Second City Hockey’s 2021-22 season preview: Winnipeg Jets

The Jets revamped defensive group should help them be competitive in the reunited Central Division.

As we continue through our season preview of the teams in the Central Division, it’s time to catch up with the teams that weren’t divisional foes last season. Next up are the Winnipeg Jets, who return from a one-year hiatus up north.

Last season: 30-23-3 (63 points), third place in North Division, lost in quarterfinal round
Key losses: F Mathieu Perreault, D Derek Forbort, D Tucker Poolman
Key additions: D Nate Schmidt, D Brendan Dillon

Due to Canada’s travel restrictions in response to COVID, the NHL created a division solely for the Canadian teams last season, with every other division was adjusted to balance the rest of the teams. This was good news for the Jets, who moved from a typically competitive division with several top-quality teams to one that featured some of the worst. Despite a shaky finish in the previous season, when the Jets failed to make it past the qualifying round of the 2020 playoffs, the Jets were still considered one of the better teams going into the shortened 2021 season.

The Jets did fare better than the previous season, but not quite as well as expected: they finished third in the North and made it past the Edmonton Oilers in the first round before being swept by Carey Price and the Montreal Canadiens. That’s a respectable finish and better than they’ve done in several years, but with one-in-four Canadian teams guaranteed a Conference Finals appearance, it probably still stung an organization that was hoping for more.

Despite that ending, though, there were major defensive issues with the Jets in terms of shot quality allowed, and they relied heavily on goaltender Connor Hellebuyck to bail the team out. The Jets were pretty average in terms of volume of shots on goals against (29.32 shots per 60 minutes at 5-on-5) but, no matter what expected goals model you reference, the Jets were in the bottom in the league in terms of quality shots against. Here is a visualization by JFreshHockey of data by Patric Bacon for reference:

The Jets obviously knew this was an issue as they made two big offseason additions on the blue line by acquiring defensemen Brenden Dillon and Nate Schmidt via trade. The trades cost the Jets a few picks — two second-rounders and a third-rounder, respectively — but that’s a reasonable price for a proven. top-quality defensemen. Combined with Neal Pionk and Josh Morrissey, the Jets have a formidable defensive top-four that should help with their quality suppression issues from the 2021 season.

Although they lost some defensive depth with both Forbort and Poolman (both of whom did play top-four minutes last season) leaving in free agency, they have options for replacements. Veteran Dylan DeMelo is likely slotting in the No. 5 role, but there are also several young defensemen who could fill in the No. 6 spot. Logan Stanley is the favorite after playing in almost 40 games last season and then signing a two-year bridge deal. But someone like 24-year old Johnathan Kovacevic — who had a strong finish to his season with the Manitoba Moose in the AHL — or 20-year-old, 2019-first rounder Ville Heinola could compete as well.

There wasn’t much change at forward for Winnipeg. The Jets re-signed Paul Stastny and Andrew Copp to one-year deals, keeping their middle-six depth intact, and picked up Riley Nash, one of the better defensive specialist fourth-liners and penalty killers in the league. Mathieu Perreault left to sign with the Canadiens, which is a minor loss in terms of contribution but higher in terms of emotion as he’d spent the last seven years in Winnipeg.

Otherwise, the Jets are relatively the same forward group as last season. Their still led by the impressive foursome of Mark Scheifele, Blake Wheeler, Nikolaj Ehlers, and Kyle Connor — all of whom produced at a 30-goal pace and 0.8 or better points-per-game in the last two seasons with no signs of slowing down. There is some question on whether Wheeler declined last season (especially from a defensive standpoint), but his production is still top-six. Pierre-Luc Dubois, acquired in a trade early last season with the Columbus Blue Jackets the in exchange for Patrik Laine and Jack Roslovic, is coming in with something to prove. Add in Adam Lowry, who is a consistent middle-six player that contributes no matter where he is in the lineup, the Jets have an above-average group of top-nine forwards with a couple of spots still open.

The only question at forward is the status of Bryan Little, suffered a concussion and perforated eardrum just seven games into the ‘19-20 season and hasn’t played since.

In July, general manager Kevin Cheveldayoff said this when asked about Little:

Fortunately for the Jets, their situation in goal is still extremely strong with Hellebuyck being one of the most consistent, top-quality goaltenders in the last few years, including winning the Vezina Trophy in 2020. Although he began to dip statistically towards the end of last season — likely due to the aforementioned heavy workload — Hellebuyck is expected to once again compete for awards.