Jets Inching Closer to Take Off
News that defenceman Dustin Byfuglien had signed a five-year contract extension with the Winnipeg Jets was met with almost universal approval.
The 30-year old became the first significant free agent to re-up in Manitoba, offering hope that the Jets can not only retain talent, but perhaps attract it too.
And while the organisation currently sits at the foot of the Central Division, the silver lining Winnipeg is weaving has begun to shine a little brighter at each turn.
General Manager Kevin Cheveldayoff held on to his #1 defenceman without paying horrendously over the odds or offering term which may have risked becoming unpalatable as the Minnesota native got older.
Byfuglien would have been as close to impossible to replace as any player comes in today’s NHL, making the deal a virtual no brainer in the end; and along side Tyler Myers, Jacob Trouba and Tobias Enstrom, Byfuglien helps give Winnipeg a solid top four with top defensive prospect Josh Morrissey also in the pipeline.
Further positive signs have emanated from the Jets goal crease, where Connor Hellebuyck has shown the kind of ability that might finally be able to put the organisations goaltending woes to rest.
Ondrej Pavelec, the clubs often maligned #1 goaltender, remains on the shelf and will become an unrestricted free agent in 2017 while 22-year old Hellebuyck stands to lead a strong trio which will also likely comprise of Michael Hutchinson (who really is better than this seasons numbers suggest) and top prospect Eric Comrie.
Offensively, Blake Wheeler and Bryan Little remain the clubs spearhead and at 29 and 28 respectively have good year left in them, while Mathieu Perreault continues to remain somewhat underrated.
Young centres Mark Scheifele and Adam Lowry, both 22 and both restricted free agents this summer, are showing signs of real promise down the middle and Drew Stafford, signed through to 2017, remains a more than useful NHL winger.
The clubs greatest boon at forward might be it’s exciting group of youngsters. Even without considering Scheifele and Lowry, the Jets boast an impressive group of prospects, including 19-year old winger Nikolaj Ehlers, an early runner for the Calder Trophy, Brendan Lemieux, Kyle Connor and Nic Petan.
And all this comes without mentioning current club Captain Andrew Ladd.
A two time Stanley Cup winner, Ladd’s time in Winnipeg appears to be coming to a close, as the 30-year old heads toward unrestricted free agency this July.
It seems unlikely the Jets can fit the former Chicago Blackhawks forward and Byfuglien in to their pay structure when they also have a number of key restricted free agents to forge new deals with over the next 18 months. Thus, it appears Ladd will be moved prior to the trade deadline at the end of this month.
The Maple Ridge, British Columbia native has become something of a lightning rod for the club’s failure this term, in part due to his own drop in play after putting up a career best 62 points last season (despite playing with a hernia).
Perhaps moving Ladd and installing a new Captain is as much a symbolic change for the Jets as anything. Some way of turning over a new leaf after five seasons in Manitoba, which has yielded just one playoff appearance – which saw the club swept by Anaheim.
Ladd could undoubtedly yield some kind of useful return, via picks or prospects if nothing else, helping a Jets team essentially out of the race this year but in a good place moving forward.
Perhaps the best signs for the future – as well as the most frustrating part of this season – is that, despite their position in the standings, the Jets have not been flat out bad this season by any means.
At even strength 5v5, they are a top ten team in Corsi For (51.7%) and, as noted, have seen significantly improved fortunes in previously problematic areas such as goaltending.
Offensively they have taken a tumble however, after scoring 230 goals last season they are on pace for around 214 this year – not a particularly huge change in simple terms, but on the ice that can be the difference between winning a close game, or at least earning a loser point by taking it to overtime and/or a shootout.
Part of the problem is the clubs stuttering powerplay (17.1%, 25th overall) and faltering penalty kill (77%, 27th overall), have contributed to falling offensive numbers while the club ships nearly three goals per game. In the ultra competitive Central Division that’s not really a recipe for success.
Perhaps this step back ultimately helps the Jets take two steps forward though, with a bevy of good prospects available at this summer’s draft the thought of adding a Matt Tkachuck, Patrick Laine or even Auston Matthews to a line up already boasting some top young talent further highlights the silver lining an otherwise cloudy season carries.
The Jets have moved from a team seemingly loathed to make tough decisions and occasionally accused of being ‘soft’ on some issues (Byfuglien’s conditioning previously being one of them), to one with a bright future under a coach who might still be seen as underrated in many ways.
Winnipeg wanted its team back, it got it. And maybe for the first time it’s on the path to something greater.