Central Division, Neal Pionk, Patrik Laine, Winnipeg Jets

Is the Jets Contending Window Shut?

It’s been a turbulent summer for the Winnipeg Jets, right at a moment where they’ve needed a good one perhaps more than ever. After a confidence-eroding second half and early playoff exit, the offseason has done nothing to boost the mood around their chances for the coming season.

Gone is Jacob Trouba, whose production, physical style and minute-munching are, so far, without replacement. Gone, too, are Tyler Myers, Brandon Tanev, and Ben Chiarot, all signed to perhaps inflated deals elsewhere during the madness of July 1. They, too, lack any concrete replacements at this time.

Jets defenseman Jacob Trouba
The Winnipeg Jets bid farewell to defenseman Jacob Trouba this offseason and have no immediate replacement. (Photo: Dennis Wierzbicki-USA TODAY Sports)

Still unsigned, as of this writing, are Kyle Connor and Patrik Laine, who were the Jets’ second and third-leading goal scorers. Between the two of them, they put up 64 of the Jets 272 goals, or about 23.5 percent.

After a 2017-18 season where the Jets put up a team-record 114 points, good for second in the NHL, and ousted the first-place Nashville Predators in a seven-game playoff series, optimism abounded. No such optimism founded a comparatively dismal 2018-19 campaign. Instead, that season and the offseason that has followed (so far) have fans wondering if, in the span of a single season, the Jets window to contend slammed shut.

It’s a dismal view to take, but an increasingly common one in a city used to its sports teams letting them down. So, have the Jets already run out of time to contend for a Stanley Cup? Are they doomed to have to rebuild again? Or is there still hope for a parade at Portage and Main?

Central Division Corridor of Death

The debate about which is the toughest division in hockey could rage for hours at a time with valid points on all sides. One thing is clear, however: the Central Division, a division the Jets must fight through to find any success, is loaded.

The Jets quiet offseason has been the outlier among teams in their division. The Dallas Stars loaded up on veteran talent following a playoff run where they came one goal away from eliminating the eventual Stanley Cup champion St. Louis Blues. The Blues, of course, are in the Central as well and have lost no major pieces from their Cup run.

St. Louis Blues' Alexander Steen carries the Stanley Cup
The offseason has been one big party for the St. Louis Blues after their Stanley Cup victory, and they could be just as strong in 2019-20. (AP Photo/Michael Dwyer)

The Colorado Avalanche, meanwhile, followed up a playoff run of their own with perhaps the busiest offseason in the NHL. Their biggest need after last season was depth up front, and they added that in spades with Nazem Kadri, a two-time 30-goal man who brings grit to their lineup. They also acquired Joonas Donskoi, Andre Burakovsky, and Pierre-Edouard Bellmare for good measure. And that’s to say nothing of Cale Makar, who will almost certainly be among the Calder Trophy candidates in 2019-20.

As for the Predators, who have emerged as the Jets biggest rival in recent seasons, all they did this offseason was add Matt Duchene, an Olympic gold medalist with 547 points in 727 career games coming off a 31-goal season. Ho-hum.

So a division that was already perhaps the NHL’s tightest and most demanding got even more so, and the Jets were in the unfortunate position of having to watch it happen. Their cap constraints kept them from dipping a toe in free-agent waters while their rivals were engaged in an arms race. And their cap troubles aren’t over yet.

With this in mind, it’s no wonder something of a doom and gloom mindset has set in amongst Jets fans. Many prominent roster players have left town and no established replacements exist. Those losses, however, may not be as crippling as some fans think. And much of the core that propelled the Jets to their exceptional 2017-18 season is still around.

Defense Needs Proper Deployment

The Jets defense has taken a step back this offseason, and as we discussed at times in 2019, it wasn’t their strongest suit to begin with. In some ways, however, the Jets may find this season’s defense has some plusses to it.

Sami Niku and Tucker Poolman are suddenly going to have much bigger roles, and, unfortunately, high expectations for players with a combined 55 games of NHL experience. Both have shown at the AHL level, however, that they’re ready for the next step.

His tenure with the Jets saw some odd deployment, but when Josh Morrissey went down injured before the trade deadline it was Nathan Beaulieu the Jets used to fill his spot. During his time as a first-pair defenseman, Beaulieu handled himself remarkably well.

Winnipeg Jets Nathan Beaulieu
He may not be a number one defenseman, but Nathan Beaulieu showed he can handle a little pressure in his time in Winnipeg. (Photo: Terrence Lee-USA TODAY Sports)

And then there’s newly acquired Neal Pionk, the subject of much hand-wringing in recent months after the Trouba trade. Rangers observers offer an interesting review of his time in New York. Their biggest complaint, it seems, was his deployment. If the Jets can ease that, Pionk may yet be a solid part of their blue line.

This is the biggest caveat with the Jets defense core. All of the above players except Pionk were available to Jets coach Paul Maurice in the playoffs last season. He used none of them, opting to play veteran Dmitry Kulikov instead. That didn’t exactly work out. Deployment is going to be critical and Jets fans have a right to be nervous about how Maurice will handle that after 2018-19.

Laine Must Bounce Back

At one point in the 2018-19 season, the Jets were sitting on top of the Central Division, nearly on top of the league in fact, and looked to be living up to the preseason hype. All seemed well in Winnipeg.

Then, after December, the Jets hit the wall. This, not coincidentally, was when Laine did as well. Laine scored 24 of his 30 goals before the turn of the calendar, and he wasn’t exactly setting the world on fire in December either, with just three goals in 15 games.

Based on his 44-goal output of the season prior, it’s not unreasonable to expect Laine to bounce back. It’s not going to happen on its own. He, too, needs better deployment. He also, for goodness sake, needs different linemates. As we’ve seen, it benefits not only Laine but Nikolaj Ehlers as well to separate the two of them.

Winnipeg Jets Patrik Laine Chicago Blackhawks Gustav Forsling
The Jets should expect better from Patrik Laine this coming season, and they should get it. (AP Photo/Matt Marton)

Laine’s not the only one who needs a bit of a bounce-back either. Mark Scheifele had a dynamite December followed by a much quieter second half. It seems silly to ask much more from a guy who posted 38 goals and 84 points last season, but Scheifele may have more to give. So too might Blake Wheeler, who had just one goal in six playoff games but is coming off back-to-back seasons of 90 or more points.

The Jets biggest guns from 2017-18 are still there, and most are still in their primes. Some promising youngsters are being added to the mix too. Kristian Vesalainen has the offensive tools to contribute immediately, while more of Jack Roslovic might go a long way toward helping the Jets depth.

The window hasn’t yet slammed shut on a Winnipeg Jets team that still boasts enviable weapons at every position. Even on defense, where they seem weaker on paper, they’ve still got some big guns in Morrissey and Dustin Byfuglien. And Connor Hellebuyck is even coming off a comparatively down season. If he gets anywhere near his 2017-18 form, the Jets will be in good shape.

There’s no denying the Jets are counting on an awful lot to go right, however, after an offseason where seemingly nothing has. The window to contend isn’t shut yet, but the Jets will need sheer determination and nothing less than the best from all of their players to keep it open. Otherwise, their best years will pass them by.

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