What’s Winnipeg Jets’ offseason plan? Why have their prospects stalled? Mailbag, half 2

The Jets questions keep coming. Winnipeg is coasting calmly toward the end of summer with unspent cap space, unresolved roster problems and several important decisions to make.

How will they manage the futures of Blake Wheeler, Mark Scheifele and Pierre-Luc Dubois? What does the future hold for Ville Heinola and Dylan Samberg — and is there any chance that a lesson learned from Dustin Byfuglien could help Winnipeg today? How might a new coaching staff turn a top-10 offensive team and a bottom-10 defensive team into a group that makes a playoff spot?

Today, we dig into those items plus bigger, deeper questions. Why do the Jets graduate fewer prospects to the big club now than in their early years? Is it just the number of draft picks or is there something bigger and more systemic at play?

And what is Winnipeg’s plan? I’m glad you asked.

Note: Submitted questions have been edited for clarity and style.

Curious as to why teams so seldom (if ever) convert offensively-gifted defencemen (Sami Niku, Paul Postma, maybe Ville Heinola, etc.), that can’t quite make it in the NHL at that position, into forwards. — Darryl N.

Darryl, I know it’s not quite the question you asked but I’d like to thank you for giving me the pretense to open up a Dustin Byfuglien highlight reel or few.

The now-retired Jets defenceman is famous for many things, including his time as a dominant power forward — especially in Chicago, where he won the 2010 Stanley Cup. Roberto Luongo couldn’t handle Byfuglien, Evgeni Nabokov couldn’t see around him, and even the 6-foot-6 Chris Pronger couldn’t quite contain him in front of the net.

The statement comes with a bit of sting now, given the way he departed, but the idea of stopping Byfuglien from doing what he wanted never seemed to work out for anyone who tried.

Now that you’ve indulged me, let’s talk about Sami Niku, Paul Postma and Ville Heinola and the reason no one has made them play forward.

I took your question to a couple of ex-NHL coaches and the answer they gave was almost identical. As easy as Byfuglien made it look, the switch from defence to forward (or forward to defence) is hard. One coach likened the transition to learning to walk for 20 years and becoming one of the best walkers in the world, only to be told you have to dance everywhere you go.

“It’s a brand new way of thinking,” he told me.

Defencemen get to spend most of their time reading the play as it plays out in front of them, processing the game as it unfolds in the crease, between the faceoff dots, and all of the way up ice. Backdoor plays are dangerous and playing defence against players who switch or overlap a lot is hard because it’s hard for players to keep track of multiple parts moving behind their field of view. While it’s easier to transition from this more complex job to forward than the other way around, I was told the routes and responsibilities are difficult to master — even for the world’s best players.

The NHL game is so fast that instincts guide the vast majority of decision-making. Twenty years of instincts guide most defencemen to want to pick and choose their spots on the rush. They tend to play a thoughtful, more indirect game, that doesn’t always mesh with the timing required to cut into the right space at the right time. A lifetime of experience goes into Scheifele patiently picking defenders apart, finding the perfect time to thread a pass under a stick into the middle of the ice. Kyle Connor uses lessons learned over the full length of his career to find and exploit soft ice, plus an attacking mentality that few people can replicate — even at the NHL level.

Essentially I was told that while it’s easy for a defenceman to line up at forward and “hide” there, it is difficult and rare for them to learn to impact the game.

Niku may have survived as a forward, but his AHL excellence was predicated on rushing and transition play that started with the whole sheet of ice in front of him. The coaches I spoke to doubted his ability on the forecheck, while also wondering if he’d have that same impact in the final third of the ice. Heinola is a superior player who defends better than Niku ever did but who lacks Niku’s top-flight speed. It’s easier for me to see him helping a team in the offensive zone by using his quick thinking and high-end passing skills than by leading the rush or grinding down low.

The Byfugliens and Brent Burns of the world are rare forces of nature — not the norm — and coaches are far more likely to experiment with their greatest players than their borderline NHL players.

Is the Jets’ development model now broken? We’ve gone from graduating lots of players to the NHL to players languishing in the AHL. Is it player quality, poor development, or simply bad decision-making (favouring subpar veterans in depth roles)? — David D.

The most superficial look at Winnipeg’s draft and development history shows a big difference between 2011 to 2015 Jets performance and 2016 to present.

Winnipeg averaged over two NHL players per draft for those first several seasons, leading to the great draft-and-develop reputation the Jets still seem to enjoy.

