Puck Drop Preview: 2019-20 Winnipeg Jets

2019-20 Winnipeg Jets
ST. LOUIS, MO - APRIL 20: Winnipeg Jets defenseman Dustin Byfuglien (33) is congratulated by teammates after scoring in the third period during a first round Stanley Cup Playoffs game between the Winnipeg Jets and the St. Louis Blues, on April 20, 2019, at Enterprise Center, St. Louis, Mo. (Photo by Keith Gillett/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

Welcome to Puck Drop Preview 2019-20, where Last Word on Hockey gives you a detailed look at each team from around the NHL leading to the start of this hockey season and offers our insight and analysis. Make sure to stick around until the end of the series, where we’ll offer our full predictions for the standings in each division, and eventually our 2019-20 Stanley Cup pick. You can check out all our articles on our Puck Drop Page. Our series continues with the 2019-20 Winnipeg Jets

2019-20 Winnipeg Jets Preview

2018-19 Season

For the first time since the 1992-93 season, the Winnipeg Jets made the playoffs in back to back seasons. They finished second in the ultra-competitive Central Division with a 47-30-5 record for 99 points, only one point back of the division winners, the Nashville Predators. In fact, they were tied with the St. Louis Blues, who were the eventual Stanley Cup Champions. The battle for the division was fierce right up to the final week of the season.

The Jets had an up and down season, ultimately ending in defeat at the hands of the St. Louis Blues in the first round of the post-season.

2019-20 Winnipeg Jets Offseason

The Jets offseason saw more losses than gains. This was especially true of the defence core. Of the defenceman who started the 2018-19 season in Winnipeg, only three remain on the roster. Gone are Tyler Myers (VAN), Jacob Trouba (NYR) and Ben Chiarot (MTL) to trade and free agency. Then to add insult to injury, top defenceman Dustin Byfuglien was granted an indefinite leave of absence. All this amounts to a very thin blue line.

As of now, general manager Kevin Cheveldayoff has only added Neal Pionk in the Trouba trade and Anthony Bitetto in free agency to replace them. All of his time has been spent on attempting to re-sign star restricted free agents Patrik Laine and Kyle Connor. We are now in the middle of training camp, and both are still not with the team.

Cheveldayoff did manage to re-sign defenceman Josh Morrissey to an eight-year, $50 million deal worth $3.15 million average annual value (AAV). Because of all the losses, Morrissey will have to take on a much larger role this season with three top minute-munchers off the roster. Instead of the 22:24 average ice time he had in 2018-19, he may have to log 25-30 minutes a night.

In the forward ranks, the Jets only added depth forwards Mark Letestu and Gabriel Bourque who will not replace Connor or Laine’s production if they end up holding out in the regular season. It will be up to the young guns and incumbents to handle those duties.

2019-20 Winnipeg Jets Projected Lines

Offence

Nikolaj Ehlers (*Kyle Connor when he signs) – Mark ScheifeleBlake Wheeler

Scheifele and Wheeler were a great duo last season, combining for 175 points between them, so they stay together on the top line. Until 34 goal scorer Connor re-signs with the team, Ehlers jumps up from the second line to join them. He spent some time with them last season, so he is the most logical player to start there. He is also in need of a bounceback season after turning in the worst performance of his career in 2018-19.

Mathieu PerreaultBryan LittleJack Roslovic (*Patrik Laine when he signs)

The second line will probably change quite a bit when Laine and Connor re-sign with the team. Until then, Perreault and Roslovic jump up from the bottom-six to join Little. Perreault has some experience in the top-six while Roslovic will be trying to build on last season where he put up 24 points in 77 games. Eventually, he will be playing in the bottom-six, but for now, he has a chance to put up some numbers in an elevated role.

Andrew CoppAdam LowryMason Appleton

The whole bottom six will be in flux until Laine and Connor return to the team. But if they both do not start the regular season, Copp will have a chance to solidify a third-line role after playing center on the fourth line for most of last season. Lowry resumes his role as the third line center while Appleton attempts to build on his rookie season. He put up 10 points in 36 games splitting the season with the Manitoba Moose of the American Hockey League. He looks to earn a full-time job with the big club in 2019-20.

Gabriel Bourque – Mark Letestu – Kristian Vesalainen

Letestu joins the Jets from the Columbus Blue Jackets after playing only two games in the NHL last season. He spent most of 2018-19 in the AHL with the Cleveland Monsters where he put up 50 points in 64 games. He will look to earn a spot as the fourth line center while also contributing on the penalty kill. Recently signed Bourque and returning forward Vesalainen rounds out the line (for now).

