NHL Off-Season Outlook: Winnipeg Jets

This is the last file in THN.com’s series of breakdowns of each NHL team’s off-season. We wrap things up by examining the Winnipeg Jets.

2021-22 Record: 39-32-11
Finish In The Central Division: 6th
Salary Cap Space Available (As Per CapFriendly.com): $8.4 million
Restricted Free Agents: Mason Appleton, F

What Winnipeg Has: An elite goal-scorer in Kyle Connor; veteran talents in forwards Blake Wheeler, Nik Ehlers and Mark Scheifele, and defensemen Josh Morrissey, Neal Pionk and Brenden Dillon; a top-shelf goaltender in Connor Hellebuyck; a new head coach in Rick Bowness; young, still-developing forwards in Cole Perfetti and Pierre-Luc Dubois.

What Winnipeg Needs: More production on offense from their bottom-six group of forwards; solid support for Hellebuyck in newcomer David Rittich; better luck health-wise for their forwards; an improved road record (they were a sub-par 16-17-8 away from home last season); a better showing in shootouts (they were 2-4 in 2021-22).

What’s Realistic For Winnipeg Next Season: After making the playoffs for four consecutive seasons, the Jets crapped out last year, disappointing their legion of fans and causing questions about the direction of the franchise. Unfortunately for them, those questions remain largely unanswered, and there’s an overall sense of mediocrity that has permeated the organization through this off-season.

Let’s start with Winnipeg’s coaching situation: after longtime bench boss Paul Maurice stepped down during the 2021-22 campaign, he was replaced in the short term by Dave Lowry – and, when the New York Islanders unexpectedly fired head coach and Manitoba native Barry Trotz at season’s end, it was widely expected that the Jets wanted to bring Trotz in. However, after a long waiting period, Trotz chose to take more time before embarking on a new NHL challenge – not exactly the best comment on Winnipeg’s overall competitive status. If Trotz had wanted to be Winnipeg’s coach, the job was his. Instead, Jets GM Kevin Cheveldayoff hired former Dallas Stars head coach Rick Bowness, a move that felt like they were getting their second-best choice for the role. Not ideal, to say the least.

Similarly, while Winnipeg still has above-average talent throughout the lineup, there is the sense that Jets stars, with the exceptions of leading scorer Kyle Connor and goalie Connor Hellebuyck, are simply not in the same class as the very best players in their division. This is not to say their players don’t have value; rather, it’s about comparing them to the top players on the best teams in the Central Division, and acknowledging Winnipeg doesn’t have nearly enough depth to be a top-four team in their division.

Indeed, if it wasn’t for the fact they play in the same group as the sad-sack Arizona Coyotes and tanking Chicago Blackhawks, the Jets might have finished lower in the Central last season. Winnipeg was an abysmal road team in 2021-22, and given that their roster remains more or less identical to the one that finished the year, it’s difficult to envision the Jets suddenly leapfrogging the Dallas Stars and Nashville Predators for a playoff berth this coming season.

The Jets do have a good deal of salary cap space at the moment, but unless they swing a trade for an impact player, they’re very likely to finish the 2022-23 campaign in the same place they finished one year ago. And if that’s how it all plays out, fans will be (rightfully) calling for Cheveldayoff to be replaced. Cheveldayoff has had a whopping 11 seasons in his current position, far longer than many GMs have received in other hockey hotbeds. If there’s a continuing regression with this group, there could and should be widespread change within the franchise.

The Jets’ rabid fan base deserves better than this so-so collection of talent. There’s simply insufficient depth for Winnipeg to lean on if the injury bug bites them hard again, and this is another comment on the mediocre job Cheveldayoff has done. Another year like last season will be tough enough for Jets supporters to stomach, but it will be exponentially worse if Winnipeg team owner Mark Chipman doesn’t hold Cheveldayoff accountable for it.

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