The Winnipeg Jets have always stressed the importance of their “draft and develop” strategy: that is, building a contender through patience, deft selection, and molding of promising youngsters into top talent rather than through finagling blockbuster trades for established elites.
Through the draft is how Jets’ general manager Kevin Cheveldayoff has transformed, in less than a decade, a terrible Atlanta Thrashers team — whose leadership was utterly incompetent at the draft table and incapable of building a winner — to a squad with more good players than he can afford to pay this summer.
“Chevy” has piloted the Jets through eight drafts since relocation and has often been an ace. With his ninth — the 2019 NHL Entry Draft — happening in just a week’s time, let’s rank his years from worst to best.
Wait a minute… how could the draft in which the Jets selected Nikolaj Ehlers with the ninth-overall selection be their worst?
While it’s undeniable the speedy, electrifying, and entertaining Ehlers — just one point shy of 200 through four full seasons — was a great selection, the reason the 2014 NHL Entry Draft in Philadelphia takes the bottom spot is because the Jets didn’t get much else of value. The seven players they selected that weren’t Ehlers have played a grand total of 13 games in the NHL.
Chase De Leo, racked up 107 points over three seasons for the Manitoba Moose but played just two for the Jets in 2015-16 and was traded last June to the Anaheim Ducks for Nic Kerdiles (that trade was a total disaster as Kerdiles played only three games for the Moose in 2018-19 and won’t return next season.)
Nelson Nogier, meanwhile, has played 11 games for the Jets and is a serviceable defensive defenseman at the AHL level but has been leapt over by Sami Niku and Tucker Poolman (much more on them later). A major shoulder injury wiped out most of Nogier’s sophomore season and profoundly damaged his organizational stock.
Jack Glover has played one AHL game and spent the rest of his time in the ECHL, Pavel Kraskovsky never left the KHL’s Lokomotiv Yaroslavl, and Matt Ustaski has played only 22 professional games at 25-years-old.
That leaves CJ Suess, who surprised in 2018 preseason and had a promising start to his Moose campaign with 12 points in 26 games before suffering a season-ending injury.
It’s not entirely clear how or if Suess fits in going forward (he is a pending RFA). He has upside, but at 25-years-old, his age is a mark against him.
Take this ranking with a huge grain of salt. It’s really too early to determine how beneficial a draft that happened just a year ago will ultimately turn out for a team down the line, but it takes spot seven for one main reason.
That reason is their lack of a first-round pick, which meant the draft will likely be less impactful than others. The Jets traded their first-rounder away for the first time in franchise history the February preceding the draft to get Paul Stastny from the St. Louis Blues, who was instrumental in the Jets’ run to the Western Conference Final. Unfortunately, despite best efforts, the Jets weren’t able to retain him for 2018-19.
Of the six players the Jets selected last year, it may be their mid-round picks — a pair of left-handed defensemen — that are the most promising. Declan Chisholm put up a career-high 48 points for the Peterborough Petes and Giovanni Vallati put up the same number for the Oshawa Generals in 2018-19.
David Gustafsson — the Jets’ highest pick at 60th-overall — is more of a role player who might get buried by flashier players, while Jared Moe and Austin Wong are both a few years away from turning pro as they are committed to the University of Minnesota and Harvard University, respectively. Back in January, we took a more detailed look at how the members of the 2018 draft class were doing with their respective clubs.
Like the 2018 draft, not enough time has elapsed to truly judge the impact the seven players the Jets chose in 2017 could one day have on the franchise. However, the reason this draft year ranks fairly low on our list is because it’s clear now the top two selections will be slow to provide the Jets with any return on investment.
Kristian Vesalainen, selected 24th overall, chose old comforts over new challenges when he decided to go back to the KHL’s Jokerit in his Helsinki hometown rather than gut it out in the AHL and adapt to the North American style of game.
Vesalainen came back to play 22 games for the Moose down the stretch after the KHL season wrapped up, but was clear his time on European big ice didn’t help his development and that he’d, by-and-large, wasted his season.
Since Vesalainen played less than 10 NHL games in 2018-19, the Jets still have him under contract for three years. However, he’s now a year behind and going to have to do the learning he should have done last season, next season.
Second-round selection Dylan Samberg, meanwhile, is the Jets’ best defensive prospect who has not turned pro. The 6-foot-4 Samberg has patrolled the blue line for the University of Minnesota-Duluth Bulldogs for the past two seasons and has been touted by DobberProspects as a “strong skating two-way defenseman” and “very mobile with the puck.” He’s also suited up for the USA in two World Junior Championships.
“The left-shot blue-liner has got plenty of size at 6-4 and 215 pounds, and makes life miserable for opponents,” wrote the Winnipeg Free Press’ Mike McIntyre back in February. “He’s also added a lot more offence this year, with five goals and five assists in 25 NCAA Division 1 games this season after putting up one goal and 12 assists in 42 games as a freshman,” (from ‘Samberg moves up list of prospects,’ Winnipeg Free Press, 02/22/19.)
