The Winnipeg Jets are undeniably a good team. That much is clear following a season in which they had been at least dark-horse favorites to come out of the Western Conference at the start.
Nevertheless, the Jets will be in tough to get another 100-point season under their belts in 2019-20 after just missing out on reaching the milestone this past season. And that’s not at all in reference to unsubstantiated rumors of a rift in the Jets dressing room, talk Mark Scheifele was all too quick and justified in calling malarkey… or another not-as-offensive word than the one he actually used. Geez Scheifele, think of the children and their innocent ears.
In any case, the fact of the matter is it doesn’t matter if there are actually problems in the dressing room, relatively speaking. Right now, the Jets’ focus should be on more pressing matters, because any dirty laundry they’ve got to air out pales in significance relative to what’s actually going on in front of the dressing room door for everyone to see. Here are the top three issues the Jets face heading into next season:
3. Which Hellebuyck Will Show Up?
At the end of the day, goalie Connor Hellebuyck had an okay season. In spite of a middle-of-the-road stats line (2.90 goals-against average, .913 save percentage), he still was still 34-23-3. What’s truly disappointing is how his previous season was so stellar.
In 2017-18, Hellebuyck went 44-11-9 with a 2.36 GAA and a .924 save percentage, which was actually the tenth-best in the league among goalies who played 25 or more games. Those are elite numbers… elite numbers that gave Hellebuyck a degree of leverage negotiating his current deal, which pays him an average wage of $6.167 million per season.
Everyone knows what Hellebuyck is capable of, for better or worse. If he’s able to replicate the success he had in 2017-18 moving forward and put this past campaign in the rearview mirror, great. He’ll actually end up being a huge bargain, compared to other No. 1 goalies.
If on the other hand Hellebuyck takes another step back and plays more like he did in 2016-17 when he was simply mediocre (26-19-4, 2.89 GAA, .907 save percentage)? Winnipeg, we have a problem. Hellebuyck is ranked as the No. 3 problem though, because if 2018-19 is as bad as it gets for the goalie moving forward, having a goalie who can win 34 games every season is a decent problem to have. Plus, there are way bigger fish to fry.
2. A Little Thing Called the Cap
The good news is the Jets currently have the lowest salary-cap hit of all 31 teams at $63.9 million. The bad news? Six more roster spots still need to be filled, based on the make-up of the team today.
The worse news? Two of those players are Patrik Laine and Kyle Connor, who could theoretically eat up nearly all of the $17.6 million the Jets have left under the $81.5 million salary cap for next season… if Carolina Hurricanes forward Sebastian Aho’s offer-sheet experience with the Montreal Canadiens is anything to go by, anyway.
Therein lies the worst news of all. The Jets may find themselves incapable of keeping two of their top four scorers from last season. And the fifth player on that list? He’s already gone.
1. A Makeshift Defense Without Trouba
If we’re being honest Jets fans probably won’t miss Ben Chiarot, who signed with the Montreal Canadiens as a free agent, all that much. They could probably have also taken or left Tyler Myers, who just left himself for the Vancouver Canucks.
What is unrealistic is to assume Neal Pionk, the top piece the Jets got in exchange for Jacob Trouba, can even begin to replace his predecessor. Pionk can’t, in spite of the modestly impressive point totals he’s posted in his career so far. The numbers say Pionk is a third-pairing defenseman. Trouba is meanwhile No.1-defenseman caliber.
It’s not the end of the world or anything like that, because Josh Morrissey is borderline-elite in his own right and Dustin Byfuglien is back, albeit for his going-to-turn-35-years-old season. With names like Sami Niku and Tucker Poolman hoping to prove themselves, options remain open, but that’s just it: If they’re looking to prove themselves, they are also still unproven. There are no guarantees they’ll be able to hold the fort.
So, what the Jets need is a short-term blue-line solution. They must find a way to bridge the gap between now and when the Jets’ top defensive prospects are ready. They must get back to 100-point territory so they can keep their window to contend as open as possible. However, with limited salary-cap space and few quality free-agent options left to boot, general manager Kevin Cheveldayoff’s hands are seemingly tied together, pointing upward on a prayer that Hellebuyck starts playing like an all-world goalie again.
That leaves the trade market, with Nikolaj Ehlers reportedly being shopped. One sensical argument would be the Jets can’t win a deal involving Ehlers, but a big contract, whether it’s Dmitry Kulikov, Bryan Little or Mathieu Perreault, has got to go to alleviate the salary-cap crunch, the pressure on Hellebuyck and the rest of the defense all in one fell swoop… Hell, even if only to correct that supposed lack of chemistry in the dressing room. You’ve got to mix things up, right? The Jets do anyway, because heading into next season without any improvements seemingly spells disaster.