Ah, summertime and the living is easy.
Unless, of course, you’re one of those die-hard hockey fans who eats, breathes and sleeps every move your team makes and can already feel the tension building in your gut even though we’re still a couple months away from dropping the puck on a new season.
In that case, no amount of sunsets at the beach, backyard barbecues or pool parties can cure what ails you. Sure, you might have a Pina Colada in hand — but your glass will probably always be half-empty.
Which brings us to the Winnipeg Jets, and a busy off-season that was supposed to provide some long-term clarity on the heels of a Western Conference finals appearance. Not to worry, right? The best was still yet to come, right?
Well, it says right here that how things have played out so far have actually muddied the waters considerably and left a lot of questions going forward. That’s not to suggest this team seemingly on the rise is suddenly headed in the other direction. But it’s worth throwing a little caution to the warm, summer breeze.
With that in mind, we present five key issues to keep a close eye on. Whether you agree or disagree, just remember to drink lots of water and apply plenty of sunscreen.
1) WHO’S THE SECOND LINE CENTRE?
Paul Stastny seemed like a perfect fit between young stars Patrik Laine and Nikolaj Ehlers. But he’s taken his talents to Vegas. So now what?
Do the Jets try Bryan Little there again, even though it hasn’t produced much success in the past? Does Blake Wheeler possibly get another look at centre, even with a healthy Mark Scheifele? Will Jack Roslovic at least get an audition, and could he flourish? Could coach Paul Maurice try using shutdown centre Adam Lowry in a different role?
There are obviously several internal options to try and fill the void. Not to mention the fact it’s not etched in stone that best buds Laine and Ehlers have to play together at all times. As a result, Maurice may have the line blender out early in the season trying to find the winning formula.
One thing is certain: Laine and Ehlers are cornerstones of the offence who need to be given all the tools in the world to succeed.
2) WHO PLAYS WITH BUFF?
Toby Enstrom is gone, parting ways with the only franchise he’s ever known. He remains unsigned but is not an option to return to Winnipeg even if he elects to continue playing in the NHL. So who slides into his familiar spot on Dustin Byfuglien’s left side?
Are they seriously going to consider moving Tyler Myers to the left side for a look, as Maurice discussed earlier this summer? Would Joe Morrow or Ben Chiarot or Dmitry Kulikov or Tucker Poolman fit there? What about AHL defenceman of the year Sami Niku, who has drawn comparisons to Enstrom? With eight blue-liners on one-way contracts ahead of him, Niku might be in tough to crack the roster out of camp.
Jacob Trouba and Josh Morrissey (who is the last remaining big-name restricted free agent who needs a contract this summer) are likely entrenched as the top pair, but who plays with Byfuglien will be something to watch. It’s no small matter, either. An engaged Byfuglien is a key to success, and finding him a partner who works well with his unique style is easier said than done. He and Enstrom developed incredible chemistry over their many years together. Who takes his place, and how effectively they mesh with Byfuglien, is an important question.
3) WHO’S THE BACKUP GOALIE?
There’s no getting around this. The Jets, on paper at least, are considerably weaker in net. Sure they still have Vezina finalist Connor Hellebuyck and his shiny new contract extension. But it’s what’s behind him that should at least be a bit worrisome. Gone are Steve Mason (traded to Montreal to clear salary cap space) and Michael Hutchinson (signed with Florida). Whatever you think of them, they had a combined 578 regular-season games of NHL experience between them, not to mention 248 wins.
Laurent Brossoit, signed on July 1, will come to training camp in September with the backup job waiting to be won. He has all of 28 games of NHL experience with Edmonton, along with a .897 save percentage which should be setting off alarm bells. He’ll be challenged by Manitoba Moose starter Eric Comrie, who has played just four NHL games to date with an even uglier .880 save percentage. Behind them is the unproven rookie in Mikhail Berdin.
Which begs the question: What if Hellebuyck can’t repeat last season’s magic? Or what if he gets hurt?
Unlike last season, there appears to be no real safety net in place should this occur. And for a team that appears to be loaded for another big run, that’s a legitimate concern.
Like many of his teammates, Hellebuyck appeared to run out of gas as the playoffs went on last spring. No doubt playing 67 regular-season games and then 17 playoff games played a small part. If the idea is to give their No. 1 a bit more of a breather this coming year, do the Jets have the personnel in place to do that without missing a beat?
4) WHO FILLS THE FORWARD VOID?
Stastny isn’t the only forward gone from the playoff roster. Joel Armia (traded to Montreal to clear cap space), Matt Hendricks (signed with Minnesota) and Shawn Matthias (still an unsigned UFA) have also departed. General manager Kevin Cheveldayoff didn’t sign any forward free agents aside from a couple expected to provide depth with the Manitoba Moose in Dennis Everberg and Seth Griffith.
So who stands to benefit the most? Well, Roslovic for one. As mentioned above, there’s a potential opening in the top six, or at least the top nine, for him to land a full-time role. He really stood out in the final couple playoff games against Vegas and seems poised to take another leap.
But the door would also appear to be open for Nic Petan and/or Marko Dano to finally take on a more prominent role after both spending much of last season on the outside looking in. There’s also the intriguing Kristian Vesalainen, the Finnish power forward taken in the first round of the 2017 draft who is set to turn pro. He still needs to sign a contract with the Jets this summer and may need some seasoning on the farm with the Moose. But many eyes will be on him come training camp.
Then there are other young prospects such as Brendan Lemieux and Mason Appleton who will likely be given long looks.
Internal competition can be a good thing, and which of these young players can seize the opportunity will be an important development for the Jets.
5) CONTRACT DISTRACTIONS?
With no extension signed so far, Wheeler looks to head into the season on the final year of an expiring contract. Maurice and Cheveldayoff have previously said they don’t think that will be a distraction. But how can it not be? And what will the team do?
Even if everyone wants to extend the relationship, do the Jets even have the money to make it happen? The Jets are in cap hell which is likely only going to get worse when Laine and Connor need new contracts that will kick in next summer.
And speaking of which, Trouba’s one-year, $5.5 million arbitration award earlier this month means the possibility of a trade looms large. Since the sides couldn’t come to a long-term agreement this time around, it’s fair to wonder whether this is headed towards a messy breakup.
Winnipeg can’t possibly risk losing an asset like him for nothing, can they? And yet every passing day brings Trouba closer to being able to leave as a UFA in the summer of 2020, and would seemingly diminish the potential return a trade would bring.
As long as Winnipeg remains in playoff contention and Trouba is playing a big role, a mid-season move seems unlikely. But the issue isn’t going away and will have to be dealt with sooner than later.
How everyone stickhandles this through the coming year will be fascinating to watch.
Mike McIntyre grew up wanting to be a professional wrestler. But when that dream fizzled, he put all his brawn into becoming a professional writer.