The Winnipeg Jets have a well-earned reputation as draft day wizards, and nowhere was this reputation more evident or more appropriate than in Sunrise, Florida in 2015. In fact, it may prove to be one of the most complete drafts of the modern era.
With a pair of franchise players leading off the day on June 26 and incredible depth well into June 27, the 2015 draft was a great one for many teams. Despite waiting all the way until No. 17 for their first pick, the Jets may have done better than anyone.
From future franchise cornerstones in the first round to an incredible find in the final round of the draft, the Jets cleaned up through the two-day event with eight picks. While not all have panned out yet, all have proven to be excellent choices.
And sure, at least two will never suit up in Jets colors, one due to a trade, the other due to a perplexing choice not to sign him. Some haven’t cracked the NHL yet or even made a big splash in the minors, and may never. It’s only been three years, after all.
Early indications, however, are that Winnipeg absolutely killed it at this draft. Every pick was lauded at the time as a shrewd choice, and they picked up many players who slipped. It was a banner moment for the franchise and a huge part of their enviable depth today.
With three years behind us and the Jets picks starting to make their way into the NHL, it’s time for a retrospective of what may have been a turning point in franchise history. We’ll walk down memory lane for an early review of a brilliant 2015 NHL draft by the Winnipeg Jets.
Early Picks: Kyle Connor and the Boston Blunders
Kyle Connor is among several players who will torment the conscience of Boston Bruins fans (and scouts) for years. We knew at the time the Bruins had made a misstep, but it wasn’t clear until recently just how badly they’d misjudged certain prospects.
The purpose of this is not to rag on Boston or the young men they chose. After all, Jake DeBrusk looks like a future stud and both Jakub Zboril and Zach Senyshen are a long way from the end of their developments.
Connor, however, has been easily a cut above all three so far, and if the draft were re-held today there’s a chance he’d be a top-ten pick. Coming off a sensational rookie season in which he potted 31 goals, Connor looks like a sniper for the present and future.
Kyle Connor put up a pair of goals and one slick assist to lead the Jets to a big win in Game 5.
— Sportsnet (@Sportsnet) May 6, 2018
Connor was supposed to be a little slower to develop than he has been, but his rise to 30-goal scorer isn’t surprising. At least, not as surprising as fellow first-rounder Jack Roslovic’s rapid ascent.
Roslovic, taken 25th overall, was supposed to be a project. The Jets fully expected to wait four years for him at Miami of Ohio in the NCAA. He could still be there, technically, but he stayed just one season before turning pro with the Manitoba Moose.
After devastating the AHL for two straight years, Roslovic brought his talents to the NHL for an audition in 2017-18 and made the most of it. He’s now clearly ready for bigger responsibilities.
At the time, Connor was seen as a home run pick who never should have been available. Roslovic was the reach, though not much of one. Three years on, both look like excellent picks. After all, who after Roslovic would the Jets take if the draft were re-held today? Sebastian Aho, perhaps, but that’s about it.
The Mid Picks: Quietly Effective
The Jets had what could be their only true miss of the draft at 47th overall, but at the time pundits thought it one of their best picks of the day. After all, Jansen Harkins was a first-round pick on many lists, including the 25th pick for the Jets on some.
The beauty of Harkins is that he doesn’t have to be a scorer to be effective. It’s true he was offensively capable in junior, but it was always his responsible two-way game that elevated him above his peers.
Harkins hasn’t had the charmed start to his pro career that Roslovic and Connor did, but then neither did Brendan Lemieux and look where he is now.
After going nine games without a goal Mason Appleton gave the Moose a 3-1 lead with his 17th goal of the season. Heavy lifting done by fellow 2015 draft pick Jansen Harkins who dug out that puck. #AHL #MBMoose
— Dave Minuk (@ICdave) February 22, 2018
The Jets followed up the Harkins pick with another wise choice that will never suit up for them (most likely) but nonetheless helped the team to their best season ever. Erik Foley was a big part of the Paul Stastny trade, and for that alone, he proved his worth as a third-round pick.
Foley’s 27 goals in the USHL in his draft year were eye-opening, as were his 80 PIMs. By the time the Jets traded him to St. Louis, he was a World Junior gold medalist with the United States and a consistent, nearly point-per-game player in the NCAA.
The Jets yet again picked a player who was supposed to go earlier in round four, snagging Michael Spacek. He was the fifth-ranked European skater coming into that draft and quickly showed why.
Arriving in Red Deer the next season, Spacek went on to amass 48 goals and 139 points in 120 WHL games. His deft scoring touch followed him to the AHL, where he posted an impressive rookie season in Manitoba with 38 points in 70 games.
Spacek’s AHL campaign might have garnered a lot more attention if not for two more players the Jets drafted in 2015 who also broke into the AHL last year. Both have legitimate chances to crack the Jets roster in 2018-19.
The Late Picks: Sami Niku, Steal of the Draft
Winnipeg didn’t have a fifth-round pick in this draft but that was just fine by them. They used their sixth rounder on a player with more value than some players taken 100 or more picks earlier.
Mason Appleton, like Roslovic, was not supposed to be this good this quickly. If there was any chance for the overager out of the USHL to be an NHL regular, it would be after four years at Michigan State. Or so we thought.
Appleton’s college career lasted two seasons. In the first, he was nearly as productive as a freshman as Roslovic, and that should have been a sign. In his second, he was an offensive force for the Spartans, and that was a message the Jets couldn’t ignore.
Appleton surprised everyone by turning pro in 2017-18. Then he surprised everyone again by setting the AHL ablaze as a rookie. With 22 goals and 66 points over 76 games, and with a power forward’s 6-foot-2 frame, no one would be surprised to see Appleton get NHL time this year.
But the real gem of the draft, the real diamond in the rough, came all the way at pick No. 198 in round seven. At a time in the draft where teams have literally drafted players who don’t exist, the Jets nabbed Sami Niku.
By the time 2017-18 rolled around, it was obvious Niku was far ahead of the average seventh-round pick. With two World Juniors and a strong final season in Finland under his belt, the slender Finn was shooting up the ranks of Jets prospects.
What Niku did in the AHL this past year, however, was nearly unheard of. He took home defenseman of the year honors, finished second among all defensemen in points with 54 in 76 games, and scored his first NHL goal in his first game.
What’s remarkable about the Niku pick is how little others chosen around him have accomplished. It’s not as if Niku was one of many high-end seventh rounders. Only one other pick from round seven and one from round six have played any NHL games as of this writing.
The Jets wrapped up the day with Matteo Gennaro at 203 overall. While he was unsigned by the team, even this couldn’t be called a bad pick. How many seventh rounders put up back-to-back 40-goal seasons in the WHL before their junior career ends?
Regardless of where Gennaro ends up, he represents the tail end of one of the best draft classes in the last ten years. If you want a case study on how to hit a draft out of the park, you look to the Winnipeg Jets. And if you want to see the finest example of their work, you look at the 2015 NHL draft.