Connor Hellebuyck, Kristian Vesalainen, Sami Niku, Winnipeg Jets

3 Jets with Something to Prove in 2019-20

Every player comes into training camp with a personal agenda and things they want to improve on from last season.

However, there are three Winnipeg Jets players in particular that should be rolling into town next month with chips on their shoulders and feeling they’ve got something to prove.

Connor Hellebuyck

Connor Hellebuyck should come into camp motivated — not to keep his job or to get a big contract — but to quiet the voices suggesting his best campaign was a one-off.

Hellebuyck’s 2018-19 numbers — a 34-23-3 record, 2.90 goals against average, and .913 save percentage — represented big dips from his 2017-18 Vezina-nominated campaign in which he was the cornerstone of the Jets’ best-ever season and run to the Western Conference Final.

Related: Hellebuyck Deserves Vezina Consideration

Hellebuyck parlayed his success into a lucrative six-year deal that offseason worth more than $6 million annually. However, that contract won’t look so good if Hellebuyck doesn’t perform closer to his true capabilities beginning October.

Jets goalie Connor Hellebuyck
Hellebuyck cashed in on his 2017-18 success by signing a six-year deal in the 2017 offseason. (Neville E. Guard-USA TODAY Sports)

If he doesn’t come close to replicating his 2017-18 season, those who feel Hellebuyck’s not the guy will — perhaps rightfully — sound off that he’s overpaid. If he does, those voices will be silenced, likely for good.

The Commerce, Michigan native should be feeling at least a little pressure to keep the crease under his control. Backup Laurent Brossoit thoroughly impressed in his first season with the Jets and provided heady backstopping in 21 appearances. If Hellebuyck is shaky like he was in the first half of 2018-19, Brossoit could see an increased workload (and probably should, anyway.)

The starter’s job is undoubtedly Hellebuyck’s, though. Prior to last season, now-retired Winnipeg Free Press columnist Paul Wiecek wrote “as Connor Hellebuyck goes, so do the Jets,” and that the biggest question is “what is Connor Hellebuyck going to do this season?” (from ‘Parade plan beings between the pipes,’ Winnipeg Free Press, 09/26/18.)

Edmonton Oilers Milan Lucic Winnipeg Jets Connor Hellebuyck
Which version of Connor Hellebuyck will the Jets see this season? The stellar 2017-18 version, or the only-okay 2018-19 one? (Walter Tychnowicz-USA TODAY Sports)

A year has passed, but the situation hasn’t changed. Hellebuyck faced the most shots in the entire NHL last season and given Jacob Trouba, Tyler Myers, and Ben Chiarot’s departures, don’t be surprised if even more rubber comes in number-37s direction and the Jets rely on him even more heavily in 2019-20.

Sami Niku

The aforementioned defensive departures have left a void on the Jets’ blue line, and Sami Niku should be motivated to fill it.

It’s the 22-year-old Finn’s best opportunity for full-time NHL work since being selected 198th-overall in the 2015 NHL Entry Draft.

Winnipeg Jets Sami Niku Ben Chiarot
Sheltered no more: with Ben Chiarot (left), Tyler Myers, and Jacob Trouba all gone, the Jets are banking that 2015 seventh-rounder Sami Niku is ready to shoulder a much bigger role in 2019-20. (Aaron Doster-USA TODAY Sports)

After a superb 2017-18 rookie campaign for the Manitoba Moose where he put up 54 points, quarterbacked their power play, and was only the second rookie in AHL history to win the Eddie Shore Award as the league’s top d-man. Niku’s sophomore season was more of a mixed bag.

He bounced between the Jets and the Moose, suiting up for 30 games for the former and registering four points. The learning curve was obvious as the slick-but-slight Niku was was pushed around and victimized at times. After one particularly rough late-November game, he even admitted he “did everything wrong.”

There’s no room for Niku to do “everything wrong” this season — the Jets are banking on him to step up big time. Given their depleted d-corps, they simply need him to excel.

Niku’s got smooth skates, creativity, awareness, and puck handling skills to burn and is still well on track to being an impactful top-four defenseman. One has to hope he’s been working hard to put on muscle so he can physically handle an opportunity that’s firmly his to lose.

Kristian Vesalainen

After a rookie season in which he didn’t endear himself to Jets’ brass, Kristian Vesalainen has to prove he’s on board to work hard and toe the line.

Last season, the top prospect made the team out of training camp, but played just six NHL games before being sent to the Moose. After eight AHL games, he decided he didn’t want to be there and exercised an out clause in his contract that allowed him to go back to his hometown and play for Jokerit Helsinki.

Jokerit Helsinki's Kristian Vesalainen
Vesalainen chose to go back to Europe instead of stay in North America last season, which didn’t endear him to the organization. Sergei Savostyanov/TASS (Photo by Sergei SavostyanovTASS via Getty Images)

Choosing creature comforts over new challenges made Vesalainen look less-than-committed to the organization. General manager Kevin Cheveldayoff made it no secret he wanted him to adapt to the hard-checking North American style of game rather than play another season on wide-open, European-sized ice, but his hands were tied.

Related: Winnipeg Jets to Jokerit: Did Kristian Vesalainen Make the Right Choice?

To Vesalainen’s credit, he did return to the Moose after the summation of the KHL season, something he didn’t have to do. He had a few moments (like the one below), but his overall inconsistency showed his European excursion was a waste of time.

This season, going to Europe isn’t an option, and the Jets still own him for three years. He’s got tools to be a top-six forward, plays at a good pace, and possesses a heavy shot. He’ll have to work, though — perhaps a little harder than others — to show, despite his jet-setting 2018-19, that his attitude is right. Head coach Paul Maurice noted last month Vesalainen’s strength and maturity have improved.

Kristian Vesalainen Winnipeg Jets
If Vesalainen wants to stick with the Jets in 2019-20, he’ll have to prove he’s willing to work and face the challenges that come with the North American game head on. (Jerome Miron-USA TODAY Sports)

THW’s own Ryan Goethals believes Vesalainen is a good fit for the Jets’ third line, playing right wing with Mathieu Perreault on the left and Jack Rolsovic in the middle.

Who are some other Jets’ players you think have something extra to prove this fall? Comment below!

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