the season.
Wheeler is 35 years old now and although Wheeler has eluded him longer than most, Father Time is undefeated; regression is inevitable at some point. But the Jets need him to have a bounce-back campaign and play more like he did when he was exceeding a point per game in 2017-18 and 2018-19.
He certainly needs to be more effective outside of the power play, where 30 per cent of his points came: he is set to make $10 million in 2021-22 and it’s not good if a player making that much drags down the top line. The questions will be is if he can do that or if his best seasons are truly behind them.
2. How Will Eric Comrie Fare Backup?
The Jets have one of the NHL’s best goaltenders in Connor Hellebuyck, but won’t have as high quality of a backup behind him.
Gone is Laurent Brossoit, whom the Jets could not afford considering their anticipated offseason spending on RFAs and the heavy contracts they inherited in trades. The reliable backup signed with the Vegas Golden Knights on day one of Free Agent Frenzy, leaving Eric Comrie as heir apparent to the number-two job.
The long-time farmhand Comrie signed a one-year deal worth $750,000 one day before the market opened. While is affordable, he comes with risk. Even if Hellebuyck starts 60-plus games that still leaves 20 games for Comrie, who has been unsuccessful at the NHL level.
While he owns most of the Manitoba Moose’s all-time records and has played 207-career AHL games, he has only made eight NHL starts and nine total NHL appearances since his big-league debut in 2017.
In those nine appearances — five with the Jets, three with the Detroit Red Wings in 2019-20, and one with the New Jersey Devils last season — he holds a 3-5-0 record, 4.08 GAA, and .873 SV% and has looked shaky more often than not. Nothing about his NHL performances inspire much confidence.
However, Cheveldayoff has given Comrie a vote of confidence, saying there’s a strong chemistry between him and Hellebuyck and that he’s earned his opportunity. The vast improvements to the blue line may also be able to make Comrie’s nights easier than they would have been last season.
That being said, the Jets will still be in big trouble if Hellebuyck goes down and they shouldn’t hesitate to bring up flashy Russian goalie Mikhail Berdin if Comrie’s first few appearances are subpar.
3: Who Will Make the Bottom Six?
Competition for a bottom-six spots will be hot: only two of six players who played a full-time role with the team last season are back — Andrew Copp and Adam Lowry — and there are a slew of candidates who will be champing at the bit for one of the four slots available.
Battling for the role to replace Mason Appleton — who was snatched up by the Seattle Kraken in this summer’s Expansion Draft — on the third line with Copp and Lowry and for fourth-line jobs will be David Gustafsson, Jansen Harkins, Riley Nash, Cole Perfetti, Dominic Toninato, Evgeny Svechnikov, and Kristian Vesalainen.
Developments around Jets’ fourth line will be of particular interest to as it will be completely different and much younger than a year ago. The entirety of the “Dirty Thirties” line of Trevor Lewis, Nate Thompson, and Mathieu Perreault all signed elsewhere as UFAs (Lewis with the Calgary Flames, Thompson with the Philadelphia Flyers, and Perreault with the Canadiens.)
One has to think — based on Maurice’s love for veterans — that the 32-year-old Nash will be the fourth-line centre. However, he may be challenged by the 21-year-old Gustafsson, who is fresh off a strong season with the Moose in which he was named their MVP with 19 points in 22 games.
Regarding the rest, it’s tough to determine who has the inside track: it may come down to who has the best camp or whose skill-set fits the best.
Declan Schroeder is a 27-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.