With seemingly little to no progress in contract discussions between the Winnipeg Jets and restricted free agent young guns Kyle Connor and Patrik Laine, the chances of one or both of them sitting out to start the 2019-20 regular season are becoming increasingly likely.
While we won’t dive into potential line combinations in this piece, (check out THW’s own Ryan Goethals’ recent article for that,) Connor and Laine’s absences mean players such as Jack Roslovic and Mathieu Perreault will jump to the top six. That, in turn, will leave a couple of bottom-six slots open and in need of filling.
That equals big and unexpected opportunities for players on the bubble in the Jets’ organization. While Connor and Laine quibble with Jets’ general manager Kevin Cheveldayoff about numbers in the tens of millions, there are players on the fringes with modest contracts who would love just to be in the NHL. There are a few candidates who should be extra motivated to grab one of the spots on the big club that may be open due to the summer’s developments, or lack thereof.
As a note before we begin, Mason Appleton and Kristian Vesalainen are not included on this list, as the author expects them to be on the Jets to begin the season whether Connor and Laine sign new deals in time or not.
The Jets’ most recent addition couldn’t have picked a better time to ink a one-year deal with the team.
Gabriel Bourque, the veteran of eight NHL seasons, who the Jets acquired on Aug. 26, played the past two seasons with the Colorado Avalanche and has suited up for 361 NHL games since being drafted 132nd overall in 2009.
Beginning the season in the AHL would be a step back, career-wise, for Bourque, a hard forechecker and speedy winger who can play both sides of centre. He should have plenty of motivation to stick with the big squad.
Bourque is a journeyman and has recorded a modest 97 points in his career. However, he could be a boon to the Jets in other ways, including on the penalty kill, as The Athletic’s Murat Ates noted in the wake of the signing. He was a mainstay on the Avalanche’s PK, averaging 2:30 of PK time on ice last season.
His time on the penalty kill, in addition to his overall experience, may give him the inside track despite not being historically effective during even-strength play.
Another potentially compelling candidate is Logan Shaw.
After the Jets signed Shaw to a one-year, two-way contract last November, the Nova Scotian had a banner year for the Manitoba Moose, leading the team with 27 goals in 63 games and finishing second with 46 points. 13 of his goals came on the power play.
Shaw, 26 and selected in the third round of the 2011 NHL Entry Draft, has a lot going for him: he uses his 6-foot-3, 210-pound frame to his advantage along the boards and in front, isn’t afraid to drive the net, and can get up to top speed quickly.
Shaw also possesses good instincts and overall awareness: the author noted, during the many Manitoba Moose games he attended in 2018-19, Shaw’s propensity to be in the perfect place at the perfect time, leading to chances and goals on the rebound or after turnovers.
Shaw, who signed a one-year deal in May, has suited up for 180 career NHL games with the Florida Panthers, Anaheim Ducks, and Montreal Canadiens. He’s familiar with the pro game and would bring responsibility and some experience to a checking line; any offensive production he could provide would be a nice bonus.
The Jets cast a wide international net this offseason in hopes of snagging some players who can contribute while being paid bargain-basement salaries. One such player was Joona Luoto.
While it’s still more likely he begins with the Moose, it’s not unimaginable that Luoto — the 21-year-old Finn the Jets signed in mid-June — could press for a roster spot in the first year of his three-year contract.
It’s no secret the Jets like their Finns: Winnipeg’s even been called “Finnipeg” after the Jets chose two more Finnish players in the 2019 NHL Entry Draft, bringing the total number with the organization to seven.
A right-shooting left-winger, Luoto spent the past three seasons with Tappara Tampere of the SM-liiga, recording 38 points in that time.
“Luoto clearly has some upside, demonstrating a gritty, hard-charging performance over four days on the ice that culminated with the lone goal for Team White in Friday’s one-hour scrimmage at Bell MTS Iceplex,” the Winnipeg Free Press’ Jason Bell wrote in late-June. “He’s got plenty of speed and wasn’t hesitant to engage physically in a few battles along the wall, with the Jets brass watching intently from behind the glass.”From ‘Luoto stands out amongst Finnish skaters,’ Winnipeg Free Press, 06/28/19.
At 34-years-old, Mark Letestu will be looking to revitalize his NHL career — he spent nearly the entire 2018-19 season with the AHL’s Cleveland Monsters, playing just two games for the Columbus Blue Jackets.
Letestu, acquired by the Jets during Free Agent Frenzy, is the most experienced of any on this list by far, having played 560 games for the Pittsburgh Penguins, Edmonton Oilers, and Blue Jackets.
However, a spot on the Jets’ opening-night roster won’t come easily for the Albertan — he’s definitely on the outside looking in. He’s a centre, and the spots left vacant will be spots on the wing. The Jets are set up the middle with Mark Scheifele, Brian Little, Adam Lowry, and Andrew Copp.
Letestu has won 52.2 percent of his career face-offs but won’t usurp any of them. He will be in tough to supplant someone younger with more potential upside such as Bourque, Shaw, and Luoto.
Another player with an outside shot is left-winger CJ Suess. A strong and sturdy player, Suess has playmaking and goal-scoring ability which he showed during four years with Minnesota State U and during the preseason last September.
The fifth-round 2014 pick have a better shot at cracking the Jets’ roster this season if he was healthy in 2018-19 — after being sent to the Moose, playing a top-line role, and tallying 12 points in his first 26 games, he broke his leg during a December game against the Toronto Marlies and missed the rest of the season.
That makes him a definite a dark-horse, but he could enter himself more deeply into the conversation with a strong preseason.
Answers Coming Soon
We won’t have to wait long for the competition for bottom-six spots to get underway — the Jets’ preseason slate begins on Sept. 16 with a tilt against the Edmonton Oilers.
Of course, there’s still an outside chance Connor and/or and Laine will sign by then, rendering all this moot. However, it’s definitely something to keep your eye on as the Jets’ season-opener on Oct. 3 in the Big Apple creeps ever-closer.