In 2011, it was Scheifele (Pick No. 7) and Adam Lowry (No. 47). Then 2012 brought Jacob Trouba (No. 9) and Connor Hellebuyck (No. 130), whose draft story comes with a fun bit of intrigue. The 2013 draft deserves a story unto itself, yielding Josh Morrissey, Eric Comrie, Andrew Copp, Tucker Poolman and Nic Petan. The 2014 draft yielded a star, Nikolaj Ehlers, at ninth, while 2015 gave Winnipeg another star, Kyle Connor, at 17th, before yielding Jack Roslovic, Jansen Harkins and Mason Appleton. If Winnipeg had maintained this two-players-per-draft rate of success, including the star power it found in Hellebuyck, Scheifele, Ehlers and Connor, we wouldn’t be talking about a team stuck in the “mushy middle.” We’d be talking about a perennial powerhouse.

We know that’s not how this story goes. While Patrik Laine was an electrifying lottery win (and Pierre-Luc Dubois is a good return), Logan Stanley is only beginning his NHL career. The 2017 draft gave Winnipeg Kristian Vesalainen, Dylan Samberg and Johnathan Kovacevic but, depending on what the coaches decide, it’s possible none of these players start the season in Winnipeg. The same applies to David Gustafsson, drafted 60th in 2018, and Heinola, drafted 20th in 2019. Meanwhile, Cole Perfetti looks like an early win from 2020, and 2021 first-rounder Chaz Lucius is on track but battling injuries. The 2022 draft class hasn’t had its first NHL camp. Obviously, recent draft classes are tough to measure — they need development time. Also obviously, Winnipeg has been trading away draft capital since the Vegas expansion draft in 2017. Fewer arrows mean fewer bulls-eyes, no matter who steps up to shoot.

The Jets made 38 picks from 2011 to 2015, for an average of roughly 7.5 picks per draft. From 2016 to now, they’ve made 40 picks, for an average of just under six picks per draft.

And we all know that pick quality matters, too.

So how well should the Jets have drafted (and developed) from 2016 to now?

There is a study by Stephen Burtch, published at Sportsnet in 2015, that I like to use to evaluate draft performance. The reason I like using Burtch’s report is that he shares his formulas for the probability of any given draft pick playing at least 60 games, at least 100 games, and at least 200 games in the NHL. This makes it easy to plug in the picks Winnipeg has actually made — for example, Laine at No. 2 in 2016 — and see how likely it is for a player at that spot to make the NHL.

Burtch’s work suggests that Jets draft picks made between 2016 and 2020 should yield approximately nine players who play at least 60 NHL games.

Laine, Stanley, and Vesalainen are already hits. Perfetti is a virtual lock, while it seems reasonable to bet that Heinola, Samberg, and Gustafsson all hit the milestone in time. If all of these players hit, the Jets would need two more players to make it to reach their quota of nine “expected” players.

Possibilities are highlighted by Kovacevic, Mikhail Berdin, Leon Gawanke, Arvid Holm, Declan Chisholm, Nathan Smith, and then a pile of mid-to-late round picks like Daniel Torgersson and Henri Nikkanen. Probabilities, though? I would guess that Kovacevic has a shot to play on a third pairing for a few years, perhaps reaching a Tucker Poolman type of ceiling, while Chisholm has shown promise and Smith should have plenty of opportunity in Arizona. In short, it’s too soon to tell but it seems as though Winnipeg might yet hit their “expected” mark.

I don’t think it’s likely that Winnipeg smashes through that nine-player threshold, yielding better-than-average or superlative results from the picks it’s made. If the Jets still have a draft and develop reputation, it’s probably based on their 2011 to 2015 success, where Winnipeg yielded 14 players who surpassed 60 games played on an “expected” number of 11.

So in summary …

It is true that Winnipeg is graduating fewer prospects than it used to. Part of this is due to fewer number of picks, total. Part of this is due to Winnipeg underperforming its draft position — so far — from 2016 to 2020.

But is Winnipeg underperforming its draft position because it’s chosen the wrong players, it hasn’t developed them as well as it should have, or some other reason?

There are those who believe that players like Heinola, Samberg and Gustafsson would have already been NHL players under different coaching staffs but I’ve already counted them, prematurely, as hits. The why is the most interesting part of this question and I think unearthing that “why” is a bigger project than what I’ve tried to do today.

Cole Perfetti. (Joe Puetz / USA Today)

I guess sort of a two-part question.

A) Do the Jets think a coaching change alone will take them from eight points outside the playoffs to being a contender without making significant improvements to their bottom six?