You can bet the Jets were hoping Samberg would turn pro after back-to-back U.S. college hockey titles with the Bulldogs, but he has opted to return to the school team for the 2019-2020 season.
None of the six players chosen after Vesalainen and Samberg are anywhere near NHL-ready either. However, seventh-round pick Skyler McKenzie has proven intriguing; the spark plug impressed with his mix of speed, skill, and truculence in his rookie season with the Moose, recording eight goals and eight assists in 47 games.
Of the six players the Jets selected in 2012, it’s very likely only one of them will be with the organization by the time the draft rolls around later this month.
Of course, the Jets took Jacob Trouba — the Michigan-born defenseman who evolved into an elite, top-pairing blue-liner — with their ninth-overall pick, but he’s likely played his last for his draft team.
Related: The Case for Trading Jacob Trouba
Trouba was the first Jets draft pick to be NHL-ready nearly straight away, as he never played an AHL game and has spent his entire 408-game, six-season career with the squad.
He’s difficult to deal with on the ice, but also difficult to deal with off it. He held out in 2016, became the first player in team history to take the team to arbitration in 2018, and his unwillingness to sign long-term in Winnipeg has created a prolonged shaggy dog story that needs to end.
When Trouba is traded, Connor Hellebuyck — the big-bodied goaltender the Jets snagged 130th-overall — will be the last member of the 2012 draft class left standing.
Hellebuyck is the Jets’ first (but certainly not last) diamond in the rough, having compiled a 119-68-17 record, 2.65 goals against average (GAA), and .915 save percentage (SV%) over five seasons.
The other four picks are long gone and long forgotten. The biggest disappointment was Lukas Sutter, part of the legendary Sutter hockey clan. Sutter put up 59 points with the Saskatoon Blades the season prior to the Jets selecting him 39th overall but flopped completely. He re-entered the draft in 2014 and was chosen by the New York Rangers 200th-overall but never played an NHL game.
“Was Sutter was a big reach? Was his draft year an illusion? Is the issue to do with scouting error?” asked Arctic Ice Hockey’s Jacob Stoller back in 2014.
“Could something have been done to better support the player? Whatever the case, Lukas Sutter is Chevy’s first high profile bust,” Stoller summed up.
The Jets have gotten good long-term value from the 2013 NHL Entry Draft, in which they made a whopping 10 selections.
With their first-rounder, they selected Josh Morrissey, who plays a stalwart top-pairing, shutdown role. Morrissey pushed his game to new heights in 2018-19, putting up five more points (31) than he did in 2017-18 despite appearing in 22 fewer games, although he was playing a career-high 22:24 per game.
Morrissey bet on himself by signing a two-year bridge deal rather than a long-term contract when his entry-level deal expired in 2018 and is poised to cash in big next summer.
The Jets also snagged a pair from U.S. colleges; intelligent forward Andrew Copp at 104th-overall and defender Tucker Poolman at 127th. Copp proved himself a play-driving centre last season, and Poolman had an excellent (but injury-plagued) 2018-19 campaign for the Moose and should get a long look for full-time NHL work come fall.
JC Lipon is still with the organization too; although he’s likely a career minor-leaguer, the Moose alternate captain bolsters the AHL squad with a feisty, hard-nosed play style.
The draft class also features some highly-touted players who didn’t pan out; most notably, Nic Petan. The B.C. product had a myriad of chances to make his mark, but was constantly leapt over by other prospects and could never translate his creativity, playmaking skills, and power play prowess into NHL success. The Jets finally ended the Petan saga when they traded him to the Toronto Maple Leafs for Par Lindholm in February.
Eric Comrie, similarly, was once considered the netminder of the future, but like Petan, has been supplanted by others; first by Connor Hellebuyck, and, more recently, by Laurent Brossoit. Now nearly 24 with just five NHL games under his belt, it’s tough to see any future for Comrie in Winnipeg.
Overall, however, the 2013 draft was pretty good for the Jets; everyone but Marcus Karlstrom at least played in the organization.
With two generational scorers — Auston Matthews and Patrik Laine — projected to go first and second overall in 2016, the Jets were presented with a no-lose situation when they leapt to second from seventh in the draft lottery. Their good fortune brought the latter — a Finnish phenom with a laser shot — to town.
Three seasons later, Laine’s scored 110 goals and notched 74 assists; his feats over his young career include capturing the longest point streak by a teenager in NHL history and scoring five goals in a single game.
Although he struggled mightily through much of last season, he also showed hints of becoming a more well-rounded player when he became “Patrik the Playmaker” for a time on the top line with Scheifele and Blake Wheeler. He’s still only 21, and only an elite few have accomplished what he has by that tender age.
A late round pick that may turn out to be a steal is Mikhail Berdin. The flashy and enigmatic Russian goaltender — selected 157th-overall — has insane puck-handling skills and was lights out for the Moose in 2018-19. He posted a 12-11-0 record with a 2.34 GAA, .927 SV%, and a pair of shutouts, raising his stock dramatically in the process. With Comrie likely on his way out the door, the “Birdman” looks set to be the Moose starter next season.
