Although the Winnipeg Jets got their two restricted free agent stars in Kyle Connor and Patrik Laine inked over the weekend, there is still much uncertainly swirling around the team just a day before they take on the New York Rangers in the Big Apple to begin their 2019-20 season.
The Jets, who were already surrounded by question marks, have seen the uncertainty around their team go up a few more degrees due to a number of rather recent developments.
Will Copp Succeed in Increased Role?
Despite your opinion on his suitability for the role or whether he really belongs there, Bryan Little was all set to be the Jets’ second line centre once again.
However, a reckless, away-from-the-play headshot delivered by the Minnesota Wild’s Luke Kunin on Sunday has sidelined the veteran of 836 games indefinitely with a concussion. Head coach Paul Maurice called it a “horses—t hit,” but Kunin was spared any supplemental discipline.
Andrew Copp will play in the position in Little’s stead and will skate between Connor and Laine. Copp, 25, matched his current age in points last season and emerged as a true play-driver and shutdown guy when he centred a terrific fourth line.
Whether he’ll be able to find offensive success against stiffer competition is yet to be seen, but did have a strong preseason and shouldn’t lack motivation. He’s been presented early opportunity to bolster his stock for when his bridge deal, which he signed in July, expires after 2020-21.
“It should be a good opportunity to play with two of the best offensive players in the league, hopefully we can find some chemistry right away,” Copp said Tuesday. “Any time you get to play as many minutes as possible, with two great players, it’s exciting. Hopefully it shows more of my offensive capabilities and like I said, find chemistry quickly and get going right away.”Andrew Copp on being promoted to second line centre
If they don’t find the chemistry Copp mentioned, Jack Roslovic could also get a chance to fulfill the role.
What to Do with the D?
With a number of high-profile departures over the summer, the Jets’ d-corp was one of their biggest question marks going into preseason, and now it’s an even bigger one.
Nathan Beaulieu, who signed a one-year deal this summer and was expected to be a part of the opening-night top-six, is out for at least a month with an upper-body injury he sustained against the Wild.
If that wasn’t bad enough, the slick-skating Sami Niku has also been nursing a nagging groin injury for some time and won’t be available to the big club right away. Niku was sent down to the Manitoba Moose Tuesday for more conditioning after being limited to one preseason tilt.
The above list doesn’t inspire much confidence: Josh Morrissey is the only one who can accurately be described as “top four” and will be depended on in a big way. The shutdown d-man was named an alternate captain on Tuesday.
The Jets have tried to shore things up a bit by claiming 24-year-old Carl Dahlstrom off waivers from the Chicago Blackhawks, but that signing won’t do much to change the overall picture, which isn’t looking like a masterpiece.
Based on the variability of defensive pairings at Tuesday’s practice, the Jets’ blue line will be quite in flux in the season’s early games. Maurice will likely make liberal use of his line blender as he tries to make the best mix out of a motley crew.
How Many Games Will Heinola Play?
One question not many thought would need to be asked in October is how many NHL games Ville Heinola will play.
The 2019 first-round pick made the team against all odds thanks to his outstanding training camp, in which he looked well beyond his years in just about every conceivable way.
If Heinola plays more than nine games, it’ll use up a year of his entry-level contract. With Beaulieu’s injury and Niku’s demotion, the Jets may not have much of a choice but to keep the lefty Finn around.
Heinola — who may be one of those rare players who’s NHL-ready at 18 — has the chance to make an even bigger impression than he did in his five preseason games.
Is Byfuglien Coming Back?
Another reason the Jets may have to keep Heinola around is that their big man on the blue line’s still at home and may never return to the rink.
Dustin Byfuglien, who the Jets were set to rely on more than ever this season, has been on a leave of absence since the middle of September and is contemplating hanging up his skates for good.
There’s no indication of when the 34-year-old might make up his mind — it could be tomorrow, it could be a month from now — and GM Kevin Cheveldayoff has described the situation several times as “status quo.”
The sooner Byfuglien’s comes, the better. If he does retire, it will free up nearly $8 million in cap space Cheveldayoff can use to add another veteran defenseman, which he failed to do in the offseason despite an obvious need. This would likely necessitate a trade: Byfuglien didn’t spring the news until the eleventh hour, well after all the high profile d-targets — Jake Gardiner, Kevin Shattenkirk, and others — had signed elsewhere and Ben Chiarot and Tyler Myers had departed for greener pastures.
Indeed, things will be uncertain as the Jets embark on their 82-game grind — even more uncertain than things seemed they’d be a few weeks ago — due to all these recent developments.
The only way to see how they handle all the adversity will be to watch. The Jets’ four-game season-opening road trip will give a good early indication of what they’re made of.
Declan Schroeder is a 26-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.