Defence

Josh Morrissey – Neil Pionk

Judging by the first couple days of training camp, Morrissey and Pionk form the first pairing on defence. Without Trouba, Myers, and Byfuglien, he is the defacto number one defenceman on the Jets. After putting up a solid 31 points in 59 games last season, he looks poised to build on those numbers. Pionk joins him as the right-hand shot after being acquired from the New York Rangers for Trouba.

Sami NikuDmitry Kulikov (*Dustin Byfuglien when he returns)

Niku played 30 games for the Jets last season putting up four points. Because of Byfuglien’s indefinite leave of absence, Kulikov jumps up from the third pairing to join him. Niku had a banner season in the AHL in 2017-18 and followed it up with 12 points in 20 games in 2018-19. He hopes to earn a permanent spot in the top four this season. Hopefully, it will be with Byfuglien instead of Kulikov, as he is the better option to pair with him. He has the tools to become a solid contributor down the road for the Jets.

Nathan BeaulieuTucker Poolman

This pairing will probably change when Byfuglien returns. But for now, Beaulieu and Poolman form the third pair. It fills the lefty-righty requirement and puts Poolman with a veteran blueliner. After toiling in the AHL all of last season, the mass exodus of defencemen for the Jets gives him an opportunity to nail down the number six spot in the defence core.

Goaltending

Connor Hellebuyck

Laurent Brossoit

This is probably the easiest of the categories to project. Hellebuyck resumes his duties as the de facto number one goaltender for the Jets. Now entering his fifth NHL season, he needs to bounce back from the worst season, numbers-wise in his career. If he can replicate his 2017-18 season, the Jets will be in better shape. However, he will have to do it with a weaker defence in front of him. Brossoit returns as his backup after putting together a solid first season in Winnipeg (13-4-2, 2.52 GAA, .925 SV%). Although, look for the recently signed Comrie to compete for the job as well.

Players to Watch

Jack Roslovic

Currently one of the top prospects for the Jets, Roslovic has a chance to make some noise in the top half of the lineup, especially if Laine and Connor’s contract disputes drag into the regular season. He will most likely get time on the power play as well with top scorers Wheeler and Scheifele. His speed and overall offensive game are tailor-made for the top six.

Nikolaj Ehlers

Without Connor, Ehlers is the top left-winger on the Jets. After the less-than-stellar season he had in 2018-19, he needs to return to the 60+ point forward he was in 2017-18. Being without two top guns puts more pressure on the remaining forwards to produce. Ehlers needs to step up and become the star all Jets fans know he can be.

Mark Letestu

Letestu was a very effective bottom-six forward for the Edmonton Oilers not so long ago. He is proficient on faceoffs (52.2 career average) and could be a good addition to the power play. In 2016-17, he scored 11 of his 16 goals on the man advantage. Even if he can’t replicate the power play numbers, he is the perfect fourth-line center until the lineup returns to normal.

Prediction for the 2019-20 Winnipeg Jets

The Jets are a team in flux right now. Without two of their top forwards in Laine and Connor, they are not a playoff team. With them, they are still a playoff contender. However, losing three top defencemen to trade and free agency including Byfuglien for an unknown amount of time could be detrimental.

There are many questions surrounding this team. Will Morrissey be able to fill the number one role? Will Pionk adjust well to the top pairing? When will Laine and Connor sign? Can Ehlers bounce back? and How long will Byfuglien be out? Because of these questions, it is very hard to project where they will land at the end of 2019-20. If young defencemen like Niku, Poolman, and Pionk step up, the Jets may be able to move past the losses on defence. If not, they will be struggling all year to keep the puck out of the net.

On the forward side, someone will need to fill the production of Laine and Connor until they return. As of now, negotiations don’t seem to be going anywhere. So head coach Paul Maurice needs to prepare for the worst. In the fierce Central Division, a slow start could mean the difference between a date in the postseason and a date on the links.

With all that said, here are two predictions for the 2019-20 Winnipeg Jets. One with Laine and Connor and one without. If they are with the team, the Jets are fighting for second or third in the division. Without them for even a part of the season, they are out of the playoffs or fighting for a wild card spot. The improvements that both the Dallas Stars and Colorado Avalanche have made will make it that much tougher to stay afloat in the Western Conference. Jets fans better hope Laine and Connor sign, or it will be an uphill battle this season.

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