NHL 31 in 31 Season Review: Winnipeg Jets
Before writing this review, I want to preface it with this. The Winnipeg Jets were one of my favorite teams to watch this season. The team played an aggressive style of hockey that allowed their skill players to flourish. Combine that with a solid young goaltender and defense core and you have the recipe for one of the best teams in hockey. If it weren’t for the playoff format forcing the Jets to play the Predators in the second round the team very well could have represented the Western Conference in the Stanley Cup Final.
Where to even begin? I think it is only right to start with the older core of players that have been in Winnipeg and even Atlanta. Mark Scheifele, Blake Wheeler and Dustin Byfuglien each had fantastic seasons. Scheifele had a tremendous playoff campaign but that should not overshadow his regular season either. The Jets expected goals when Scheifele was on the ice was 1.17, the opponent only had an expected goals per 20 minutes of .86. In other words, he was creating offense and limiting chances on the defensive end. Therefore, it should not come as a surprise that he had 60 points on the season and his offensive numbers ranked near the top of the team in almost every major category.
Blake Wheeler excelled in a setup man role, registering 68 assists while scoring 23 goals. His passing statistics are phenomenal. He was frequently setting up teammates for one timers and he excelled at finding open teammates in the slot. He was dominant on the powerplay and was able to setup the elite shooters on the team with great looks at the net.
Big Dustin Byfuglien was a physical force on defense, but his offensive skill should not be overlooked. The former forward excelled at jumping up in the play and helped create even more chances for the forwards. His most impressive statistics came in the defensive end. Due to his size he was able to recover loose pucks at a 57% clip. If there was a loose puck in front of the Jets net, he was either going to recover the puck or lay a big hit on the opposing player who was also trying to recover it.
It cannot be a bright spots section without mentioning two of the Jets younger stars. Patrik Laine is a natural goal scorer. While he may struggle in his own end at times he more than makes up for it with his offensive output. The 20-year-old scored 44 goals this season and he has a shot that the opposing team has to game plan around. The entire Jets powerplay was built around his shot, everyone in the building knew where the puck was going but he was still able to get pucks to the net. He made 7 plays per 20 minutes that resulted in scoring chances and was a key component to the Jets high flying attack.
Two forwards who may not get the same attention but deserve a mention are Nikolaj Ehlers and Kyle Connor. Ehlers had a Corsi% of 53.5%. The Jets were dominating teams with Ehlers on the ice. In my opinion he was the best puck mover on the team. His entry and exit numbers are very impressive, he had 7 controlled entries into the offensive zone per 20 minutes and 64% of those entries had a successful play follow it up. He was able to drive possession and his speed and skill helped him score 47 even strength points and 60 points in total. Kyle Connor burst onto the scene this season scoring 31 goals. The Jets sheltered him, he had a 36% offensive zone start rate but that should not be a knock on the 21 year old Michigan product. He was another one of the forwards who scored at an impressive rate and if he can develop his defensive game he figures to be one of the key forwards for the Jets for years to come.
Tyler Myers seems to have found a home with the Jets. After being asked to play a top four role in Buffalo the Jets and their stable of solid defenseman allowed Myers to slot into a role that better suited his game. He played almost 1,400 minutes of solid hockey and the Jets allowed his offensive game to flourish. He racked up 30 assists, but he was great at starting the play from the back end. His bulky frame and elite speed helped him have a north-south pass success rate of 61%, which landed him in the top 25% for defenseman. After signing a large contract in Buffalo expectations were high but he has exceeded them in Winnipeg.
Lastly, goaltender Connor Hellebuyck was fantastic and deserved his Vezina Trophy nomination. He was the Jets best penalty killer. His 90.3% save percentage while the Jets were shorthanded was among the best in the league for goaltenders. He also excelled at saving shots that came from the slot and inner slot. Finally, he was able to recover almost 60% of the rebounds he allowed. Goaltenders typically reach their prime later than forwards or defenseman, so the Jets must be excited because he is only 25 years old.
Toby Enstrom was a veteran presence for the Jets. While it is impossible to put a value on leadership, his production on the ice did not fall in line with a defenseman who was being paid $5.75M. The contract was signed back in 2012 and the Jets were not hindered by the cap hit this season. However, I would be surprised if he is brought back unless he is willing to take a significant pay cut. His age showed, he was not able to move the puck or skate as well as he did when he was younger.
The Dmitry Kuikov contract was one of the more interesting contract decisions in recent memory. After playing poorly in Buffalo the Jets gave him a 3-year deal with a modified no trade clause. While fans in Buffalo were wondering if his NHL career would be over, the Jets were willing to pay him $4.3M per season. He did improve his play, but he was still one of the weaker defensemen on the team. It would have been easy to find a player who could produce at a similar clip for a fraction of the cost.
This last name is a painful one to add to this list because he is still a solid veteran player, but the contract is one the team might be looking to get out of. Bryan Little had 43 points and a very respectable Corsi% of 51.6%. However, he was being paid $5.3M dollars, that production could come at a lower cost, especially on a team where the player is surrounded by so much talent. Little is an interesting trade chip moving forward for the Jets.
The team is heading into the offseason with nearly $24M in available cap space. It is rare for a team who is a strong as the Jets to have so much cap space heading into the offseason, but there will be some decisions for the team to make. Restricted free agents like Brandon Tanev, Joel Armia, Marko Dano and Tucker Poolman figure to take up a sizable portion of the space but they should be signed to short term deals.
Players like Jacob Truba and Josh Morissey could be candidates for longer term deals. Truba has proven his worth and he could sign a deal worth more than $5.5M for longer term. Morissey could get a bridge deal but that could prove to be a costly mistake later in his career.
Connor Hellebuyck is also a restricted free agent who will be paid handsomely. He is entering the prime of his career and the Jets would be wise to lock him up until he is 30 years old. This could result in a 4 or 5-year deal with an AAV close to $7M dollars.
These moves could make the Jets a team that spends close to the cap and Paul Stastny would still be left unsigned. Regardless Stastny can only be signed for one season because the Jets will have large contracts to handout after the upcoming season. If I was running the Jets I would either try to move a player like Bryan Little to make room for Stastny or I would simply keep the team the team as is and let him leave in free agency.
This offseason must be looked at as a way to setup for next year. Blake Wheeler will be an unrestricted free agent and Patrik Laine and Kyle Connor will both be up for RFA extensions. The Jets will want to keep all three players, so they cannot sign contracts this offseason that would prevent that from happening.
In conclusion, the team is going to comeback strong again next year. There is simply too much talent on the roster for the team to not be competing for the Cup again. If I were a betting man, Winnipeg would be a team that I would consider a Stanley Cup favorite heading into 2019.
Please be sure to check in again tomorrow as we take an in-depth look at the Vegas Golden Knights. If you enjoyed this review, please follow us on Twitter, @afpanalytics, and share it with your friends!
Stats have been pulled from NaturalStatTrick.com and Corsica.hockey. Salary info from Capfriendly.com
JUSTIN WHITE is an intern AFP Analytics. Justin is a graduate of St. John Fisher College where he earned his degree in Sport Management and Statistics. He has worked with the Rochester Americans and members of their coaching staff on various analytics and statistics-based projects.