What is Going on in Winnipeg?
Sixteen months ago the Winnipeg Jets were three games away from being the first Canadian team in the Stanley Cup Finals since 2011. For Jets fans, that must seem like a decade ago at this point. The Jets have had a turbulent offseason, to say the least. Since their game six loss against the Blues back in April, they traded away young defencemen Jacob Trouba to New York, lost key pieces Ben Chiarot, Brandon Tanev and Tyler Myers to free agency. They are yet to sign their two dynamic restricted free agent forwards, Patrik Laine and Kyle Connor and recent reports say that they aren’t close with either player. Two of their young prospects, Sami Niku and Kristian Vesalainen, got in a car crash on the way to training camp last week. And last but certainly not least, their best defencemen and assistant captain, Dustin Byfuglien, is taking a leave of absence for personal reasons and it is being reported that he is contemplating retirement. All this has happened in just four months after a disappointing season which ended in the first round at the hands of the eventual Stanley Cup Champion St Louis Blues
To put it simply the Jets are an absolute mess. It is becoming a real possibility that they will not have Connor or Laine for opening night and well without them their forward lines are looking pretty uninspiring. Here is the Jets projected lineup for opening night as of today.
It doesn’t look too strong, does it? The first line is still strong, but the second line is one of the worst on the league on paper and the bottom two lines aren’t great either. The defence is Josh Morrissey and then two unproven young defencemen and two bottom pairing defencemen. For the sake of argument let’s say that at least two of Byfuglien, Connor and Laine come back. Since Laine is looking the least likely to return we will go with Byfuglien and Connor. Connor either slides in on the first or second-line left side and Byfuglien would probably slide in beside Nathan Beaulieu on the right side. This obviously makes the Jets a better team but does it make them a playoff team? Last year the Jets started off the season very well, they were first in the West heading into the new year. But they ended the year horribly, going 14-13-3 from February to the end of the season and limped into the playoffs. Their advanced analytic numbers weren’t great and showed why maybe we should have expected a drop-off but to see the team fall apart at the end of the year was still surprising.
Looking at that Jets roster it is difficult to see how much more the team can improve. Blake Wheeler is 33, Bryan Little is also getting older and Mark Schiefle overachieved last season. The Jets also have to deal with the fact that they play in the best division in hockey, the Central. There are five teams not including the Jets, that have a legitimate shot at going deep in the playoffs. If the Jets are able to get Byfuglien back and resign Laine and Connor to good but not great deals then they as well should be a playoff team. But they still are a worse team on paper than they were last year and last year they couldn’t make it out of the first round.
The Jets are in a tough spot because they have a good team, with most of their core group locked up long term but they are wavering on the brink of mediocrity. The problem is this core is objectively not good enough to legitimately contend for a Stanley Cup. It looks as though this Jets team is destined to make the playoffs and then get knocked out in the early rounds for the next three to four years. Now if none of the three aforementioned players return, this Jets team still isn’t bad enough to get a top-three pick in the draft but again they are not good enough to make the playoffs. Point being here is that no matter how many of the three players return to the lineup, the Winnipeg Jets are destined for a season of disappointment.