For almost their entire existence, the Winnipeg Jets have been the blueprint for drafting and developing in the NHL. Their first round picks have been almost universal hits and their later picks have frequently struck gold as well.
With that in mind, Winnipeg often ranks at or near the top of the league’s prospect systems according to most experts. Even with their first rounders largely graduated to the NHL now, they still retain a deep, exciting prospect pool.
It’s true the pool lacks the flair and excitement of earlier years, where names like Kyle Connor and Jack Roslovic stood out as future studs. That future has arrived for them already. This list will focus on the future for five new talents.
The lengthy list of graduated prospects in Winnipeg means the Jets are now among the top home-grown teams in the NHL. It also means they’re picking later in the draft than usual. Yet their top-five prospects are still loaded with talent.
Last year’s list of the top-four prospects was one of the most intently debated pieces I’ve personally written. Many readers felt certain prospects should be elevated over others, and that, to me, was one of the biggest signs of the Jets drafting well. There were so many great prospects, some studs were bound to miss the list.
This year we’ve expanded the list to five. Criteria included their talent ceiling and floor, their NHL readiness, and their fit within the organization. One is a holdover from last year’s list.
Prospects, by the way, include anyone with under 30 games of NHL experience. Jack Roslovic would’ve been the top prospect on this list, but he just misses the cut with 32 total games played. Fan favourite Nic Petan also misses out.
Before the list officially begins, we award an honorable mention, for the second year in a row, to Brendan Lemieux. Lemieux’s shot and grit seem to have him NHL ready, but his overall ceiling puts him just outside the list.
Another honorable mention goes to Logan Stanley. Stanley falls off of last year’s list not because of anything he did wrong. He had an excellent final season of junior. His drop is more indicative of other prospect’s rise over the past year.
5: Tucker Poolman
If NHL-readiness is a criteria, there may not be a more NHL-ready prospect in the Jets organization than Tucker Poolman. Poolman already has 24 NHL games under his belt, and as such just makes the cut to be a prospect.
As one of the older players here, it’s no surprise Poolman would be more mature. His play in his first NHL stint surprised even his staunchest supporters. The offense wasn’t there, but based on his advanced stats the puck movement and decision making were.
Poolman boasts pro size, a sneaky shot, and good instincts, along with underrated nastiness. There’s still a logjam on the Jets right side, but as soon as it unjams, he’s due for a much bigger chunk of ice time.
What’s keeping Poolman from being higher on this list is his ceiling. He may never be more than a 5-6 defender. At the moment, the Jets are so loaded on the right side on defense that he’s not filling the organization’s most pressing need either.
Neither of these things is his fault, however, and Poolman looks to be another draft day home run for Winnipeg. He easily slides into the top five prospects.
4: Mason Appleton
Certainly, no prospect has shot up the Jets depth chart faster than Appleton. He went from an overager in the USHL and a longshot to ever crack the big lineup to the Manitoba Moose’s leading scorer last year.
Much like Poolman, Appleton is mature and talented and has pro-size. It will be interesting to see how he adjusts to the speed of the NHL, but speed wasn’t holding him back in the AHL, so there’s no real cause for concern.
With good vision, a deceptive release, and that power forward frame of his, Appleton could be in the NHL in a bottom six role by the end of the year. He’s likely destined to start in the AHL again, but how long he’ll stay there is anyone’s guess.
Once again, his overall ceiling keeps him from being higher on this list. As an older prospect, it’s not certain how much more room to grow Appleton has. Even if he taps out as a third liner, however, he’s another feather in the Jets’ cap.
3: Dylan Samberg
NHL readiness holds Samberg back here, but as far as his ceiling goes, he may have the brightest future of any Jets prospect. His first year in the NCAA was hugely promising.
True, the big gaudy numbers of former Jets prospects weren’t there, but Samberg was in the NCAA and playing a regular role on a championship team at just 19. To come straight from Minnesota High School to Minnesota-Duluth and be a regular is no small feat.
UMD probably doesn’t win that game without WPG Jets prospect Dylan Samberg on the backend he was a Viking out there!
— Dusten Braaksma (@Braaksma_D14) April 6, 2018
At the World Juniors, playing among his peers, Samberg had a chance to play an even bigger role and shine more offensively. He did so, logging huge minutes for the United States and posting four points in seven games. For perspective, that’s the same stat line Josh Morrissey had his second year at the tournament on the loaded 2015 team Canada.
But anyone who watched him play at the World Juniors, or at Minnesota-Duluth for that matter, saw another side to Samberg’s game, the one he’s best known for. Samberg is a monster hitter and a terror to play against in his own zone.
Samberg is a throwback body checker. He stands 6-foot-3 but somehow plays bigger. He’s probably the hardest hitter in the Jets prospect system, and his timing is only getting better. Unlike many physical blueliners of a bygone age, however, he can skate fluidly and move the puck efficiently.
Samberg will return to the World Juniors this year and almost certainly play an even bigger role for the U.S. this time. His role at Minnesota-Duluth will expand as well, though the Bulldogs are graduating only one senior defenseman.
Samberg’s ceiling could potentially be the highest of any prospect on this list. He can play the game however you like, and play it well, and seems a big part of the Jets future on defense. His ETA is at least another year, however, so he sits at number three.
2: Kristian Vesalainen
Kristian Vesalainen is the only returning player from last year’s list. He sat at number three last year and, with the departure to the NHL of Roslovic and Connor, has climbed to number two.
It’s not just the graduation of other players to the big leagues that has bumped him up, however. Vesalainen obliterated the Finnish elite league last year, posting numbers among the best ever for his age and winning a championship.
From an offensive standpoint, Vesalainen has it all. The size every coach covets in a power forward, the hands of a skilled player and the puck protection skills of one are all there. And look at that shot from the top of the circle. Remind you of anyone?
As far as his offense is concerned, there seems to be nothing Vesalainen doesn’t do well. If the 2017 draft were re-held today, there’s no chance he’d still be around at #24 when the Jets picked him.
You could watch highlights of this kid all day. He moves laterally incredibly well for a big man and shields the puck with his body like a far more experienced player. His defensive awareness needs work, and he could need AHL seasoning, but overall he’s a blue-chip prospect.
So if Vesalainen is that far along the development curve and that offensively adept, who could possibly be ahead of him? Well, this player wasn’t on last year’s list and in hindsight that seems like a big mistake.
1: Sami Niku
There’s not much to write about Niku’s first season in the AHL that hasn’t been written but in case you missed it: he put up 54 points in 76 games, was named AHL defenseman of the year as a rookie, and scored his first NHL goal in his first game.
Niku ticks all the boxes as a top prospect. He’s ready for the NHL right now. His game fits perfectly with what the Jets need. He’s a prototypical modern defenseman, and if he keeps developing like this the sky is the limit. He’s an ideal prospect.
Niku is about as unlikely of a prospect as it gets as a seventh-round pick, but now he seems destined for the biggest of stages. With openings on the left side on the Jets blue line, Niku is all but guaranteed to get NHL time this year.
There will be hiccups. Niku is still young, and fairly slender. Much like former Jet Toby Enstrom, he may at times get bullied in his own zone. His puck movement, however, will be a huge part of the Jets attack.
The Jets have never had a prospect take to the AHL as quickly as Sami Niku. He plays exactly the type of game modern defenders are expected to play. He’s just what the doctor ordered in Winnipeg, and right now he is the Jets top prospect.