B) Is the Jets’ goal actually to compete for a Stanley Cup, or is it just to squeak into the playoffs for the revenue of a couple of home games? Or is there a possibility that they actually plan on tanking and just aren’t making that public? The way the Jets have approached roster decisions this offseason just seems flat-out goofy. — Bryan J.

What’s the plan? If the Jets are trying to win they should be grabbing some of the quality depth available (Rudolfs Balcers before signing, Daniel Sprong, Evan Rodrigues, etc) and being more aggressive with moving Blake Wheeler. If they’re re-tooling, rebuilding, tanking, planning for the future, whatever, they should be moving out older players. — Jim B.

Honestly, I relate to you Bryan and Jim. For the first time since I started covering the Jets in 2017-18, I can’t quite find the plot. Is Winnipeg really betting on the same roster (with Morgan Barron but without Paul Stastny and Andrew Copp) and new coaches? Did the Jets try to move Blake Wheeler but run into cap space issues with other teams? Will Samberg and Heinola really start the season in the AHL?

For the moment, it looks like the answer to all of those questions is yes. Winnipeg signed Leon Gawanke this week, bringing its list of restricted free agents without a contract down to two in Appleton and Gustafsson. Appleton’s arbitration hearing is scheduled for August 11, giving him and the Jets just over a week to agree on a contract of their own. Gustafsson’s contract should be straightforward, given that the promising two-way centre has mostly been an AHL player since getting into 22 NHL games as an outmatched 19-year-old. He’s probably ready for the NHL at this stage of his career but really just needs to stay healthy enough to give himself a chance.

But why are we talking about Gawanke, Appleton and Gustafsson as key signings while the Jets try to present themselves as playoff contenders?

Winnipeg has approximately $8.4 million in cap space to sign Appleton and add two more forwards. In the cheapest version of this mission, Appleton gets signed for just under $2 million and is supplemented by AHL forwards with some NHL experience like Kevin Stenlund and Michael Eyssimont, who make $750,000 each.

This would give Winnipeg a fully fleshed-out roster that comes in at $5 million under the cap. There is room here!

I see three different possibilities for Winnipeg’s excess cap space.

  1. Winnipeg keeps it, choosing to enjoy the cost savings. I know that the Jets have spent to the cap maximum a few times over the past several seasons but this doesn’t seem like their year. Maybe ownership decides to keep today’s money for tomorrow.
  2. Winnipeg keeps it, recognizing that it’s finally free of LTIR constraints after trading Bryan Little to Arizona last year. The Jets can finally build up cap space throughout the year — maybe they wait, accruing progressively more cap space for purposes of a bigger move later this season.
  3. Winnipeg’s offseason work isn’t finished.

And hey. It’s possible that Winnipeg only held on to this amount of cap space for so long on the off chance that someone did sign Dubois to an offer sheet. That risk has passed now but may have felt like a valid concern, needing a real safeguard.

That said, I can typically find the logic in Winnipeg’s moves, whether I agree with them or not. I can’t find the logic in keeping the roster perfectly intact so my best guess is that Winnipeg is dealing with competing priorities.

Dubois was supposed to be the No. 1 centre of the future. If Winnipeg had been able to sign him to a long-term extension, Scheifele may have become a major trade piece. Scheifele’s status as a 2024 UFA with enormous point totals makes him a long-term risk. Scheifele is a gifted player but I could have understood the strategy in trading him now before needing to worry about his next contract. Now Scheifele is more important than ever because the Jets can’t abide losing both top centres.

I also think the Jets have tried to trade Wheeler but cap space is an issue. Most teams don’t have cap space and the ones that do have either earmarked it for other impact players or aren’t interested in taking on the $14.75 million in cash remaining on Wheeler’s $8.25 million AAV deal. Meanwhile, I don’t think the Jets aren’t interested in losing Wheeler for nothing, even if all parties were open to a change of scenery for Winnipeg’s longtime captain.

Maybe Bryan and Jim’s contingency plans would be more aggressive than what we’ve seen. The Jets appear to be in a holding pattern but maybe you all would be more inclined to eat cap space on Wheeler, shop Scheifele anyway, or go the other direction — use Winnipeg’s cap space to go shopping.

There’s no Mark Stone on the market (and even if there were, there’s no guarantee he’d sign here.) Still, Sonny Milano, Evan Rodrigues and Daniel Sprong all represent players who could provide disproportionate value in a middle-six role. I haven’t heard anything connecting these players to Winnipeg but perhaps this is the type of play the Jets need right now.

