The Vegas Golden Knights are this year’s NHL Cinderella story and that story continues onto the Stanley Cup Finals. Another underlying NHL narrative would be the rise of a new power in the Western Conference, the Winnipeg Jets. Since their move from Atlanta in 2011, the Jets missed the playoffs for all but one year (2014-2015). After many years of top-10 picks and shrewd trades by GM Kevin Chevaldayoff, the Jets finally established themselves as a young, dominant offensive team. The improved play of youngsters Patrick Laine, Mark Scheifele, Nikolaj Ehlers, Josh Morrisey, Jacob Trouba and Tyler Myers (just to name a few), has vaulted Winnipeg straight to the top of the NHL standings. Coach Paul Maurice has gone on record to say that this was one of the best teams he has ever coached, and they’re all locked into contracts for next year. So Winnipeg has one of the youngest rosters, that produced the 2nd highest amount of goals in the NHL this year, let in the 5th lowest amount of goals, had the 4th best power play and 5th penalty killing ratio in the league. They’re basically at the top of every major team category and, the scariest part is, they can continue to improve. With that said, does this team really have what it takes to be a contender next year? Let’s take a look at the factors that will make the Jets an NHL powerhouse next year.
Winnipeg Young Guns Continue to Grow
Over the last 7 years, the Jets have developed some of the most skilled young players in the NHL. The very first pick of the current Winnipeg Jets franchise in 2011 was Mark Scheifele at 7th overall. He has emerged as a number 1 center for the Jets and one of their most clutch players. However, Scheifele’s play in this year’s playoffs has truly set him apart as an elite offensive force in the NHL. His 14 goals in 17 games is the second best playoff goal production in the last 15 years. Expect Mark Scheifele to continue his rabid scoring success into next season, as the 24-year old pivot continues to grow his game.
On top of an electrifying franchise centerman, the Jets also have a huge franchise winger in 20-year old Patrick Laine. The young Finnish winger has taken the league by storm since the Jets made him the 2nd overall selection in the 2016 Draft. Over the past two years, Laine has put up a staggering 80 goals in 155 games. The only player to have scored more goals than Laine over that span of time is Alexander Ovechkin. It is insane to think that Laine could potentially reach 50 goals next year as a 3rd year pro at a time where scoring 40 goals is a big deal. He looks poised to take over the mantle of perennial Maurice Richard trophy winner for most goals scored in a season.
Then there’s Nikolaj Ehlers, who scored 29 goals and 60 points. Kyle Connor who put up 31 goals in his rookie season. Captain Blake Wheeler, who has continued his offensive resurgence of the last 2-3 years, put up a career-best 91 points. I can go on about how deep an offensive team the Jets are and shudder to think how much better than can become in time.
Enough about the offense though, what about the Jets’ future on the blueline? Well that seems covered as well. Rearguards Jacob Trouba (24), Tyler Myers (27) and Josh Morrissey (23) all improved this year. Trouba finally emerged out of Dustin Byfuglien’s shadow to become a very good top-4 D on the right side for Winnipeg. If ever the aging Byfuglien were to slow down in the coming years, Trouba would easily be able to take on the extra load.
Josh Morrissey absolutely exploded this year, as he vaulted up the Jets’ depth chart. He began the season on Winnipeg’s bottom pairing on the left hand side. Come the playoffs, he was playing on the top pairing with Byfuglien and logging close to 22 minutes per game. He showed significant offensive improvement, while also shoring up his defensive game. Needless to say, Winnipeg’s young guns can and will improve by next year. What is even more remarkable is that, even though the Jets are a very young team, there are other prospects that are going to be knocking on the door very soon.
NHL Ready Prospects Knocking on The Door
The Jets have many of their top youngsters already on the rosters, but most of those players were can’t miss top draft choices over the last 7 years. Due to the current NHL success of Laine, Scheifele et al., the Jets prospects don’t get as much attention as they should. However, this is about to change as early as next year. For example, Jack Roslovic, the 2015 25th overall pick, looks to a lock to develop into a top-six forward in the NHL. Although he was used sparingly by the Jets this season, that has more to do with the team’s depth than Roslovic’s talent. The 21-year old was an absolute force for the Jets’ AHL affiliate Manitoba Moose this year. He followed up a 48-point rookie campaign last year with 35 points in 32 games this year. His excellent play forced the Jets to call him up when injuries struck, and he produced adequately with 14 points in 31 games. Within the next year or two, I fully expect Roslovic to surpass current 2nd line center Bryan Little and cement his place in the top-6.
Another underrated prospect ready to make name for himself is Sami Niku. You won’t be asking who this young rearguard is for much longer, as he looks poised to make the Jets’ roster next year. The 21-year old Finnish defenseman was drafted in the 7th round (195th overall) in the 2015 draft. Although many believed he had the mobility of an NHL defenseman, many scouts questioned his defensive play. He silenced those critics in his rookie season for the AHL Manitoba Moose where he put up an incredible 54 points in 76 games. Finishing 2nd in scoring among defensemen, Niku even earned himself a late season call-up, where he scored a goal in his first game. Niku seems ready to take advantage of Winnipeg’s weak depth on the left-side of their defensive corps. He should be able to slot into the Jets’ third pairing for next year, but he could easily climb the ranks by seasons’ end.
Lastly, we have the 2016 18th overall pick, 6’7 defenseman Logan Stanley. Many scouts were afraid of drafting him any higher due to past failed “big man” picks like Jarred Tinordi and Jamie Oleksiak. However, the Jets saw an opportunity to continue adding physical, punishing D-men to their prospect pool. Stanley went on to prove his critics right by putting up a meager 17 points in 35 games in the OHL. Luckily for the big man, his team, the Windsor Spitfires, were hosting the Memorial Cup. Stanley stood out as a defensive force en route to a Memorial Cup victory. After being traded to the Kitchener Rangers prior to this season, Stanley showed signs of progression. He put up 42 points in 61 games during the regular season, while ramping it up in the OHL playoffs with 16 points in 19 games. Stanley, another left-handed defenseman, could be the Jets’ first call up next year if they run into injury trouble on the back-end. He has the size, positioning and skating to be effective in a sheltered role. He should top-out as a reliable top-4 defenseman, and everyone seems to be looking for one of those.
Kristian Vesalainen, the 24th overall pick of the 2017 NHL Draft, looks to be another promising young winger. He scores in similar ways to Nikolaj Ehlers, but, at 6’4 and 210lbs, plays with more of a physical edge. He was a force for Finland at the World Junior Championships this year, putting up 6 points in 5 games. He also looked great for an 18-year-old in the Finnish Liiga, putting up 39 points in 44 games. He projects as yet another top-6 forward for the Jets, and could make a case for a roster spot as early as this season. However, with the insane offensive depth the Jets currently possess, he could be better served playing an extra year in Finland. Needless to say, the present and future is extremely bright for the Winnipeg Jets.
Perennial Stanley Cup Contenders?
With many young players improving in the NHL and in other leagues, the Jets have become the modern day blueprint for NHL success. They have drafted well, they’ve patiently developed and they’ve steered away from risky and impulsive trades. Kevin Chevaldayoff should be commended for sticking to the plan and allowing a high-end nucleus of players to grow together. Many fans believe that the Jets will be met with a cap crunch soon, with players like Laine and Connor will be due hefty raises. However, Winnipeg has almost $20 million in cap space to ensure that this group will stay together for the long haul. It seems unlikely that they should be anywhere less than top-5 in next year’s standings. With the experience they acquired this spring, expect a hungrier, nastier and stronger Jets team this fall.