The Central is a stacked division, but if you had to pick the weakest team, probably you’d pick the Winnipeg Jets. It’s hard to discount a team that just picked an elite talent like Patrik Laine in the draft, but they’re still probably a couple years away from competing. Here to tell us more about the team is Philip Iver:
1. What kind of a role will Patrik Laine get this season? What are you expecting offensively from the rookie?
So far as Laine is concerned, Jets fans have a nice and easy bar for success: Nikolaj Ehlers' 2015-16 rookie season.
This isn't trying to temper expectations of Laine, so much as it is consideration of context. For a team which just picked second overall, Winnipeg already has a good number of talented forward options. Blake Wheeler, Mark Scheifele, Bryan Little, Mathieu Perreault and the aforementioned Ehlers form a solid core, while Drew Stafford and new addition Shawn Matthias will inevitably slot in and contribute as well. Laine won't be asked to single-handedly carry the load. He'll "simply" need to be a piece of the top-six or even top-nine puzzle, a not insignificant ask for any player in their draft +1 year.
It's not as if Ehlers is some horrifically low bar, either. The ninth overall selection in 2014 scored 15 goals and 38 points over 72 games last season, skating to the tune of 02:18 PP ATOI and 16:06 ATOI overall. On the whole, head coach Paul Maurice let the kid play, accepting that there would be mistakes and an NHL learning curve along the way. I would expect PoMo to afford Laine the same opportunity. And if he cracks 40 points, all the better.
Having referenced power play time, I should mention that Winnipeg's PP was infuriatingly dreadful. This happened despite having those capable offensive forwards, and Dustin Byfuglien for good measure. But with all due respect to Scheifele, Stafford and Chris "Scoreburn" Thorburn, Laine may be the most natural goalscorer the Jets 2.0 have ever had. At the very least, another weapon for penalty killers to worry about can't hurt, right? Asking him to replicate Andrew Ladd's 19 power play points in 2014-15 may be a bit much to start, but Ehlers and his 11 PPP again make for an achievable benchmark.
2. Most would say Connor Hellebuyck is the most talented goalie in the Jets' system, but will he actually be given a chance to start, given that the two others have one-way contracts?
Let's put the variables of training camp performance and injury aside. Going by what we saw last season and what is expected moving forward, there's no question that Connor Hellebuyck should be on Winnipeg's roster in 2016-17. While his NHL debut wasn't perfect and he did fade somewhat over time, it's clear by this point that Helle is beyond the AHL. Generally speaking, i'm a fan of overripening prospects. But if the Manitoba Moose are anywhere near as terrible as they were in 2015-16, they're asking for Hellebuyck to be overworked, develop bad habits, or both. Even if the Moose are a good team, from a developmental standpoint, it's time (this would also allow fellow goaltending prospect Eric Comrie a more prominent role of his own).
For an organization not exactly known for its spendthrift ways, the Winnipeg Jets aren't afraid to throw one-way money to the AHL every now and again. Jay Harrison and Thomas Raffl could speak to this last season, and Peter Budaj the year before that. Pavelec isn't going anywhere, but Hutchinson's contract is in a nice sweet spot. It's large and long enough where i'm hard-pressed to imagine another team claiming him, but not so onerous that the organization won't bury it.
Unless Hellebuyck has a disasterous training camp, it would be near-impossible to portray a Pav/Hutch tandem as anything but an inferior, less-than-ideal lineup. After five years and counting, that should be a hard sell to even the most fervent Nolan Patrick fan.
3. The Jets are a young, developing team in a tough, win-now division. What are you hoping for in 2016-17? When would you like to see the Jets as a possible Cup contender?
Those sure are the million-dollar questions. Before directly addressing them, allow me to set more of the stage.
Andrew Ladd may be gone, but the team is going to have more young talent than they know what to do with. Training camp is set to be an absolute dogfight between players such as Chase De Leo, Nic Petan, Brendan Lemieux, Quinton Howden, Marko Dano, Joel Armia, etc. Even NCAA wunderkind Kyle Connor is no shoe-in for a spot on the Jets roster. This abundance of depth should make for a better team next season.
As your second question referenced, there is some uncertainty surrounding Winnipeg's goaltending. But the situation there is crystal clear compared to the ongoing Jacob Trouba situation. Given how fellow RFAs such as Rasmus Ristolainen, Johnny Gaudreau, Rickard Rakell and Hampus Lindholm also remain unsigned, the panic button hasn't been pressed... yet. I'm still banking on one of two resolutions: 1) Trouba is signed prior to opening night; or 2) Trouba is traded, but with defensive help as part of the return. And even if neither of those scenarios occur, it may simply prove an opportunity for underrated Jets prospect Josh Morrissey to show he's NHL ready. Even a Trouba-less Winnipeg isn't fated for disaster.
With all of that said, what are realistic hopes for 2016-17? Last year, 87 points was good enough for the Minnesota Wild to land the second wild card slot; the Winnipeg Jets had 78 points. What especially sunk Winnipeg in 2015-16 was porous goaltending and abysmal special teams. A full season of Connor Hellebuyck in at least a 1B role goes some of the way to addressing the former, while it'll be difficult for new assistant coach Jamie Kompon to make the special teams any worse. Combine Helle and at least somewhat improved special teams with greater depth than ever before, and there's no reason why the Jets shouldn't challenge for a playoff spot.
Of course, the competition isn't going to make things easy. Chicago lost its accumulated trade deadline depth and a Teuvo Teravainen to boot, but Brian Campbell solidifies their d-corps and they have internal options to fill the forward void. Colorado had their Patrick Roy problem fixed for them, Minnesota brought in a coaching upgrade of their own in Bruce Boudreau, and both made smart offseason roster moves. Dallas and Nashville received profoundly terrible goaltending last season, and still managed 109 and 96 points, respectively. Describing the Central Division is making me more pessimistic by the word, so i'm going to stop here, but you can hopefully understand why having a Connor Hellebuyck instead of a Michael Hutchinson is such a big deal.
So far as the cup contenders label goes, 2017-18 is the year I have circled. While I expect genuine playoff contention in 2016-17, it's the season after when the old guard will (or should) be properly surrounded by an entrenched young core. From there, we can only hope that years of strict adherence to draft and develop will result in a true and lasting "next man up" system. At least on paper, Winnipeg is well on its way to achieving this dream.