One thing I can say for certain is that the Jets are not planning to tank. They didn’t hire a veteran head coach or retain so much of their roster because they think they’re a good bet to be a lottery team. In fact, I wouldn’t be surprised if the Jets rate themselves much higher than the court of public opinion does. Maybe they think they can get 10-to-12 goals better if Hellebuyck returns to form. Maybe they still believe in Brenden Dillon and Nate Schmidt as the answer on defence. Maybe they look at last year’s team as a top-10 offensive club and bottom-10 defensive club (as measured in expected goals at five-on-five) and they think Rick Bowness and co. can fix the broken bits without sacrificing scoring chances.

You have to squint just right but there is a playoff team available if the goaltending gets better and if better coaching improves defence and if Scheifele and Dubois play like the best versions of themselves for a larger percentage of the season. Heck, you probably gain a few goals just by playing Ehlers like a first-line winger while reducing Wheeler’s minutes.

Just remember that any team relying on that many “ifs” is probably a bubble team at best.

Couldn’t the Jets trade (Dubois) now to a contender who has a window of two years for picks/player/prospects? Carolina, Edmonton, Washington, Pittsburgh, Boston, Colorado are all in win-now mode and PLD won’t have a massive cap hit. Seems like a better option instead of giving in to his demands of Montreal. — Timothy C.

Yes. Yes, they could.

On first glance, Carolina, Edmonton, Washington and Pittsburgh are about as cap-strapped as it gets in the NHL. Even Montreal is well shy of the cap space required to absorb Dubois’ $6 million contract without sending a pricey piece back to the Jets.

Boston and Colorado look like they have room to work with but that isn’t necessarily the case. The Bruins have about $4.7 million in cap space remaining, needing only to sign RFA Pavel Zacha and to move one of their eight defencemen currently under contract, but every available dollar will be put toward signing UFA Patrice Bergeron if the two sides can work out a deal. Colorado has approximately $3.9 million in space available and could certainly use an impact centre if and when Nazem Kadri signs somewhere else. I’ve previously wondered about their interest in Stastny but Dubois would obviously have more appeal.

The truth is that I don’t see any of these teams stepping up with an incredible offer at this point in the offseason, nor do I see Winnipeg shopping Dubois. At this point, my expectation is that the Jets want to take one more swing at playing Dubois and Scheifele down the middle and will hold on to Dubois through the season. Look for the two-year rental conversation to pick up at the trade deadline though, particularly if the Jets are out of the playoff race.

Haven’t heard much about Chaz Lucius lately. How’s his development coming along and is he expected to push for a spot at training camp? — Brayden D.

Lucius was once described to me as the goal-scoring version of Perfetti. Both players read the play one step ahead of their competition but, whereas Perfetti uses that skill to dissect defences, picking them apart for seams, Lucius attacks those seams and then finishes the play. Give them a big, strong, puck-protecting centre to open up space — let’s call him Dubois — and it’s easy to see Lucius finishing off Perfetti’s perfetto passes with aplomb. Fun to think about (and fun to write).


— Minnesota Men’s Hockey (@GopherHockey) October 16, 2021

Now, to actually answer your question. Lucius is training this summer but won’t play for Team USA at the world juniors. He had a good-bordering-on-great-when-healthy season for the University of Minnesota last season, scoring nine goals and 10 assists in 24 games played — impressive numbers for a player who only turned 19 in May. That said, a hand injury cost Lucius playing time early and a season-ending ankle injury (which required surgery) cost him some valuable developmental time late.

Lucius is back on the ice now, training for Jets camp in September. Look for him to play a prominent role at the Penticton Young Stars Tournament.

Friday, September 16: Jets vs Flames at 6:00 P.M.
Sunday, September 18: Jets vs Canucks at 4:00 P.M.
Monday, September 19: Jets vs Oilers at 1:00 P.M.

I don’t expect Lucius to make the Jets’ roster out of camp. It would take a sensational performance and I’m not betting on that happening for a 19-year-old prospect who has missed substantial time due to injury in two consecutive seasons. This could lead Winnipeg to an interesting choice. Should they assign the 19-year-old Lucius to the Manitoba Moose, where he would learn to play against men in an adult professional league, or send him to the WHL where Portland owns his rights?

All we know for sure at this point is that Lucius is on track in his recovery, he will not return to the University of Minnesota, and next season will be huge for his development as a player.

(Photo of Ville Heinola: Derik Hamilton / AP)

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