40-35-7, 87 points, 5th in the Central Division
Offseason Analysis: Wait…Kevin Cheveldayoff did something in free agency?
I hadn’t planned on actually having to cover any transactions in this article…
For those who may be unaware, Jets GM Kevin Cheveldayoff is perhaps best-known for his complete disregard for those of us who cover offseason (and trade deadline, for that matter) roster moves and the like. So when he came out firing on July 1st picking up notable free agents like Kulikov and Mason, it came as quite a surprise.
The Jets have have generally always been one of those bubble teams that are hard to predict, but are usually a fun group to watch. Ironically, those two qualities are basically tied together around one central theme: They often struggle to keep pucks out of their own net. Winnipeg has no shortage of offensive punch, but it’s hard to win games 5-4 every night.
With all that in mind, and having done a very solid job of building within the organization for the past few years, Cheveldayoff apparently decided the time was finally right to bring in some outside help to try and push his team over the proverbial hump. We’ll start in net, where former Calder winner Steve Mason was brought in on a 2-year, $4.1M (I scoffed, but the Jets had the cap space) deal to supplement young stud Connor Hellebuyck. Obviously Mason hasn’t turned out to be the world-beater he appeared to be during his unbelievable rookie campaign with Columbus all those years ago, but with his 26-21-8 record, 2.66 GAA and .908 SV% last year with Philadelphia all nearly mirroring his career averages, he’s proven himself to be a more-than-useful backstop, particularly when used in a ‘1a-1b’ goaltending duo role, which could very well be what we see utilized in Winnipeg. Should he or Hellebuyck falter, the Jets have the luxury of having proven backup Michael Hutchinson and 2013 2nd round pick Eric Comrie waiting in the wings with AHL-affiliate Manitoba.
Moving away from the blue paint, the Jets also bolstered an already solid, if not always consistent blueline with the addition of 6’1″ 204lb Russian defenseman Dmitry Kulikov. The jury is still deliberating on Kulikov’s true value (even after over 500 games of NHL experience), but he has certainly shown flashes of high-quality play over the years. His offensive production hasn’t often been what he was once thought capable of, but with all of the talent on Winnipeg’s blueline, that’s not a high priority for him to fill, anyhow. A physical force capable of some absolute filling-loosening hits, the Jets simply need Kulikov to limit his mistakes and help stabilize their D corps. At just 26 years of age, he’s still more than capable of learning and adapting his game, but brings with him the benefit of being an NHL regular since his draft year, giving him experience beyond his years. Slot Kulikov next to big Dustin Byfuglien dishing out plenty of physicality with a steady amount of added offense on Winnipeg’s 2nd pairing, with 2012 and 2013 1st round picks Jacob Trouba and Josh Morrissey munching up the minutes on the top pairing and smooth-skating vets Toby Enstrom and Tyler Myers (picturing 5’10” Enstrom and 6’8″ Myers standing next to each other on the blueline makes my heart happy) rounding out the rotation. Throw in the versatile Ben Chiarot as the 7th man, and Winnipeg’s blueline looks more than capable of stepping up their performance from seasons past.
Up front, the Jets went into this offseason with little to worry about, but adding the versatility of guys like Matt Hendricks and Michael Sgarbossa on low-risk deals obviously didn’t hurt them. Hendricks can replace some of Anthony Peluso’s grit while also being a much more serviceable player, while Sgarbossa, though likely to spend much of the season in Manitoba, can bring a bit of extra offensive prowess into the lineup as opposed to Quinton Howden, whom he essentially replaced.
The rest of the forward group carries over, and there’s not a slouch among them. Of the 12 forwards I have on Winnipeg’s projected opening night roster, only one has reached the age of 30 as of this writing, and that’s 31 year old captain Blake Wheeler, who is coming off of a 26 goal, 74 point season. Eight of those forwards are former 1st round picks; five of whom were Winnipeg’s own choices. There’s also in-house 2nd round pick Nic Petan (who I have as the 13th forward) accompanying 3rd round pick Adam Lowry and 4th rounder Andrew Copp. Strong camps from youngsters like 2015 Jets 1st rounder Jack Roslovic or Sabres 2014 2nd round pick Brendan Lemieux could easily get them out of Manitoba for the start of the year, as well.
Remember what I said about Cheveldayoff building from within?
Offseason Grade: B
The Jets weren’t that far off from contending, even in the hyper-competitive Central. Cheveldayoff has done an excellent job of building his team the way he wants it, with his own core group of young talent. He knew he didn’t need to throw that big of a wrench at it, and he didn’t. With a few small tweaks, on generally reasonable deals, the Jets look to have covered the few leaks they had. If this young team can continue to gel, and play with the consistency they’ve lacked in key moments over the past few years, they have the tools to put a serious hurting on some unsuspecting opponents.
Oh, and say a prayer for all of the crossbars Laine will be punishing in the coming months.