The Winnipeg Jets will never be mistaken for a high-risk, free-wheeling hockey club when it comes to areas that often strike the biggest chord with fans wanting an immediate payoff — free agency and blockbuster trades. That’s just the reality of being a small-market Canadian franchise, where the challenges are many.
And so it means trying to find other ways to succeed, namely in the areas of drafting, developing and hopefully retaining those players for the long haul. They’ve got a rock-solid track record in that department with the likes of Connor Hellebuyck, Mark Scheifele, Nikolaj Ehlers, Kyle Connor, Adam Lowry and Josh Morrissey all under contract for years to come. They hope to add Andrew Copp to that list this summer, as well.
But in a results-based, "what have you done for me lately" business, there’s no time to rest on your laurels. The talent pool must frequently be refilled, as prospects either graduate to the big leagues or run out of rope before being cut loose. On that front, the Jets were staring at holes in two all-important areas — defence and centre — just a few short years ago.
They began addressing the blue line in a big way, quite literally, back in 2016, selecting Logan Stanley 18th overall. The tall, gangly teenager was always going to be a project, one they’d have to be patient with, but it finally paid off last season as he made his NHL debut and instantly proved he belonged.
Other rearguards began to flow in, from Dylan Samberg, Jonathan Kovacevic and Leon Gawanke in 2017, Giovanni Vallati and Declan Chisholm in 2018, Ville Heinola and Simon Lundmark in 2019, and Anton Johannesson in 2020 all selected in the first five rounds of those respective drafts. Samberg and Heinola are now on the cusp of full-time NHL work, while Kovacevic, Gawanke and Chisholm have all showed great promise with the Manitoba Moose early in their careers and could be future NHLers.
Now, as a result of amateur scouting and perhaps a sprinkle of good fortune, the Jets have made major strides in addressing their future needs up the middle, which took on added urgency when veteran Bryan Little was lost to a career-ending injury early in the 2019-20 season. Plenty of assets have been burned in an attempt to find a temporary fix, from Paul Stastny to Kevin Hayes to Cody Eakin back to Stastny again. But that couldn’t go on forever.
And so it has to be comforting to general manager Kevin Cheveldayoff and company to look at the organizational depth chart and envision a lineup just a few years from now in which David Gustafsson, Cole Perfetti and Chaz Lucius are all centring lines at the same time.
Gustafsson (60th overall in 2018) has 26 NHL games under his belt and was just named the Moose MVP from this past season. The 21-year-old Swede is ready, and a spot is his for the taking as early as this fall with the big club.
Perfetti (10th overall in 2020) reaped the rewards of the Ontario Hockey League going dark this past year, jumping right into the pro ranks when he otherwise wouldn’t have been eligible. His shortened season with the Moose will serve as a significant jump-start for his career, and he’ll be competing for work with the Jets at training camp. If they feel the 19-year-old needs a bit more seasoning, it appears a newly-created exemption is in the works which will allow him to go back to the AHL and not be forced back to junior for one more year.
And then there’s Lucius, 18, the prize haul for the Jets from the just-completed 2021 draft. Just like Perfetti a year ago, he was ranked much higher on most draft boards and fell into their laps. The general consensus from pundits around the league is Winnipeg got an absolute steal with pick No. 18 in Lucius, who is headed to the University of Minnesota for at least one season this fall.
Throw in 23-year-old Pierre-Luc Dubois, acquired in January in one of those rare big trades Cheveldayoff has made, and the Jets appear to have quite a succession plan in place for the likes of Scheifele and Lowry, both 28 after being taken in the first and third rounds of the 2011 draft. Winnipeg also has centres Santeri Virtanen (4th round, 2017) Nathan Smith (3rd round, 2018) and Harrison Blaisdell (5th round, 2019) in the pipeline, with all three yet to turn pro.
"My personal opinion is you build your team through the centre ice," Jets director of amateur scouting Mark Hillier told me in a post-draft Zoom chat this past weekend. "The players we’ve added, we’re a lot stronger in the future up the middle."
Given the cyclical nature of things, the Jets will likely now want to start stockpiling some wingers in the coming years, although Hillier noted it’s much easier to move a centre into such a spot, rather than the opposite. Winnipeg took a good step in that direction this past weekend as well, nabbing Nikita Chibrikov with the 50th-overall pick in the second round. The Russian teen is signed to play two more years in the KHL, but is projected to be a top-six NHL right-winger, one many expected to be picked long before the Jets were able to grab him.
The Lucius and Chibrikov picks put the Jets near the top of most "Draft Day Winners" lists making the rounds. So, yeah, the future appears bright. But they don’t throw parades for potential, and I’ll remind you the Hockey News, following a terrific 2015 draft for Winnipeg, ran a cover story proclaiming the Jets the "2019 Stanley Cup champions." Remind me, how did that work out?
With the expansion draft and entry draft now in the rear-view mirror, work on the present begins immediately for Cheveldayoff. In addition to trying to get two key restricted free agents signed to new deals in Copp and defenceman Neal Pionk, he must address various pressing needs for his troops when free agency begins on Wednesday.
A backup goalie, either by re-signing unrestricted free agent Laurent Brossoit or someone else, is a must. Same goes up front, with multiple spots vacated by Mason Appleton (Seattle), Stastny (UFA) and last year’s entire fourth line of Mathieu Perreault, Nate Thompson and Trevor Lewis, all UFAs. And, of course, the blue line, with Derek Forbort, Tucker Poolman and Jordie Benn all UFAs, and the ever-present need for a big piece to help the likes of Morrissey, Stanley, Heinola and Samberg, plus the rare trade additions in Pionk and Dylan DeMelo.
Thanks mainly to strong drafting, developing and retaining, the Jets have a solid nucleus in place, and plenty of good-looking pieces on the horizon. The key, as always, is to find a way to surround all that homegrown talent with some valuable outside help.
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.