One pick that’s still controversial is Logan Stanley. Many have accused the Jets of reaching in selecting the towering defenseman 18th overall and see him as having a high probability of being a bust —”tall and that’s all.”
The beginning of Stanley’s rookie 2018-19 campaign with the Moose was undeniably rough; his lack of foot speed was readily apparent. However, his game grew as the season went on and he was given plenty of opportunities on special teams and ice time galore as the team was decimated by injuries and call-ups. He ended up appearing in all but three games, leading the Moose rookies in points with 19, and capturing the team’s rookie of the year award.
Whether Stanley will make the jump to the NHL at some point, however, is still a question mark bigger than his frame.
The fact the Jets’ inaugural NHL Entry Draft is number two and not number one is a testament to how adept a drafter Cheveldayoff truly is.
Less than a month after True North Sports & Entertainment officially announced they’d purchased the Thrashers, the newly-minted GM went off the board and selected Mark Scheifele with his first-ever pick. There was much gnashing of teeth as Sean Couturier seemed the logical choice at number seven.
History vindicates Cheveldayoff’s choice; Scheifele has become a core member of the Jets’ leadership crew and has blossomed into a bonafide superstar with a tremendous shot, unmatched work ethic, and commitment to continual improvement. He’s got 371 points in 448 career games.
Cheveldayoff’s second-ever pick was similarly successful: he took truculent, hard-checking face-off specialist Adam Lowry. Lowry, like Scheifele, has been a key contributor to the Jets’ success over the past two seasons especially.
The trend did not continue with Cheveldayoff’s final five selections thereafter, however. The players selected — Brennan Serville, Zach Yuen, Austen Brassard, Jason Kasdorf, and Aaron Harstad, combined to play in only one NHL game (it was goaltender Kasdorf, who made a start for the Buffalo Sabres in 2015-16 after he was sent there as part of the Evander Kane trade.)
However, the fact Cheveldayoff had the guts to go off the board with his first-ever pick — an incredible decision, in hindsight — and that his first two picks are his teams’ best centres to this day, gives the 2011 draft the second spot in our rankings.
From top to bottom, the 2015 draft is the Jets’ very best. THW’s own Rob Mahon summed it up nicely in a piece he penned last summer:
“If you want a case study on how to hit a draft out of the park, you look to the Winnipeg Jets. And if you want to see the finest example of their work, you look at the 2015 NHL draft.”
The Jets’ first pick was a harbinger that things would go well for them; the Boston Bruins, possessing picks 14 through 16, inexplicably chose against selecting Kyle Connor with any of them. The Jets were surprised the University of Michigan product was even available at 17th-overall, but happily took him.
Connor adapted to the NHL game with a rocket ship’s pace; he scored 31 goals in his first full season, put up 34 more in 2018-19, and has quickly become a consistently dangerous, play-driving, top-six sniper. He’s going to be a very rich man this summer.
Jack Roslovic, meanwhile, hasn’t progressed as rapidly as Connor, and it recently came out that he fired his agent and isn’t so chuffed with playing mostly a bottom-six role. Indeed, 2018-19 was a roller coaster for Roslovic, who went from a scoring a hat trick during his time on the second line to being scratched in favour of Matt Hendricks less than two months later.
The crafty Columbus native is still young, though, and possesses the lethal shot and explosiveness to one day be an impactful top-six forward.
The 2015 draft also solidified the Jets’ reputation as the kings of finding studs in late rounds. Mason Appleton, chosen 168th, registered 66 points with the Moose in 2017-18 and was named the AHL’s outstanding rookie in the process. In 2018-19, he played 35 games with the Jets, but was a casualty of the Jets’ deadline day moves and was sent back down. He proved to be a quick study, however, and should be a full-time Jet next season.
Sami Niku also captured some AHL hardware during his rookie season. He was named the AHL’s Outstanding Defenseman for recording 16 goals, 38 points, and a plus-17 rating.
Niku played 30 games for the Jets in 2018-19. Although he struggled at times and played a sheltered role, the puck-moving, slick-skating Finn cut his teeth and, like Poolman and Appleton, should get more work come fall. His ability to quarterback a power play is an asset the Jets must use.
Jansen Harkins and Michael Spacek, meanwhile, both established new career-highs in points with the 2018-19 Moose and were integral to the team’s rise from dead-last at Christmas to just two points short of a Calder Cup Playoff spot. They’re not in the long-term plans to Appleton and Niku’s extent, but could definitely be used as either trade chips or injury replacements.
When you add it all up, it’s no secret why the 2015 draft is the most important to the Jets’ present and future. Mahon summed it up this way.
“Winnipeg absolutely killed it at this draft. Every pick was lauded at the time as a shrewd choice, and they picked up many players who slipped. It was a banner moment for the franchise and a huge part of their enviable depth today.”